The World has changed a lot over the last few decades, and Whitehall has changed with it. 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website notes increasing concern that the UK government's late-1900s consensual and deliberative policy style has been replaced by a much more impositional style.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 arguably meant that it is now more difficult for Ministers to accept advice from senior civil servants. Several commentators have gone so far as to accuse the modern Senior Civil Service of acting more like courtiers - compared with their predecessors at least.
The Times reported, in early 2019, that the retiring head of the National Audit Office , Sir Amyas Morse, was concerned that the balance of power between ministers and senior civil servants had 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.”
Here are what some senior officials and others have said to me:-
In wider society:-
- Public and media have become much less deferential over several generations. This a good thing but Ministers have responded by requiring Whitehall to become much more defensive, less open to considered criticism, and less willing to consider options before reaching policy conclusions.
- Freedom of Information has accordingly become seen as a threat instead of a codification of what should be done naturally.
- The media – including social media – are now so massive that government has to put a lot more effort into communications activity – but, even so, we all know that a lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is still getting its boots on. Government pronouncements are therefore often rushed, and lack subtlety and accuracy.
- Globalisation, immigration and membership of the EU also mean that the government’s audience is much more varied than in the past. This exposure to other cultures has many advantages but poses problems for the government’s communications teams.
- And there is some evidence that society is becoming more polarised, which can lead to ignorance & cognitive dissonance on both sides of the arguments.
- Prosperity has generated a number of ‘wicked policy issues’ as we have more to spend on food, drugs and alcohol – and on mobile phones and other consumer goods that are so tempting for the criminally minded.
- Ministers don't understand implications of the cuts in staff numbers that they order. The resultant loss of experience will mean that they will not have Civil Service support when they need it, nor of the experience/quality that they need.
- Senior officials in particular are now over-stretched, and have little time for getting out and understanding the policy areas and sectors within which they work.
- Civil servants have learned that there is little point in challenging major decisions, however, short-sighted. They instead focus on controlling the (devil in) the detail.
- The market-based approach to appointments led to greater turbulence and less depth of knowledge.
- HMG in many areas no longer acts as a supplier; it instead buys services from and for others. But its procurement and negotiations skills are still pretty weak, and its lawyers are too often out-gunned by their expensive heavyweight private sector opponents.
- ‘Fast stream’ recruits no longer have a career anchor/home department – they are all nominally employed by HMRC - and their 6 month appointments, rotating around departments, mean they can't gain a deep understanding of any one department’s issues, nor gain experience in a Minister’s Private Office.
- Senior officials are seen as too keen to suck up to Ministers. Even the Head of the Civil Service & Cabinet Secretary now sends out tweets drawing attention to ‘good news’ such as low unemployment rates, “tough new measures to tackle tax avoidance, evasion and non-compliance” and the “historic visit of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to UK which secures $100bn of long term mutual investment, drawing on UK world leading expertise in health, education, finance.” If there is any bad news, it doesn’t feature in his Twitter feed!
It may seem over sensitive to draw attention to such tweets, or to this one. The Minister - Matt Hancock - was, after all, talking about building a better government machine and could reasonably expect officials to welcome it. But what if his speech had included plans which the Cabinet Secretary had opposed? Would Sir Jeremy have declined to issue supportive comment, and would the absence of such comment draw attention to the rift between Minister and officials? It would be better, I think, to issue factual press releases summarising what Ministers are aiming to achieve, rather than expect senior officials to praise every Ministerial pronouncement or - even worse - just some of them.
Maybe some of the above criticisms are over-blown, but they are echoed by academic commentators:-
Professor Jeremy Richardson makes these points:
- There have been 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 Special Advisers on the other.
- Many ministers (and their external advisers, both official and informal) arrive in office with a thorough knowledge of their policy portfolio and their own strong priorities on what policy change is needed. This has led to a shift from civil servants warning ministers and keeping them out of trouble, reflecting the traditional risk aversion normally attributed to British government, towards ‘carriers’ of ministerial ideas, willing to try to implement policies even when lacking broad policy community support.
- There are big risks inherent in the new policy style under which consultation is much more constrained.
- Professor Richardson quotes David Halpern (Head of Number 10’s Behavioural Insights Team) as describing life behind the shiny black door of Number 10 as akin to a hospital Accident & Emergency Department:- ‘in such a world, there’s often not the time, nor the patience, for the answer to be “more research needed”’ There is more than a hint here of a ‘pop-up’ style of policymaking where chaps (mostly!) with seemingly clever policy ideas get to implement them without the need to consider the views of, or seek the support of, the affected interests.
And here are some extracts from Professor Anthony King’s Who Governs Britain?
- Ministers now] believe … that if they are to impress … they must constantly be seen to be taking initiatives [and] if change is desirable … then it is desirable now not at some unspecified time in the future ... Post-Thatcher ministers are characterised by their impatience. [They] have no incentive at all to think about the longer term future.
- The traditional British civil service … was dynamic. Generations of senior civil servants regarded it as part of their mission … to promote causes.
- [The post-Thatcher] change of role meant a corresponding change in the role and mind-set of officials. From now on, officials were to be civil servants in reality, at their master’s beck and call, eager to do their master’s bidding. … By the time New Labour came to power in 1997, there were few if any of the old style mandarins still in place.
- Many ministers, with much expected of them and suspicious of their officials, turned for help and advice to … special advisers … and … think tanks.
- More than two decades after the fall of Margaret Thatcher, the vast majority of officials, including the most senior, give the impression of having settled into their new, more subordinate role. … … “We wanted”, one of them said, “to avoid a Sir Humphrey image. We became afraid to say “No, Minister”. [Another said …] “Can-do man was in and wait-a-minute man was out.
- … officials, once the embodiments of departmental continuity, are now at least as transient as their political masters and therefore at least as liable not to have a very firm grasp of what they are doing.
- [A cabinet minister complained] that his own department’s collective memory was so short … that “… people deal only with the instant they are living in, rather than drawing on any kind of history or knowledge of the detail and background to a particular issue.”
Professor Kakabadse says that:
- [Senior] civil servants admit to misunderstandings, misjudgements, feeling inhibited to speak up and, in certain circumstances and with particular Secretaries of State, not knowing how to speak truth to power.
- Even middle-ranking and more junior civil servants described feeling defensive and reluctant to offer opinion, fearing reprimand or being viewed in a negative light.