This is the first of a series of notes which provide more detail about, and comment on, the many attempts – some successful, most not – to ‘reform’ the UK Civil Service. This note summarises reform programs through to just before Tony Blair’s government was elected in 1997.
I strongly recommend that you read the Civil Service Reform: Introduction and Efficiency Programs sections of this website before reading these more detailed notes. You might also like to read about Civil Service Reform Syndrome in order to understand why Ministers and senior officials fail, time and time again, to establish a change program with a realistic chance of success. Then read these more detailed notes for information about the following key reports and initiatives, as well as about many more less prominent government initiatives, external reports and analysis.
Links to these reports will be found in the detailed text below:
- 1853 Northcote Trevelyan (published 1854)
- 1918 Haldane
- 1955 Priestley
- 1961 Plowden
- 1968 Fulton
- 1982 Financial Management Initiative
- 1987 Ibbs (Next Steps) Report (published 1988)
- 1993 - Treasury & Civil Service Committee - The Role of the Civil Service
- 1993 Oughton
- 1994 Continuity and Change
- 1999 Modernising Government
- 2004 Civil Service Reform: Delivery and Values
- 2004 Gershon
- 2009 Putting the Frontline First
- 2012 Civil Service Reform Plan
The 1700s and 1800s
Michael Coolican's No Tradesmen and No Women provides an excellent history of the civil service. The following is a very brief summary of its early chapters.
The foundations of a detached civil service based on sound finance to run a modern imperial country can be found in the reforms implemented from the mid 1700s which slowly chipped away at the ability of office-holders to sell or pass on (what they regarded as) their property right to a relative. But the phrase ';civil servant' was first used by the East India Company which trained its young recruits at Haileybury.
As the years passed, the activities of the East India Company became increasingly governmental, and intertwined with those of the British Government in London. Pressure grew to allow open competition for appointment by the Company, and this was important background to the parallel thinking that led to the Northcote-Trevelyan Report - see further below. Ironically, given modern concerns, the strongest pressure came from a small group intent on ensuring that Oxbridge graduates could in future work for the East India Company. Haileybury according closed in the late 1850s, to reopen a couple of years later as the 'public school' that we know today.
Michael Coolican notes that:
[This development threw away] everything that had been achieved by the more enlightened directors of the East India Company in ensuring potential recruits were taught relevant subjects [together with] fifty years practical experience of delivering that education. [This] volte-face had major implications for the British civil service as well as the Indian, and it is also possible that it played a significant part in the development of the British education system';s long-standing aversion to vocational training. The government had turned its back on professional administrators; the way had been paved for the reign of the gifted amateur.
'The great and increasing accumulation of public business, and the consequent pressure on the Government' caused the Treasury's Charles Trevelyan to become interested in civil service reform. His particular hobby horse was that work should be divided so that low-grade tasks, which he called 'mechanical' should not be carried out by 'intellectuals'. This eventually led to the separation of recruitment from universities from the recruitment of clerks, thus facilitating the dangerous divorce of policy-making from policy implementation.
In other ways, too, Trevelyan was not so far-seeing, or as interested in the merits of competition, as we nowadays assume. Michael Coolican (see above) describes the post-report debates in which Trevelyan was often on the 'wrong' side. Robert Lowe probably deserves more credit than Trevelyan. There is more detail here.
Be that as it may, the 21st Century UK civil service retains many of the characteristics of the service that was created as a result of the1854 Northcote-Trevelyan report on ‘the Organisation of the Permanent Civil Service’.
The eventual result of Northcote-Trevelyan was a civil service appointed on merit and through open competition, rather than patronage, with the following core values:
- integrity - putting the obligations of public service above your own personal interests;
- honesty - being truthful and open;
- objectivity - basing your advice and decisions on rigorous analysis of the evidence; and
- impartiality - acting solely according to the merits of the case and serving equally well Governments of different political persuasions.
The first Civil Service Commissioner was appointed in 1855.
The Macaulay Report on the selection and training of entrants into ‘the Civil Service of the East India Company’ was also published in 1854. This report was in some ways a 19th century version of the 1968 Fulton Report on the structure of the UK Civil Service. Like the Northcote Trevelyan Report, the text is mercifully short and to the point, and the authors were delightfully honest when not 100% sure of their recommendations:-
“… we are inclined, though with much distrust of our own judgment, to think that …”.
They were also well aware of how their recommendations could be perverted:
“We propose to include the moral sciences in the … examination … Whether this study shall have more to do with mere words or with things, whether it shall degenerate into a formal and scholastic pedantry, or shall train the mind for the highest purposes of active life, will depend, to great extent, on the way in which the examination is conducted.”
And the training was to be thorough:
“[The new recruit] should study [Indian history], not merely in the works of Orme, of Wilks, and of Mill, but also in the travels of Bernier, in the odes of Sir William Jones, and in the journals of Heber. … He should understand the mode of keeping and checking accounts, the principles of banking, the laws that regulated the exchanges … [etc.].”
The Northcote Trevelyan reforms took a long time to become fully embedded in civil service culture - arguably until the early 1900s.
