Civil Service Reform 19

This note summarises developments from September 2018. Earlier notes in this series are listed here.

The Bluffocracy?

Entertaining and thought-provoking, the publication of Bluffocracy by James Ball and Andrew Greenway provoked a good deal of discussion. Their targets included pretty much the whole of the 'Westminster Village' including politicians, senior civil servants and political journalists. The following extracts give a feel for their thesis, insofar as it applied to the civil service.

  • By design, the top of the civil service has always been home to many people who are superb servants, but many of them can't lead or manage their way out of a paper bag. This leads to risibly under-qualified people being put in charge of some of the country's biggest and most complicated organisations.
  • The lack of delivery is no accident. Delivery makes you stand out. Most civil servants don't like standing out.
  • ... promotion would generally come as a result of hopping from policy area to policy area ... very often people don't see [and hence don't learn from] the damaging consequences or the benefits of what they did.
  • Nor is this an accident:. High level dilettantism is government policy ... in May 2018 [a] Minister for the Cabinet Office enthusiastically confirmed that he wanted Permanent Secretaries to be hired for their leadership skills, not their subject knowledge.
  • Soft skills have value, as do rhetoric and quick analysis. We are not saying that every ... bluffer ... in public life would vanish from the scene. What we are saying is that this is a question of balance, and ... the balance has shifted far too much in the favour of the generalist and against the specialist. Bluffers have a lot to offer. They should be part of the team. They shouldn't be the whole team.

The Institute for Government then arranged a mainly sympathetic discussion of Bluffocracy at which the following points were made, amongst many others:

  • Specialists have told IfG that they can only get things done with the help of generalists.
  • People with experience in policy making have useful experience of working with Ministers and across government.
  • Experts who get a positive hearing from politicians are tactical in the way they present the information.

Other commentators noted that the civil service was in part itself responsible for allowing non-professional staff to be misrepresented as amateurs by labelling them as “generalists”. Administrative civil servants in practice developed a bundle of related skills in the course of their career which amounted to a highly developed specialism, though not labelled as such-: for example the ability to translate Ministers’ initial ideas into legislation.

Ministerial/Civil Service relations and the changing policy style

The consultation page of my Understanding Policy Making website notes increasing concern that the UK government's late-1900s consensual and deliberative policy style has been replaced by a much more impositional style. These developments have in turn affected the balance of power between senior officials and Minsters. Jeremy Richardson commented that this has in turn led to ...

... important changes within government departments, namely a change in the balance of power between senior civil servants on the one hand, and Ministers and their personal partisan staff (Ministerial advisers) on the other. The trend to increase the amount of external advice has produced a situation where many  ministers (and their external advisers, both official and informal) arrive in office with a more ideational policy portfolio in that they have their own strong priorities on what policy change is needed. There has been a shift from civil servants warning ministers and keeping them out of trouble, reflecting the traditional risk aversion normally attributed to the British civil service, towards ‘carriers’ of ministerial ideas, willing to try to implement policies even when lacking broad policy community support.

The changing relationship between ministers and civil servants has important effects on policy style because civil servants are now less able to strike a consensus with interest groups, as the civil servants often arrive at the table to decisions already made, rather than to engage in a process of mutual learning and exchange in order to generate policy solutions. The zone for negotiation is often much smaller than hitherto, and this fundamentally changes the nature of the interaction between civil servants and groups, and hence the policy style itself.

However, the fact that the more hierarchical or impositional policy style has made possible a lot of policy change does not mean that it has actually increased the policy system’s capacity to solve policy problems effectively. There are big risks inherent in the new policy style under which consultation is much more constrained.

Which leads naturally enough to concern about HMG's handling of ...


2018 and early 2019 saw occasional criticism of the civil service in general, and lead official negotiator Olly Robbins in particular, as the negotiations between the EU and the UK (and within the hopelessly split Conservative Party) became increasingly fraught through 2018. Sir Richard Dearlove and others wrote to The Times saying, amongst other things, that:

The civil service is not what it was ... diminished by 'merry go round' mandarin appointments that have undermined departmental loyalty and expertise. It has a more partisan senior leadership. Robbins is the product of this recent culture. A return towards the status quo ante might in time restore civil service confidence and confidence in the civil service.

Various previous Cabinet Minsters and Secretaries cried foul. Previous Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, for instance, wrote as follows to The Times:

Sir, The ardent Brexiteer Sir Richard Dearlove and his colleagues, and the equally ardent Remainer, Lord Adonis, all need to be very careful what they wish for in their criticism of civil servants who have the duty to carry through Brexit (letters, Oct 17). The Frenchman Pascal Lamy, the former head of the WTO, said at the weekend that he had worked with roughly 100 national civil services and the “most independent, objective, loyal civil service on this planet is in the UK”. He is absolutely right. Thirteen years as a cabinet minister, and three working for two cabinet ministers, taught me that politicians who complained about the civil service were the ones who found decision-making too hard. If we manage to get through Brexit with not too much damage it will be the civil service we should be thanking. And if we don’t, it will not be the civil service who will have been at fault.

Sir Amyas Morse' Valedictory Interview

The Times reported as follows in early 2019:

In an attack on the political culture in Whitehall, Sir Amyas Morse criticised ministers for raising public expectations and then failing to accept when things went wrong. … The head of the National Audit Office’s comments … reflect a concern that the balance of power between ministers and senior civil servants has shifted, with officials increasingly unable to challenge bad decisions. This meant that ultimately more public money would be wasted on ambitious projects that would never be finished on time and within budget.

“I still don’t think we’ve sorted out the question of the interaction between the political agenda and delivering good results and value for money,” Sir Amyas said. “There’s pressure to do things too quickly or to announce very high-profile world-beating projects. “Allowing ministers to have a say in the appointment of senior officials has led to a position where ministers have a great deal of power over their civil servants. That’s unfortunate. They’re intelligent people. They understand that the consequences of disagreeing with a minister are likely to be pretty ugly.” Sir Amyas said there was a reluctance to accept that failures undermined trust in politics to achieve the things that people cared about."

He said that, in news coverage of critical NAO reports, the government would respond without acknowledging the problems but with positive spin. “Government should have a go at being frank,” he said. “I think the danger of being remorselessly positive is that people know life isn’t like that. People get more and more cynical about the spin. Raised expectations, broken promises and a culture of secrecy are eroding public confidence in government. That creates a vacuum that can be filled by misinformation.”

Martin Stanley

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