The Fulton Report - Background

An overview of Civil Service reform may be found here.

And a brief history of Civil Service managerial and efficiency reforms may be found here.

The story leading up to the Fulton Inquiry began as long ago as 1918 when the Haldane Report recommended the development of deeper partnerships between Ministers and officials so as to meet the more complicated requirements of busier post-war government.  The relationship between civil servants and Ministers thus became one of mutual interdependence, with Ministers providing authority and officials providing expertise.   But not everyone liked this new settlement and debate intensified, over the years, between senior officials, often supported by Ministers, and a number of vociferous critics.

Ernest Gowers and 'the Loan Collection' Cohort

The Loan Collection was the nickname given to a group of men who were brought together in 1911-12 to implement Lloyd-George's National Insurance Scheme.  Prominent amongst them were

To themselves and to their admirers, they represented civil service perfection - calm, civilised, professional, well-educated, apolitical etc. etc.   But others saw them as over-attached to the status quo, and increasingly out of tune with the modern, increasingly technological world - too conservative - and maybe too Conservative too. 

We now fast forward, through the Second World War, to 1950 when Sir Edward Bridges gave a lecture about the Civil Service entitled ‘Portrait of a Profession: The Civil Service Tradition .  Sir Edward provided an overview of the stages through which the Civil Service had developed since the Northcote-Trevelyan Report:

He described the mandarin's character in this way:

He is less easily elated, less readily discouraged than most men by everyday happenings. Outwardly he may appear cynical or disillusioned, and perhaps to be disinclined to put up a fight for things which excite others. But this is because he has learned by experience that the walls of Jericho do not nowadays fall flat even after seven perambulations to the sound of the trumpet, and that many of the results which he wants to see come about in the most unexpected ways. Once the crust of disillusion is pierced, you will find a man who feels with the fiercest intensity for those things which he has learned to cherish - those things, that is to say, which are of vital concern for the continued well-being of the community.

A much more detailed history of Ernest Gowers and the Loan Collection can be read in a paper written in 2006.

The Critics

Bridges' speech prompted a noisy debate about the Civil Service, fuelled by an article by Oxford don and political economist Thomas Balogh who was close to future Prime Minister Harold Wilson.   In ‘Apotheosis of a Dilettante’ Balogh roundly attacked the examination through which Gowers cohort was selected as encouraging a ‘purposefully useless, somewhat dilettante, erudition which would keep 'dangerous thoughts' well away.  He described the formal establishment of the unified Civil Service in 1919 as ‘total victory’ from the point of view of the permanent bureaucrats’.

He was particularly scathing about the power of the Head of the Civil Service "[which] through the patronage he yields, is far beyond the widest dreams of the territorial oligarchs of the eighteenth century" and the Civil Service (Fast Stream) exams which "so far as one can make out from a long experience with pupils taking it, seem to favour the grasshopper mind and the exhibitionist". ... [Modern] problems. far from becoming more universal, are increasingly demanding specialized knowledge.  Yet ... the dominant branch of the Civil Service has become more and more generalized and , what is worse, more exclusive. ... What we get in fact is a two tier dilettantism.  It may well happen that both the Permanent Secretary and the Minister arrive simultaneously at a new department.   Neither of them has made an intensive study of the problems with which they have to deal, or know the personalities and social background.  ... purposive policy [cannot] be formed under these conditions ...At best, the departments drift in the maelstrom of events, trying to keep afloat or barely so."

There was of course a strong left wing political instinct running through much of the criticism.  Balogh felt that the Victorians had created "an administrative personnel for a Nightwatchman State presiding over the breath-taking expansion of private industrial capitalism.... In a planned economy, the crossword-puzzle mind, reared on mathematics at Cambridge or Greats (Classics) at Oxford, has only a limited outlet."   

(Balogh's article first appeared in The Establishment - a set of essays published in 1959 and edited by Hugh Thomas.  It was then reprinted in Crisis in the Civil Service, another set of essays edited by Hugh Thomas and printed in 1968.)

The Politicians

It turned out that Prime Minister Harold Wilson was very fond of the Civil Service, having been a temporary civil servant during the war including a period as an assistant to William Beveridge, the founder, in effect, of the welfare state.  Wilson also enjoyed his time as President of the Board of Trade and was said to be proud of being 'house trained'.   But he was a reformer, nonetheless, and disliked the dominance of the Administrative Class - the generalists. His period at the Board of Trade also caused him to develop a solid antipathy to the Treasury.  All in all, though, his colleagues and advisers such as Tommy Balogh (see above), Richard Crossman and Marcia Williams thought him "too kind to civil servants". 