The Civil Service that developed through the rest of the 1800s was far from stuffy - or at least no more stuffy than was normal for that period. David Price, in Office of Hope, describes the 1909 creation of Labour Exchanges by politicians Beveridge and Churchill:
Charles Rey, the new General Manager, [was] the antithesis of Beveridge, with no pretence to academic qualifications but 'excitable and most practically energetic. We had for ever to be raiding the Treasury for new staff and and premises and Rey, always spoiling for a fight, was the spearhead of our forays.' ... while [Rey's] team was regarded [by other officials] as engaged in 'a great gamble ... a company of pirates' the young men saw themselves as 'high adventurers giving shape to one of the great social reforms of the quinquennium'.
Another novelty was the extent of external recruitment of managers and staff, breaking through the established practice of selection by academic written examination, which tended to favour young inexperienced people ... successful candidates included businessmen, trade unionists, a regular soldier, and an American gold speculator who claimed to have run a labour exchange in Chicago, with a revolver provided as part of the office equipment.
But there was still some patronage. Germanophobe senior Foreign Office officials such as Bertie, Hardinge and Nicolson - all key participants in the discussions that led to the First World War - were all well connected at the anti-German and pro-French Court of King Edward VII, and assisted each other's careers.
The next major set of reforms came about as a result of the 1918 Haldane Report published at the end of the First World War. The first Cabinet Secretary, Maurice Hankey, had been appointed during the war and had brought much needed focus, rigour and accountability to the way in which the Cabinet organised its business. Haldane built on this and recommended the development of deeper partnerships between Ministers and officials so as to meet the more complicated requirements of busier government as substantial executive ministries emerged from the first world war - though they were still only one-tenth of the size of their modern counterparts.
The report's impact came through the interaction of two closely-linked ideas:
- Government required investigation and thought in all departments to do its job well: "continuous acquisition of knowledge and the prosecution of research" were needed "to furnish a proper basis for policy". Gone were the days when government Bills and decisions could be based merely on the expertise of ministers, MPs and outside opinion. Ministers could not provide an investigative and thoughtful government on their own. Neither could civil servants; but a partnership between both could.
- The partnership must be extended, however, from the cluster of officials round a minister, typical of 19th century government, to embrace whole departments as the repositories of relevant knowledge and opinion. Haldane did not spell out how such investigation and thought were to be developed, except to recommend they should be based on a split of functions between government departments that essentially has continued to this day.
The relationship between civil servants and Ministers thus became one of mutual interdependence, with Ministers providing authority and officials providing expertise. And that is how it is supposed to work today, undisturbed by a number of proposed reforms, summarised below.
The Great Debate
The period following the 1918 Haldane Report, and particularly after the Second World War, was marked by an intensely political debate about the culture and other aspects of the UK civil service. On the one hand, critics such as Tommy (later Lord) Balogh felt that Haldane's creation of unified civil service was a victory of the permanent bureaucrats which had created an essentially dilettante Mandarinate whose erudition kept dangerous thoughts well away. On the other side, so to speak, senior officials such as Ernest Gowers and his mates in 'The Loan Collection' were proud and very defensive of what they eventually came to regard as 'the Civil Service Tradition'. The debate was eventually resolved (probably to no-one's total satisfaction) via the Fulton Inquiry. Further detail of this debate and the background to Fulton is in a separate part of this website.
The history page of this website also lists several interesting and important documents published in the early to mid 1900s which helped codify the role and ethics of the UK civil service.
Other Developments After 1918
The 1919 Bradbury Report created a new establishment branch of the Treasury (it would now be called 'human resources') to oversee pay and civil service organisation.
Although there has been little if any fundamental reform of the UK civil service since the 1920s, there have been numerous far-reaching efficiency initiatives, summarised here and below, and in later notes in this series. These have led to real improvements in the way in which the big departments are managed, including much faster internal communication and much greater use of the internet for handling transactions with the public.
'The Missed Opportunity'
Minister/civil service relations reached 'glorious harmony' after World War 2 as they worked together to introduce the Beveridge welfare state, the National health Service etc. etc. Unlike 1918/19 this meant that there was no post-World War 2 formal examination of the wartime performance of the British state, and so no 'Haldane 2' Report. Lord (Peter) Hennessy and Sir Douglas Hague later remarked that this was a missed opportunity to reform Whitehall.
Their 1985 essay How Adolf Hitler Reformed Whitehall should itself have been more influential. It made the point that the UK had successfully mobilised a superb cohort of scientists and other experts who had worked very effectively with ministers and mandarins - but had then left Whitehall. Hennessy and Hague concluded that:
The problems facing Britain in the late 1980s and early 1990s are so severe that the luxury of failing to use the country’s intellectual capital simply cannot be afforded. It also requires Ministers and senior officials humble enough and brave enough to submit their panaceas and prejudices to gifted, difficult and sometimes quirky people whose greatest virtue is that they are not, in Whitehall’s terms, house-trained. They were needed in 1939. They are needed now.
It has been downhill ever since with politicians increasingly seeing civil servants as 'part of the problem', not 'part of the solution', as evidenced in my later notes on civil service reform.
The 1949 Handbook for the New Civil Servant provides a pretty good portrait of the post-war profession. I particularly like the fact that a new recruit could in due course expect to be assessed on their 'personality, force of character, judgment, taking responsibility, address, tact and zeal'. Not a bad recipe!
The 1955 Priestley Royal Commission led to the Government accepting that Civil Service pay should be determined by fair comparison with the earnings of comparable work outside the Service. Click here for more information about Civil Service pay.
The Plowden Committee on Control of Public Expenditure: control of civil service pay, conditions and establishments - reported in 1961.
