None of the various Prime Ministerial reform initiatives have helped the Government avoid making serious blunders. One is therefore forced to conclude that serious reform of the government machine might be necessary. There are, broadly, three possible approaches.
The first approach - the politicisation of the upper reaches of the civil service - would ensure that Ministers are supported by officials who share their political agenda and are energetic in taking it forward. 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 probably 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 .
Sarah Nickson's IfG blog includes more detailed information about the Australian and Canadian systems.
But any move in the direction of politicisation meets determined opposition in the UK, and is not helped by the fact that politicians are currently so unpopular. Serious politicisation therefore appears to be a non-starter, for the time being at least. But those interested in this subject might like to read:-
- a 2002 note on the Politicisation of the Civil Service by Sir Robin Mountfield, then Permanent Secretary of the Cabinet Office - and
- a note of a Public Administration Committee conference in October 2003.
The second approach would be a new constitutional settlement. Ministers would no longer be held to account for the wide range of expertise-based decisions which are now taken by government. Instead, there would be explicit recognition that Ministers are responsible and accountable only for establishing the Government’s strategy (with some support from a small ‘cabinet’ including relevant experts, a few civil servants and others with relevant skills) whilst the civil service would be responsible and accountable for providing advice, consultation, communication and execution.
The third approach would be more incremental – but would still address a good number of far-reaching questions, including the following:
- How should departmental officials best be organised and remunerated?
- What is the right balance between cost and service quality in terms of both the service provided by 'Whitehall' to Ministers and the service provided by the wider (and much larger) Civil Service to the public?
- How much freedom should officials have to innovate and respond to local needs?
- Do we still need a single 'Civil Service' as distinct from a number of singular departmental administrations?
- Or, looking the other way, do we still need a single Civil Service comprising less than 10% of, and quite separate from, the rest of the public service?
- Is the Cabinet Secretariat (created in 1916) still fit for purpose nearly 100 years later?
- Have we nothing to learn from overseas administrations?
- Should Ministers be constrained from operating in contravention of the Cabinet Manual, perhaps by requiring senior officials to ask for a Procedural Direction' in such circumstances?
Professors Dave Richards and Martin Smith, for instance, argue that 'a new breed of civil servant is required with a different relationship to their political masters. Change could, for example, involve an organisational and cultural shift from a departmental-focused to a problem-focused approach which is more flexible, smaller and digitally based. This would require a fundamental move from hierarchical bureaucracy to what we would label ‘cybernetic-squad’ bureaucracy. A recognition that in a post-Brexit world, there are certain, specialised bureaucratic/technical skills that are not linked to departmental functionalism, but which need to focus on specific problems, allow for flexibility, and rapid intervention. Expertise would no longer be located within a department, but to teams deployed to deal with particular projects or intractable problems. It would, however, require a very different ministerial-civil service relationship and more particularly, an overhaul of the Westminster Model'
So What Stops these Reforms from Happening?
First, and most obviously, ministers can't be bothered. John Kingman put it more politely when addressing the IfG in December 2020:-
First of all, we are obviously talking about changing a very large and complex system, with a strong embedded culture.
That is clearly a long job. It’s also, for most of the public, deeply boring, obscure and irrelevant. It is not susceptible to headlines or sugar-rush announcements. And it won’t yield any political return on any meaningful timetable.
So, it’s a big ask to expect senior ministers to take any sustained interest. There is a fundamental mismatch in timescale.
Second, and almost equally obviously, ministers don't know what reforms they want. Again, John Kingman summarised the problem very well, referring to a speech, a few months earlier, by Michael Gove.:-
But there may also be a further political demand problem: are the characteristics Gove calls for even what ministers actually want? The answer is not immediately obvious.
He calls, for instance, for civil servants who are “more rigorous and fearless”. But as he quite rightly acknowledges, rigour and fearlessness will only flourish if there is ministerial demand for it.
Gove devotes a whole page of his speech, for example, to the importance of good cost-benefit analysis. But this is actually a very odd observation. As an experienced minister, Gove will know that Whitehall is already awash with cost-benefit analysis. Everything of any significance is subjected to a multi-stage business case process governed by the revered Green Book, which bends over backwards to try to value non-financial and societal benefits of every kind.
The question is not whether Whitehall is capable of good, tough analysis. It already is. The question is whether ministers want to hear, and act on, the results.
Here, frankly, there is room for doubt. I suspect in their private moments my former Treasury colleagues might point wearily to some of the current government’s moonshots – $500m of public money invested in a bankrupt satellite firm, say, or the dreamed-of bridge from Northern Ireland to a not-very-populated edge of Scotland across 20 miles of very deep, bomb-strewn water – and question whether the government’s hunger for rigorous cost-benefit analysis is quite as intense as Mr Gove’s speech hopes.
To be fair, as I say, he does square up to this problem.
“Reforming how government works”, he plainly says, “requires ministers who can reform themselves”.
But he does not tell us how this part of the reform programme will be achieved.
Let's turn, now, to the three possible approaches, summarised above, and let's assume ministers were interested in following one of these paths..
The first approach (politicisation) has very few strong supporters. UK politicians seem to need more robust advisers, not more committed political soul mates. Indeed, even the current tiny number of Special Advisers is regarded with considerable suspicion by many commentators.
The second approach (a new constitutional settlement) has significant support, not least from the Public Accounts Committee and the Liaison Committee, but powerful opposition from the following groups within the Whitehall establishment.
- Opposition politicians want to retain the ability to gain political advantage by criticising Government Ministers rather than unelected officials.
- Government Ministers are unwilling to admit that they are not solely responsible for important decisions.
- MPs want to be able to continue to write to fellow MPs (currently serving as Ministers) about all aspects of a department’s performance.
- A small number refuse even to correspond with Agency Chief Executives, for instance about the Driver and Vehicle Licensing decisions.
- Last, but not least, many senior officials would not like to be publicly accountability for the effectiveness of their departments, knowing that this would open up areas of conflict with their political masters.
The third, incremental, approach suffers from lack of profile. Nobody has the time or energy to investigate the questions listed above, nor the inclination to stir the nest full of hornets, each of which would be devoted to maintaining the status quo. ... A pity, really.