Equally, though, the 1939-45 Second World War had required substantial reform in Whitehall, and within Government more generally, including the employment of large numbers of strong characters and experts (including young Wilson) who would otherwise have remained outside government.   This trend was put into reverse after the war but the experience appears to have informed Wilson and others. 

The Civil Service

According to Kevin Theakston:

The suspicions of the civil service in some sections of the Labour Party, linked to the fear that official attitudes must have been strongly coloured by thirteen years of Conservative rule, were largely unfounded. The top mandarins’ group self-confidence was still pretty high in this period. Dame Evelyn Sharp (Crossman’s formidable permanent secretary at Housing) was never afraid to say ‘you’ve got it wrong, minister’, and Sir William Armstrong (head of the Treasury and then, after 1968, Head of the Civil Service) believed that the civil servant’s job was to bring politicians face to face with ‘ongoing reality’).

But there was in fact much good will in Whitehall towards the incoming Labour government in 1964 rather than blanket hostility. Initially suspicious on class or ideological grounds, Jim Callaghan soon developed a good working relationship with his Treasury civil servants, for instance. But relations were much more difficult and turbulent with the more volatile and unpredictable George Brown at the DEA and later the Foreign Office. Notions of a ‘continuous battle’ and ‘real resistance or obstruction’ were rejected by Tony Crosland, who insisted that the key issue was about harnessing the bureaucracy’s ‘large fund of knowledge and expertise’. Roy Jenkins established a clear ministerial authority over the machine at the Home Office and then the Treasury, and pooh-poohed the idea of ministerial life as involving continuous battering ‘against a brick wall of determined departmental opposition’. Denis Healey too had no truck with claims of ‘bureaucratic sabotage or political prejudice’ on the part of the civil service, arguing perceptively that the real problem was ‘Whitehall’s obsession with procedure rather than policy’, which left it ‘poorly equipped to handle change’, and the system’s ‘tendency to produce a soggy compromise’.

And so the stage was set for the Fulton Inquiry which produced the 1968 Fulton Report.  But it is important to note that, despite talk amongst commentators of the need for a 'new Haldane', two areas of crucial constitutional and administrative importance were corralled off from the inquiry: relations between ministers and officials, and the machinery of government.  Indeed, the Committee itself was not entirely happy with its terms of reference.  The Committee found that 'at many points of our enquiry ... this imposed limits on our work; questions about the number and size of departments, and their relationships with each other and the Cabinet Office, bear closely on the work and organisation of the Civil Service'.  (Cabinet Secretary) William Armstrong later concluded that an inquiry into the organisation and machinery of government should have preceded one into the sort of civil service and civil servants needed in the modern state.

Despite the constraints, Fulton and his colleagues identified the following weaknesses in the Civil Service:

The report was taken seriously and led to significant  - but arguably not enough - change within the civil service.   The ideas that were to be found in the report were thwarted by lack of ministerial interest in what seemed boring, nuts-and-bolts questions.  It also met a good deal of opposition and it did not, as a result, bring about even the limited 'revolution' that it in effect recommended.  Writing many years later (in 1999) John Garrett (a consultant in the Fulton team) said that:

The mandarins were rattled by the proposals.  ... A social survey revealed that 85% of the mandarins were from a middle-class background (compared with 51% ten years previously); 71% had arts degrees, mainly in history and classics; and 73% were from Oxbridge (also a recent increase).  An already rigid class system was intensifying ...

The mandarins rarely had experience of managing anything.  They wrote elegant essays to each other.  They were switched from job to job at two-year intervals on the basis that knowing too much would cloud their judgement.  Their overweening arrogance made them dreadful managers of people, but then management was anyway thought an inferior occupation to be carried out by the lower classes.  Specialists were kept to advise them, a principle cynically known as "the expert on tap, but not on top".

The Whitehall establishment went potty ... Lord Redcliffe-Maud wrote: "give me the first class man in any honor's school, provided he has character as well". ... Wilfred Sendal wrote: "I would far rather be ruled by men who were familiar with the tragedies of Sophocles , who had a grounding in the wisdom of Socrates and Plato and then topped it up by a wide reading of Shakespeare, Hobbes, Locke and Stuart Mill than by one who was an expert electronics engineer or a first-class nuclear physicist."

The Committee's Report was published as a command paper, Cmnd. 3638 entitled The Report of the Committee on the Civil Service.  A summary of its findings etc. and links to the full text are on a separate web page.

A detailed and highly readable account of the 1964-70 Labour Governments and Whitehall reform may be found in a 2004 paper by Professor Kevin Theakston.

 

Martin Stanley

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