According to Bristol's Rodney Lowe (emphasis added):
'The Plowden committee on the control of public expenditure has been described as a milestone in the modernization of postwar British government. Certainly it effected major changes in both the Treasury's structure and personnel and, by securing the establishment of the public expenditure survey committee, gave subsequent governments the opportunity to plan public expenditure rationally in relation to prospective resources. Ultimately, however, the committee was a failure. The civil service was re-examined by the Fulton committee within five years and public expenditure soon escalated out of control.
The Plowden committee thus represented a major lost opportunity. The time had been ripe for a fundamental political and administrative adjustment to the needs of the extended postwar state; but the committee failed to build the necessary political, parliamentary or public support for its recommendations. The reason for failure was its restricted nature as an internal enquiry with largely ineffectual ‘outside’ members, which enabled vested Treasury interests increasingly to dictate its deliberations. A more open enquiry would have stimulated and brought the best out of the ‘modernisers’ within the Treasury.'
Harold Wilson was Prime Minister from 1964 to 1970 and then again from 1974 to 1976. He was a great moderniser in many ways, and a fan of technology. He brought economists Kaldor and Balogh (the latter a fierce critic of the civil service - see above) into government as advisers. He had met Fulton during the war when they were both civil servants, and they found that they shared similar views. Fulton felt that the civil service lacked drive and innovation. Wilson felt that it didn't value specialists like himself. Wilson accordingly, in 1966 tasked the Fulton Inquiry with overhauling the structure of the UK Civil Service. As noted above (in The Great Debate) the background to, and findings of, this inquiry may be found in a separate part of this website.
'The Enemy Within'
Enoch Powell was the most prominent of those who branded the civil service, the BBC, the universities and the liberal clergy (amongst others) as an internal enemy of the British people. In 1970, for instance (and two years after his anti-immigration 'Rivers of Blood' speech) he delivered what is generally referred to as 'The Enemy Within' speech. His opening sentence was "Britain at this moment is under attack". This was followed later by "... the danger is greater ... because the enemy is invisible or disguised, so that his preparations and advances go on hardly observed".
The Power Game
Jock Bruce-Gardyne and Nigel Lawson's The Power Game was published in 1976. It is a retrospective look at political power and policy-making under previous Governments and contains some fascinating and very detailed case studies and reflections on the 1960s and 70s relationship between Ministers and civil servants.
The Wider Issues Review
Edward Heath's 1970-1974 Conservative Government imposed pay restraint and other measures which led to the first ever national civil service strike in 1973. This in turn led to the Wider Issues Review whose report Civil Servants and Change was published under the second Wilson Government in 1975. It is an interesting document in all sorts of ways. For a start, it was written in close collaboration with the civil service staff associations acting through the National Whitley Council. There is no overt Ministerial involvement, and not even a Ministerial foreword to the report.
The Whitley Council's own foreword to the report notes that '... the confidence and effectiveness of the Service depend very much on Ministers ... there is a risk of imposing greater burdens and stresses on the Service than it can in practice bear.' The report notes that both pay and 'deeper more complex reasons' had caused the recent industrial action. '... civil servants feel that they have been mucked about a lot in the last five or ten years. So there is an atmosphere of sourness in many parts of the Service, and we have found it at every level.' ... 'Ministers can help ... by recognising their responsibility as employers ... they can avoid discrimination against the public service in the application of their economic and social policies'.
Here are some other interesting extracts from the report:
... the Service has changed in several respects over the years ... Older civil servants joined when recruitment was highly competitive; before the war some schools would inscribe on the honours-board the name of a boy who was accepted into the Civil Service as an executive officer ... But other jobs have become more attractive ... and today the very much larger numbers of executive officer entrants do not regard the Civil Service or themselves as very special ... the majority [of civil servants] do not have traditional white collar attitudes and do not aspire to them.
... the economic rewards must be fair, but they will never be excessive;
- The main text of the report is here.
- The Joint Statement by the National Whitley Council, List of Contents and Annexes are here.
More generally, though, some perceptive commentators felt that Edward Heath thought too much like an official and too little like a sceptical politician and, as a result, both allowed the civil service too much power to prevent things being done, and exaggerated what could be achieved by the official machinery. One example was said to be Heath's unfounded belief in the power of the Department of Trade and Industry to enforce the Industrial Relations Act.
Harold Wilson & Tony Benn
Wilson's post-1974 second government was marked by increasingly angry clashes with the left wing of his party, represented in particular by Secretary of State for Industry, Tony Benn. Senior officials at the Industry Department found themselves caught up in these quarrels and occasionally required Mr Benn to sign Ministerial Directions before they would implement his decisions. But he and his Permanent Secretary parted on reasonably good terms - see their exchange of letters here.
Dave Richards and Martin Smith have written a perceptive blog (The Lessons of Tony Benn as a Cabinet Minister: Breaking the Rules and Paying the Price) summarising the troubled history of Mr Benn's relationship with his officials, By way of background, it is worth remembering that Mr Benn had previously been a very successful Postmaster General and technology minister. But his attempts to implement the 1974 Labour manifesto promises were not supported by neither the Prime Minister nor his Cabinet colleagues and this led to a breakdown in the normal symbiotic, trusting relationship with his departmental officials.
