How to be a Civil Servant
"To govern" is "to rule or control", but these are two things that modern governments simply cannot do. The second half of the 20th Century saw several fundamental changes in the nature of British society, with reduced respect for authority being accompanied by rapidly increasing voter wealth and longevity. It also saw the British constitution experience a number of major changes, including:
Both politicians and civil servants have struggled to cope with all these changes, which have exposed weaknesses in the UK civil service. This has in turn led to a number of attempts at 'civil service reform'.
It is ironic that many of the problems facing today's politicians stem from the successes of their predecessors. Indeed most of them have their roots in our ever increasing wealth and ever improving health.
For a start, UK society is now vastly more wealthy than 50 years ago. A typical post-war household literally had nothing worth stealing:- No car, no TV, no phone, nothing! No wonder it was safe to leave doors open along most British streets. But GDP has risen four-fold since then. Most homes nowadays have a wide range of marketable goods, and huge amounts of money to spend on non-essentials, including on drink and drugs. The crime rate has therefore soared, as drug addicts seek to get their hands on others' wealth, and drunks cause various sorts of mayhem.
Our wealth causes other problems:
Other problems are caused by the fact that the distribution of the new wealth is uneven. This is in truth hardly a new phenonomenon. A writer in 1590 observed that England's rapidly developing economy "has made of yeoman and articifers, gentlemen, and of gentlemen, knights, and so forth upward, and of the poorest stark beggars.". More recently, the top 5% of UK citizens increased their share of marketable wealth from 35% in 1991 to 44% in 1998. And in the US, from 2001 to 2006, the income of the median household - the point at which half of Americans have more, and half less - fell by 0.5% even though the economy grew by nearly 12%. Many in today's society accordingly feel totally alienated from the world inhabited by those who have well-paid careers. And many of us seek to catch up by borrowing as if there is no tomorrow. Credit card debt, for instance, increased from £34m in 1971 to £54,000m in 2005.
The other big success is our health, and not least the fact that we are all living so much longer than before. Life expectancy at birth is currently increasing at an astonishing 0.25 years per year. Healthy life expectancy is also increasing - but only at around 0.1 years per year. In 1981, the expected time that a typical man would live in poor health was 6.5 years. By 2001 this had risen to 8.7 years. Just imagine what pressure this is putting on the health and social services ...
... not to mention on pension schemes. The average age of men retiring in 1950 was 67. They had by then typically worked for 53 years and would live for another 11 years. By 2004, the average of men retiring was 64. They had by then typically worked for 48 years and would live for a further 20 years. As a result, the work/retired ratio had halved from about 5 to about 2.4. These are huge (and welcome) changes, but with equally huge - and politically unwelcome - implications for tax, pensions and benefits policies.
It is also noticeable that voters nowadays want to spend more and more money on holidays, clothes, durables, etc. whilst few seriously try to promote the benefits that result from the public provision of services. Voters therefore resent paying taxes, and the Government is under constant pressure to spend less, despite the problems summarised above.
In parallel with all this, society has become more complex and less deferential:
There have been other more subtle, but perhaps more profound, changes.
Another interesting change has been the introduction of choice into health and education policies. This is in part because modern voters want to be able to choose between different approaches to medicine and education. But choice is also a very effective substitute for regulation in that it forces the vested interests in those sectors to take more notice of what their customers actually want. There are, however, some unwelcome consequences arising from the introduction of choice into public services:
As if the above didn't cause Ministers enough sleepless nights, they find that their policy choices are these days highly constrained:
Many of the above changes begin to bring into question the basic Westminster/Haldane model of government. We are not nowadays disposed to accept that "Government knows best", nor the fiction that civil servants are no more than advisers to all-powerful Ministers. Behind the scenes, too, it is not difficult to get politicians from different parties to agree – at least in broad terms – what ought be done to improve transport policies, energy policies, pensions policies and so on. And voters are well aware of this:
All leading politicians are, however, equally agreed that none of them are going to ask the public to take the bitter medicine that would be needed many of today's political illnesses. For instance, no politician in his or her right mind is going to restrain the growth of cheap air travel, whatever the damage to the environment. Politicians nowadays therefore make extensive use of the media to attack the detail of their opponents' policies, encouraging the likely losers to complain and ignoring those likely to gain, and/or the policy gains themselves. This not only slows or stalls all policy development, but seems to generate a triple credibility gap between Government and the media; between the media and its readers; and between Government and the people.
Policy development has therefore become less to do with analysis and more to do with reaching out, consulting, involving and then persuading opinion formers, including politicians, think tanks, lobby groups and the media. Ministers and civil servants often find themselves in a “permanent campaign”, for which many civil servants are arguably not well equipped. Which naturally leads the discussion on to ...
Friendly commentators say that those civil servants who work most closely with Ministers:-
It follows that the civil service needs to promote different people than in the past. But if this is to happen then we have to face up to the fact - and do something about the fact - that we have in the past promoted people who are not suited to the senior positions that they now hold.
