How to be a Civil Servant
The British Civil Service is now the only major Civil Service in the developed world to remain wholly unpoliticised in its upper reaches. Others sometimes claim to be, but no longer are. New appointments in these countries do not always clearly follow from party allegiance, but they reflect Ministerial preference and thus personal and political rather than constitutional and institutional loyalty.
The Canadian system is the nearest to that of the UK, but the Canadian equivalents of British Permanent Secretaries are appointed by their Ministers, although appointments seem to be made on merit and incumbents are often reappointed when Governments change following election defeats. In Australia, the equivalent appointments are clearly political. And in the American system, most of its top three layers change every four or eight years to make way for new Presidential appointments.
Is the UK going the same way?
There have been six developments in the UK which appear to have increased the politicisation of the Senior Civil Service following the election of the Labour Government in 1997.
The first was the decision that up to three special advisers in the Prime Minister's Office should be able to act as line managers to, and give intructions to, civil servants. Only two were appointed and one of these - Alastair Campbell - resigned in 2003. (His successor, Dave Hill, does not have the same power. He heads the political aspects of Downing Street's media strategy but a separate senior official spokesman was appointed to handle the civil service parts of links with journalists.) That leaves only one special adviser (Jonathan Powell, the PM's Chief of Staff) able to give instructions to civil servants, although the power to appoint another two remains.
The second was a near-100% cull of Heads of Whitehall Press Offices in the years following the 1997 election, and their replacement, in many cases, by recruits from outside Whitehall. Many regarded this as a necessary refreshing of a team which had grown stale and unimaginative under the previous weak administration, but it was nevertheless an impressive display of what can happen if Ministers feel that they are not getting the support that they need. And although many of the appointees have been very successful, there does not appear to have been a dramatic improvement in the performance of the Whitehall information machine, and indeed the Government is frquently criticised for indulging in excessive "spin".
The third development was the opening up of many senior appointments to open competition so that a number of Permanent Secretaries and others have now been recruited from outside Whitehall, although many had previous Whitehall experience, or else considerable experience in similar fields such as local government. Interestingly, however, it is hard to think of any of the outside appointments which appear to have been a great success in that the appointeee has stayed in the civil service and gone on to a much larger job.
The fourth development was the Government's decision in September 2003 that "... [politically appointed] special advisers need to be able, on behalf of their Minister, to convey instructions and commission work from civil servants ...". This placed special advisers between Ministers and civil servants, so that they now share a role previously held exclusively by Ministers' private secretaries.
Fifth, the Government indicated, in its September 2003 response to the ninth report of the Public Standards Committee that it was minded "to give Ministers a constrained choice among candidates judged to be appointable [for appointment to the Senior Civil Service following open competition. This] would be consistent with ... other appointment frameworks." Although this appeared to give Ministers the power to appoint a soul-mate or crony in preference to a better qualified candidate, the Government argued that the "Independence and integrity of the appointment process would be secured through the permanent Civil Service and the independent Civil Service Commissioners who would decide which candidates would be suitable for appointment to the Civil Service. Only candidates that are above the line and hence meet the test of merit would be offered to Ministers." The contrary argument was that Ministers would encourage their "cronies" to apply for jobs, knowing that, as long as they were capable of doing the job, it was as good as theirs. In the event, folowing strong criticism of the idea, the Government decided to withdraw this proposal.
Sixth, there are clear signs that the senior civil service is no longer "a job for life". Of course poor performers have often been weeded out - although it has generally taken a long time to do so - but pay and pensions systems are being reviewed with the clear intention of encouraging "up or out" careers, whilst anyone who has been in an SCS post for more than four years is now strongly encouraged to look for a new job - if not inside the civil service then outside it. But it is less clear whether the departments have been persuaded to find the cash needed to facilitate such early retirements.
It is early days, but there are signs that Gordon Brown (belying his Treasury reputation) has a more positive approach to the civil service than did his predecessor. The Cabinet Secretary is reported to have said that the end of the Blair era and the beginning of Gordon Brown’s premiership had been characterised by an overwhelming vote of confidence in the Civil Service. Mr Blair had gone out of his way at the last Cabinet to praise us. Similar sentiments had featured in the new Prime Minister’s first remarks. It was noticeable that the civil service had been at its best in changing gears to quickly and efficiently changed circumstances after the departure of a long-serving PM. And the new PM had wished to send an early signal regarding his wish that the Civil Service should play a more influential role: thus the rescinding of Orders in Council from which a small number of special advisers had derived their authority over civil servants.
These developments are clear evidence of Minsisters' belief that the civil service needs to change, partly in response to changes in the wider world, and partly because of the failure of the current Senior Civil Service to recognise the importance of the effective presentation and delivery of policy decisions. These issues are discussed in more detail in three separate notes: Why Reform the Civil Service?, Civil Service Reform Syndrome, and Civil Service Reform from 1997.
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