Thatcher Government Reforms
Mrs Thatcher's Conservative Government came into power in 1979. Hugh Stephenson noted, in his book Mrs Thatcher's First Year, that '[her] arrival ... was the biggest jolt that that Civil Service had experienced in living memory. For a while the whole Whitehall system almost visibly juddered ... It was a culture shock. The elite administrative grade had come to think of itself as the guardian and trustee of national continuity .. The Prime Minister and a small group of sympathetic ministers ... were arguing that its ideas and advice had proved bankrupt, that now was the time for an entirely new approach.'
But there was nevertheless no great change in the service's fundamental culture or characteristics. (The 1980 Handbook for the new civil servant doesn't look or feel that different to the 1949 version.)
And Whitehall system appeared ready and able to absorb the changes at the very top, with the staff in the Prime Minister's office in No. 10 Downing Street continuing to serve Mrs Thatcher as they had served her predecessor. Sir Kenneth Stowe as her Principal Private Secretary managed a smooth take-over, while Sir Robert Armstrong, the new Secretary to the Cabinet, appeared effortlessly to take on the role as her most senior closest official adviser. The role of Head of the Civil Service, which had been designed by Fulton to be held by the head of the Civil Service Department, was held by Sir Ian Bancroft. It was to him that the task of “de-privileging” the Civil Service was given, together with that of controlling Civil Service pay and pensions. But the Prime Minister’s Policy Unit, an organisation established by Harold Wilson, but now headed by Sir John Hoskyns and close to Margaret Thatcher, was looking closely over his shoulder.
Kavanagh and Seldon (in The powers Behind the Prime Minister) record that:
Norman Strauss, Hoskyns' first appointment to the Policy Unit, had a 'no holds barred' approach. To Strauss, what he regarded as an amateurish and defeatist Civil Service ... became something of an obsession ... [if it] is not reformed from top to bottom than nothing can be done; therefore start at the top. ... Strauss' crusade, and the forceful way he put it across, did not go down well with practical politicians, let alone civil servants, and Strauss was an easy target for marginalising. ... [They both] felt that Margaret Thatcher was unwilling to tackle the Civil Service head on. They also had something of a businessman's impatience with the compromises, trade-offs and concern with 'process' of politicians and civil servants. A politician's idea of doing something is to make a speech', lamented Hoskyns.'
The Thatcher Government accordingly concentrated on reforming the economy, and institutions outside government, and on improving the management of government. But even the efficiency drive got off to a rocky start. A brief biography of Sir Ian Bancroft records that:
Bancroft's experience and achievements made him a strong candidate to succeed Sir Douglas Allen as head of the home civil service when Allen retired at the end of 1977. But by then the continuing problems of morale and increasing militancy over pay issues in the civil service were having to be handled in a political environment which had become far more critical of all aspects of public administration. On appointment as head of the civil service Bancroft found that the economic situation and policies of the time gave very little room for manoeuvre.
His problems increased with the change of government in 1979. The new prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, was determined to improve the efficiency of the civil service by bringing in private sector methods and by cutting staff numbers. She was very critical of what she regarded as the negative attitudes of senior civil servants when they were made to contemplate new ideas. Bancroft accepted that the civil service would have to be reduced substantially and that the Civil Service Department would have to play a key role in that reduction, but he felt that the management problems with which his senior colleagues would have to grapple as numbers were reduced and posts eliminated were insufficiently understood in no. 10. His attempt to persuade the prime minister that some of her criticisms of senior civil servants were unfair was seen as an example of the weakness which the prime minister believed permeated government departments generally and the Civil Service Department in particular.
He persuaded the prime minister to give a dinner to permanent secretaries at which he hoped that a better understanding might be achieved, if problems could be discussed informally in a relaxed atmosphere. It proved to be a disaster. The explanation of difficulties merely persuaded the prime minister that very few of the permanent secretaries were ‘one of us’, and she ended the dinner unexpectedly early. From that moment Bancroft's position became increasingly untenable.
The Cabinet Office file for April/May 1980 makes fascinating reading. It covers the preparation for the ill-fated dinner and includes the Permanent Secretaries' subsequent 'thank you' letters as well as preparation for a Parliamentary Statement about cuts in civil service numbers.
You might also like to refer to an annotated version of a slightly odd senior officials' 2013 Tribute to the late Baroness Thatcher.
In his autobiography, Matthew Parris (who worked for Mrs Thatcher) notes that:
[there was] a false contradiction between the recollections of colleagues who said that she wouldn't listen, and those who are sure she did. Both are right. Thatcher would take advice on how to achieve what she wanted, but not on what she ought to want. ... she respected know-how ... The only objection [she] would allow was that ... a goal might be simply unachievable. This, after much bridling, she would hear and if persuaded (often after humiliating the message bearer) accept.
Civil servants should not have found it difficult to accept the principle of the demarcation line described by Mr Parris, but it will have been much harder for her fellow Cabinet Ministers. One former official told me that "while those who worked in No.10 were treated as "one of us", she did not really like dissent, especial if she felt that those giving her advice were not her natural acolytes. She was also not very keen on opening up top civil service jobs to outsiders, and refused to permit the continuation of the Direct Entry Principal Scheme.
There were suggestions that Mrs Thatcher took some tentative steps to politicise the senior civil service. This is debatable, but it was true that she took a greater interest in senior appointments than had her predecessors. She wasn't interested in how officials voted. She was much more interested in whether they were energetic and enthusiastic, although this will have been difficult for the more reserved of the mandarins, and/or those unhappy with her policies. Tony Blair's attempts at politicisation were more serious - see Part 4 of the next note in this series.