The following criticisms are also frequently laid at the door of policy makers in the British civil service:-
We are not the only ones, of course, to have these weaknesses.
Michael Porter wrote that 'British firms have a management culture that works against innovation and change. A penchant for tradition, a narrow definition of responsibility and a high level of concern for form and order are characteristic. That something is 'not done' is a frequently heard phrase'. These charges apply equally to the public and private sectors.
And think of other professions:- doctors, lawyers, teachers. Individually, they are often very talented and dedicated, and often adored or respected by their patients, clients and pupils. But we all know that these professions contain significant numbers who perform very poorly, and which the professions themselves are slow to identify and even slower to deal with. It is 'not done' for professionals to criticise each other, or even learn from each other.
Like other professions, we civil servants form a sort of informal club. We are trained and gain experience which encourages us to understand each other, and to help each other out, to the mutual benefit of each other and our Ministerial teams. Mutual criticism - unless very carefully handled - will destroy that essential team spirit.
And yet a failure to criticise and confront will - as we all know - lead to complacency and poor service. These problems are to some extent reduced if, as in the case of lawyers, clients are free to go elsewhere or if the result of mistakes is sometimes obvious, as in the case of doctors. But most clients do not have a choice of teacher or civil service adviser and the result is that performance is sometimes very poor, whilst attempts to address the problems are often controversial and/or ineffective.
Christopher Hood of Oxford University argues that political and societal frustration with government (which includes both politicians and their civil servants) has led to five noticeable developments:
We see this in:-
It is these days a brave or foolhardy Secretary of State who ignores the relevant policy specialist in the Policy Unit. And many senior civil servants will spend as much, if not more, time with the Policy Unit and/or the Council of Economic Advisers as with their Ministers. It is hardly a surprise that several former members of these units are now Ministers, up to and including in the Cabinet.
This has had a number of strands, including ...
The growth of regulators and regulation has been particularly interesting. Who would have forecast, back in the mid-1990s, that Ministers would over the next decade empower various regulators to decide interest rates, decide whether we should be provided with potentially life-saving drugs, decide whether the London Stock Exchange should be sold to the Germans, decide whether the Royal Mail should face competition, and so on. These development have happened because Ministers have come to accept that they cannot be trusted to take unpopular but necessary decisions, even if the long-term benefits are clear. Put another way, Ministers have decided that they don't want the blame for such decisions. (A more detailed discussion of regulation, in all its forms, is on a separate website).
"Whilst marching from Portugal to a position which commands the approach to Madrid and the French Forces, my officers have been diligently complying with your requests, which have been sent by H.M Ship from London to Lisbon and thence by dispatch rider to our headquarters. We have enumerated our saddles, bridles, tents and tent poles, and all manner of sundry items for which His Majesty’s Government holds me accountable. I have dispatched reports on the character, wit, and spleen of every officer. Each item and every farthing has been accounted for with two regrettable exceptions for which I beg your indulgence.
Unfortunately the sum of one shilling and ninepence remains unaccounted for in one infantry battalion’s petty cash and there has been a hideous confusion as to the number of jars of raspberry jam issued to one cavalry regiment during a sandstorm in western Spain. This reprehensible carelessness may be related to the pressure of circumstances since we are at war with France, a fact which may come as a bit of a surprise to you gentlemen in Whitehall.
This brings me to my present purpose, which is to request elucidation of my instructions from His Majesty's Government, so that I may better understand why I am dragging an army over these barren plains. I construe that it must be one of two alternative duties, as given below. I shall pursue either one with my best ability, but I cannot do both.
As the Duke of Wellington's dispatch makes clear, the tendency to intervene in service delivery is hardly new, and it is a rare modern politician who can resist the urge to set targets for public sector workers - in schools, hospital and local authorities - and also tell them in some detail how they should achieve those targets. And Chancellor Gordon Brown, whilst agreeing to many increases in departmental budgets, required each department, in return, to agree to deliver detailed outcomes set out in "Public Service Agreements". Although this development is clearly inconsistent with greater devolution, it remained in fashion for many years until, in April 2005, Prime Minister Tony Blair admitted that his Government had set too many targets, and that those in health and education had been too crude. Three months later, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government pledged that her department would shift "from top-down to trusting". We shall see!
There have been a number of relatively minor attempts to strengthen the political skills of those who work most closely with Ministers, including by increasing the number of special advisers. Click here to read a more detailed discussion.
Also, inevitably, successive governments have sought to address the perceived weaknesses in the civil service itself. Follow the links listed at the beginning of this note to read a summary of various attempts to reform the civil service (and why they failed) and to look at the detail of the civil service reform programmes from 1997 onwards.
Click here to access other pages dealing with related subjects. And please help me keep this website up to date. Please do tell me if you have interesting new information, or if any of the links stop working. Thank you.