The FDA (representing senior civil servants) observed that:
Anecdotal evidence suggests it is style rather than belief which tends to be considered important. The style which appears to appeal to the Prime Minister is the 'can do' approach, best characterised by decisiveness and an ability to get things done, rather than the more traditional approach which lays greater emphasis on analysis of options with recommendations for action based on that analysis.
Douglas Wass' 1983 Reith Lecture The Privileged Adviser is another good read, especially bearing in mind that it was almost certainly seen as the Mandarin's riposte to Mrs Thatcher.
The Financial Management Initiative (1982-) sought important improvements in the allocation, management and control of resources.
Central Office of Information
These extracts from an article by Simon Petherick in the Guardian (25 October 2022) give a great feel for how Margaret Thatcher, and her successor John Major, revolutionised Whitehall's communications with the public:
Six years after Margaret Thatcher became prime minister, I got a job as a writer at a strangely dysfunctional government department called the Central Office Of Information. Even though I lived in a squat, had the socialist historian EP Thompson’s Protest and Survive on my bookshelf and had been an organiser for a miners’ support group during the 1984 strike – when we put up some of the miners’ families during visits to London for marches, they found our earnest wholegrain lifestyle utterly ridiculous – I thought it was OK to join the COI for a number of reasons. Dylan Thomas and Somerset Maugham had worked for it during the war, for a start, and I considered myself to be a “writer”, too, even though the only thing I’d had published was a 20,000-word guidebook to Edinburgh under the imposed pseudonym of Elspeth Mackintosh (my own surname too clearly Cornish for a book on Scotland).
But the main reason I joined was that I discovered during the application process that the department’s role was to issue information that was not beholden to any political party. The COI was not Margaret Thatcher’s loudhailer, my new bosses told me; she had to use the Conservative party’s own funds for that. Our job was to describe clearly and objectively to the British people what it was that the government was doing. I liked that. I’d read George Orwell’s 1946 essay Politics and the English Language and I was filled with notions around the democratisation of language. Having spent the past three years writing blurbs for a small publisher (the books were westerns: “Peace wouldn’t reign in Vulture valley until six gunshots rang in the air!”), I was intrigued by the idea of cold truth set out in type. I thought I could learn my trade, and I was right about that at least. Also, I thought, Thatcher would soon be replaced by a Labour government and everything would be rosy. ...
The other manual, A Working Guide for Government Information Officers, was a little drier but, given my idealism about the politics of language, equally exciting to me. At its core lay four key principles, requiring that all government publicity
a) should be relevant to government responsibilities
b) should be objective and explanatory, not tendentious or polemical
c) should not be, or be liable to misrepresentation as being, party political
d) should be produced and distributed in an economic and relevant way, having regard to the need to be able to justify the costs as expenditure of public funds.
Now we were talking. This made me feel as if I was working for Clement Attlee’s 1945 New Jerusalem government, not Margaret Thatcher’s collection of cynical grandees and bow-tied businessmen. I’d read Graham Greene’s nostalgic memoir about his period as a subeditor at the Times in the 1920s, the comforting atmosphere of the editorial room with the quiet thud of the coals falling through the grate of the fire, and I felt the same: I could work here quite happily for years.
My fellow writers were charming. The men wore suits and ties, the women long skirts, apart from one who favoured thick RAF-blue trousers. Nobody talked about feelings or family, there were no watercooler chats about last night’s TV. Occasionally, someone might recommend a forthcoming classical music concert, but for the most part, we worked in companionable silence, the keys of our typewriters syncopating our days. ...
The first real inkling I had that my idealistic vision of government information was being undermined came in 1987 when the Thatcher government decided to make its first announcement about its plans for a community charge, or poll tax, to replace domestic rates. A document had been issued by the Department of Environment setting out to parliament the proposed policy, but now the department intended to issue a booklet and video to explain to the general public the changes that they intended to introduce. These changes were extremely controversial. Once they were finally made law in 1990, the poll tax riots that ensued saw hundreds of people either injured or arrested.
As usual, we received an instruction from the Department of Environment to prepare the text of the booklet. The instruction came with an unusual level of detail, suggesting ways in which the proposed Charge could be “sold”. It made reference to allegedly poor accounting practices by Labour-held councils in cities such as Liverpool, and argued that the new charge would eradicate inefficiency and corruption. This detailed brief, in other words, was in effect a political justification for the creation of the community charge.
We writers huddled together and agreed as one: this was simply unacceptable. We would have to advise the department that such a booklet had no place as government information, it would sit more happily as a Conservative party-funded publication. Government information was supposed to explain, not justify. We put this in a typed letter, which was then taken across the Thames to the department’s offices in Marsham Street by the government information van service. We waited. And waited. No response. After several days, one of us leaped into action and telephoned the department.
“Yes, we received your letter,” we were told. “No, we don’t agree with your perspective, and we have asked the department’s advertising agency to produce the booklet instead. Goodbye.” ...
The only occasion I recall genuine fury was when a new arrival to our team proposed a definition of effective writing. Sara was a garrulous and talented arrival from ad-land. She had spent her career as a successful copywriter at JW Thompson, then took a decade off to wander around Greece on her own. On her return, needing income, she found herself among us oddballs in the COI publications department.
One quiet morning, frustrated I suspect by what she saw as the limits to our remit, she recounted a story. It is, no doubt, an apocryphal story, but it proved explosive. It went as follows. A young man who worked in advertising in New York walked through Central Park every day on his way to his Fifth Avenue agency. Each morning he would pass a beggar sitting on the ground with a hat in front of him and a sign that read “I am blind”. The hat never contained more than a few bucks. One morning in early May, the sun shining and the blossom decorating the trees, the young man stopped by the beggar, leaned down and asked him whether he might object if he made a slight amendment to the beggar’s sign. Approval given, he took out his pen, wrote on the card, and put it back. The next day when he passed, he saw that the beggar’s hat was filled to the brim with cash.
“And what do you think the sign now read?” Sara asked, with a triumphant glint in her eye. “It read: ‘It is spring and I am blind’.”
Oh, the scenes! Nicholas, normally the least communicative and most reserved of the team, couldn’t contain himself. “The use of the English language to manipulate other people’s behaviour is abhorrent to me,” he fumed. “There is absolutely nothing to commend in that story.”
Yet here was the crux of the matter. Sara’s definition of effective writing implied a mission to create change. Nicholas and others felt that words should explain, not affect. In Sara’s example, passersby needed to be encouraged to donate to the beggar’s hat by being prompted to imagine a spring day with sight; Nicholas, however, believed that each individual should have the personal sovereignty to be able to make their own minds up on the clear evidence without their decision-making being influenced.
Margaret Thatcher stepped down as prime minister in November 1990. It was during John Major’s flaccid follow-on that I finally understood how doomed the notion of objective government information was. In 1991, he announced something called the Citizen’s Charter. To this day, I believe no one has any idea what that was. At the time, he and his grey-faced friends pretended that it meant that the citizen was to be given power to critique and improve public services. I recall the day when the pitch document arrived at COI publications department to provide the leaflet for this nonsense. (We were now so fully untied from government departments that we were pitching for each job against commercial design agencies like Fitch.)
The pitch brief spoke of a revolution in public services, how in the future all such services would be responsive to and supervised by the electorate. I actually laughed when I read the brief. As well as being asked to write the copy for this ludicrous fandango, we were asked to offer design ideas for the logo. One of our naive young designers in the design studio came up with a whole set of earnest and dramatic images inspired by the Russian revolutionary art of the 1920s. An older and wiser designer just drew a very simple circle with a sketch of an idealised family in the middle of it. I took one look at her drawing and laughed again: “That will win us the job,” I said. “It has absolutely no meaning whatsoever.”
It won, we produced John Major’s citizen’s charter material, and I left the COI the following year. The department limped on as a perennially shrinking, quasi-commercial agency for another two decades until someone in David Cameron’s government finally noticed it in 2011, and shut it down.
The Efficiency Unit and Rayner Scrutinies
The Efficiency Unit triggered much welcome change throughout government, initially through Rayner Scrutinies and then very noticeably through the 1987 Ibbs Report Improving Management in Government; The Next Steps (published in 1988) which led to much of the executive work of Government being devolved to Executive Agencies.
Announcing her ‘war on waste,’ in the 1979 election campaign,Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher promised to reduce the size and cost of the civil service. After the election, she established the Efficiency Unit to initiate a ‘scrutiny’ programme to assess government administration and identify areas where savings could be made. She appointed Sir Derek Rayner, joint managing director of Marks and Spencer, to head it. Rayner stated that his aim was ‘to alter the culture of Whitehall so as: - to drive home the fact that managing activities efficiently is of equal merit to thinking through policies and analysing issues.’ The Efficiency Unit was made up of a small team of officials who oversaw ‘scrutinies’ (highly detailed searches for cost-savings) on departments. Scrutinies were conducted by a senior departmental official, and monitored by the Efficiency Unit, whose combative tactics earned them the nickname ‘Rayner’s raiders.’ Between 1979 and 1986, 300 scrutinies were carried out, leading to savings of around £300 million per year.
A National Audit Office report found a distinct gap between savings that the Efficiency Unit identified, and genuine savings that were made, finding that of £215m of potential savings that had been found, only £51m had been delivered. The report did conclude that scrutinies were useful ‘as a high level management technique to improve value for money.’ Whilst the Efficiency Unit itself did not achieve a substantial amount, it was important in laying the groundwork for future reform, particularly Next Steps. As the official historian of the civil service, Rodney Lowe, argues ‘the importance of the projects lay not so much in the short-term economies they achieved but in the basis they laid for more lasting reforms.’
Next Steps - Executive Agencies
The authors of the Next Steps Report identified seven points of diagnosis:
- 95% of the civil service are delivering services; they generally welcome the management changes to date
- senior management is dominated by policy staff with little experience of service delivery
- senior civil servants are ruled by ministerial and parliamentary pressures
- Ministers are overloaded and inexperienced in management
- Departments still focus upon activities and not on results
- there are insufficient pressures to improve performance
- “the Civil Service is too big and diverse to manage as a single entity”.
and recommended that:
- “agencies should be established to carry out the executive functions of government within a policy and resources framework set by a Department”
- “a full Permanent Secretary should be designated a ‘Project manager’ to ensure that the change takes place”
- “there should be clearly defined responsibilities between the Secretary of State and the Permanent Secretary
on the one hand and the Chief Executive of the agency on the other”.
Diana Goldsworthy's Setting Up Next Steps and the House of Commons Report The Accountability Debate: Next Steps Agencies include later perceptive analyses of the background to, and creation of, Executive Agencies.
Sir Geoffrey Holland praises the creation of Agencies, but offers a pretty scathing review of privatisation, market testing and contracting out, at pp 45-46 of his 1995 lecture "Alas! Sir Humphrey, I Knew Him Well".
A broadly supportive review of executive agencies (Better government services: Executive agencies in the 21st century) was published in 2002. As ever, however, it found that the civil service did not value 'delivery'. The report noted that 'Delivery experience is rarely found at the heart of departments. Departments’ leadership structures must be built around the skills and experience of delivery as well as policy in order to plan and manage all aspects of achieving outcomes for customers.' And 'The different skills needed for excellence in policy advice and in service delivery are not yet valued equally. Mutual support is essential and both are integral to achieving outcomes effectively. Departments and agencies must work together to bridge the gulf between policy development and implementation and to fill high-level skills gaps in departments and agencies.'
Labour Criticises the Civil Service
1993 began with Labour Party leader John Smith attacking the civil service, much to the annoyance of the Cabinet Secretary. Here, 20 years later, is a 2022 Civil Service World report, following release of the official papers:
An attack on the civil service by Labour leader John Smith prompted a furious response from then-cabinet secretary Robin Butler, according to newly released papers marked ‘personal and in confidence’ from the Cabinet Office.
Smith made critical remarks about the civil service in a speech on the standards and practice of government, made on 28 January 1993. Just days later, Butler wrote to the prime minister, John Major, to express his anger at the comments made by the Labour leader.
In a letter dated 1 February 1993, he said: “I was dismayed by Mr Smith’s heavily publicised speech on Thursday. It recycled all the conventional criticisms both about ministers and the civil service."
Butler added: “He also threw in the old slur about the revolving door, saying that “increasingly…senior civil servants pass directly from top jobs in Whitehall to top jobs in industries closely connected with their former departments”, although I know of no recent incident which has caused criticisms in this area.”
The cabinet secretary commented: “What is so depressing about this speech is that Mr Smith does not seem to have realised the weight which ought to attach to criticisms of this sort in the mouth of the leader of the opposition.”
He accused the Labour leader of having a “lack of objectivity” in failing to refer to a report on the Labour-controlled Lambeth Council “which, in the words of the chief executive, produced evidence of malpractice ‘unprecedented in the history of local government’.”
Butler added: “I cannot cross swords with Mr Smith publicly, but, if you or the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster [William Waldegrave] have no objection, I propose to write to him privately to express my concern about the effects of such criticisms coming from him and offering to discuss with him the specific criticisms of the civil service."
He told the prime minister “it would be reassuring to the civil service if, at the political level, you could say something publicly to counter Mr Smith's attack. An opportunity in your speech to the Civil Service Club on Thursday.”
The cabinet secretary had drafted a form of words “countering Mr Smith’s attack and asserting your own confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the civil service.”
The letter concluded: "I would be very grateful if my intention of writing a head of the civil service letter to Mr Smith could be treated in confidence."
In a reply sent the next day, Alex Allan, the prime minister’s principal private secretary, said: “He agrees that you should write privately to Mr Smith to express your concerns. And the prime minister will take the opportunity in his speech to the civil service club on Thursday to say something publicly.”
As promised, Major did just that.
He mounted a spirited defence of the civil service which included some of the exact wording that Sir Robin had suggested.
The prime minister said: “I am a very firm believer in the need for a high quality, impartial civil service. And I know from my personal experience that that is what this country has.”
Major took Smith to task over his attack on the civil service and said: “I do regret his comments about the civil service and civil servants, who rightly in my view maintain the principle of not entering the political debate.”
Treasury & Civil Service Committee Report - The Role of the Civil Service
This wide ranging 1993 report examined a number of questions which came up in numerous later studies and reports listed in later notes on this website.
But probably its most important long-term impact came through its discussion of a Civil Service Act and its call for statutory backing to be given to its proposals for ‘strengthening the essential values and standards of the civil service’ (paras 103-117). Its proposals were for a civil service code and a direct line of appeal to the Civil Service Commissioners in cases of alleged breaches of the Code. In its response, the then Conservative Government was cautious about statutory backing but accepted the proposals for a code and direct line of appeal (The Civil Service: Taking Forward Continuity and Change). It was, though, another 15 years before statutory backing was forthcoming,
Here are some interesting extracts from the report which discuss other questions to which later Ministerial and other minds were often drawn
… the Government believed that reductions in Civil Service numbers would be achieved by “the combination of ever greater pressure on running costs with a greater capacity for front line managers to actually come up with innovative solutions”.
Mr Waldegrave considered the Citizen's Charter, with its focus on establishing clear service standards, measurable outputs and better relationships between services and their users, as central to the Government’s programme of public service reform." It signalled a high level political commitment to quality and value for money in public services and reinforced the position of those seeking to promote innovation in public services.
Entrepreneurship, Risk & Failure
Sir Kenneth Stowe. … emphasised that the administrative character of much of the Civil Service’s work and the requirement for rigid adherence to integrity limited the scope for energy, innovation and an “entrepreneurial” approach.' There is clearly a balance which needs to be struck in this matter. The original Next Steps Report observed that “the culture of the Civil Service puts a premium on a safe pair of hands, not on enterprise. It does not reward the person who says I have saved money. It does not penalise the person who ignores the opportunity to get better value”.
Sir Derek (now Lord) Rayner told the Expenditure Committee “Efficiency in the Civil Service is dependent, as in business, on motivation, and whereas in business one is judged by overall success, in my experience the civil servant tends to be judged by failure”. … [but] …Professor Eric Caines argued that “Nobody is sacked for making mistakes, the deal being that if Ministers are to protect Chief Executives, they for their part must shield Ministers”. He alleged that a compact of sorts has been struck between Ministers and Chief Executives which ensures that neither of them assumes the ultimate risk”. A Chief Executive was required to accept limited freedom and the need to keep Ministers out of political trouble in return for job security.
Sir John Bourn, the Comptroller and Auditor General, … noted that risks were inherent in a major programme of change, particularly one which involved new responsibilities tor many more people and organisations in the public sector.' … [and] … a common feature of many of the failings detected by the National Audit Office and highlighted by the Committee of Public Accounts was the involvement of senior staff brought in from outside the public service, unaccustomed to the standards required m the public service and the audit procedures associated with them, and not imbued with its ethos.”
Fixed Term Contracts
Sir Robin Butler believed that fixed-term contracts were likely to discourage frank advice and created a risk of politicisation.' Mr Waldegrave also believed that fixed-term contracts with “a cliff edge" would change the balance between Ministers and civil servants and might discourage robust arguments. The Efficiency Unit Study noted that fixed-term contracts were not common in the private sector, where “employment contracts are designed to tie the individual to the organisation and give a sense of security, rather than to distance them and make them feel that their employment status is always under review’’
Career Management and Succession Planning Study: The Oughton Report
This influential 1993 Efficiency Unit report led to significant improvements in the career management of senior officials whilst challenging some Ministers' prejudices - for instance that it would be good to recruit much more from the private sector: 'The clear evidence of the private sector is that developing staff from within is right in most cases; recruiting from outside necessarily involves higher risk as well as expense'.
It also challenged Permanent Secretary's preference for promoting those officials who had done lots of different jobs rather than those who had built a more focussed career: 'In appraisal more emphasis must be placed on proven achievement, rather than on the range of posts held. Over 60 per cent of the Senior Open Structure have been in their current posts for 2 years or less.'
Comment: Over 20 years on, there is little sign that these two of Oughton's criticisms had been taken seriously. There is still considerable Ministerial pressure to recruit from outside the civil service, whilst the 'four year rule' ensures that most senior officials move far too frequently.
Ministers and Mandarins
This influential 1994 IPPR report, written by William Plowden, was published half way through John Major's steadily weakening premiership. Addressed, in effect, to an incoming Labour government (which arrived in 1997) Plowden reported that 'the civil service as a whole [was] in a state of crisis unprecedented in its history ... the government ... does not regard them as indispensable ... A significant number of senior officials feel that their professional skills are being ignored or abused.'
Plowden noted that the Oughton Report (see above) could be the springboard for many worthwhile changes including recruitment from outside the SCS to counter 'the slow disappearance, without replacement, of the gifted outsiders brought in during the war'. To guard against this damaging the essential apolitical professionalism of the civil service, he also recommended the introduction of a statutory 'code of behaviour' - and the Civil Service Code was indeed promulgated in Continuity and Change - see below - and introduced in 1996.
Key extracts from the report are here.
Continuity and Change
- the delegation of further management flexibility and freedoms, including delegation of pay and grading decisions, to individual departments
- the establishment of the Senior Civil Service, and greater use of recruitment from outside the civil service ('open recruiting') and more flexible remuneration arrangements at senior levels.
- the promulgation of the Civil Service Code, and
- an enhanced role for the Civil Service Commissioners in recruitment and selection on merit.
Cut The Red Tape
This was a Trade and Industry Department initiative, mentioned here because it was fairly typical of efforts at the time to cut paperwork and bureaucracy. A summary of the officials' report, and the subsequent department wide instructions, are here. It was in my view a great shame that ci (copy for information) and ca (copy for action) failed to become established as an improvement on cc copy lists.
Policy Disasters: Explaining the UK’s Record
The theme of Patrick Dunleavy’s 1995 paper was that the UK was a state unusually prone to make large-scale, avoidable policy mistakes which he defines as mistakes made when decision-makers systematically choose to ignore an abundance of critical or warning voices in order to persevere with their chosen policy. Contributory factors include (emphasis added):
- Weak regional government and highly centralised social security and health systems.
- Weak parliamentary scrutiny of legislation.
- Political hyperactivism – when politicians individually and collectively gain ‘points’ from making new initiatives almost for their own sakes.
- Whitehall arrogance, including serious weaknesses in the senior civil service.
- Ineffective checks and balances within the executive which allow mistakes to be made and encourage groupthink.
Sir Geoffrey Holland's lecture "Alas! Sir Humphrey, I Knew Him Well" is a good entertaining read and a useful review of many issues that faced government and the civil service in 1995.
The Institute for Government's 2012 report Reforming the Civil Service provides an excellent description and review of the work of the Efficiency Unit in the early 1980s, and of the Next Steps Report.
And do read Note 2 in this series to see what happened after 1997.