Should Civil Servants be More Widely Accountable?

The classic constitutional position is that (other than when spending public money) civil servants are accountable only to Ministers who are in turn accountable to Parliament and the media. But it seems strange that officials are thus sheltered from Parliamentary and other external criticism for their role in major failures such as those listed here. Should it not be possible for those harmed by such failures to tell whether:

Dan Hodges, for instance, was not the only one to suggest that officials should share some of the blame for the 2018 Windrush crisis which brought down Home Secretary Amber Rudd:

I'm bored of this, "Ministers can't hide behind civil servants" line. If civil servants screw up, they should carry the can as well. Some of them are becoming like underperforming footballers who say "Who cares. They won't sack me, they'll sack the manage.

There is unfortunately significant Ministerial and Parliamentary opposition to having officials share blame with Ministers, for two main reasons.

  • First, Ministers don't want to publish their communications with officials. They would be happy to do so when the advice was poor, for they might be excused for following it. But they wouldn't want to publish advice which was correct - but which they ignored. So they can't or won't publish anything, and so blame cannot be allocated.
  • Second, the above reasoning suits the Opposition just as much, because they can blame Ministers for everything that goes wrong, and so gain political advantage. And they know that they may be in power one day ...

Anonymity suits senior civil servants, too, when blame is being thrown around - especially as there are no senior civil service jobs outside the Senior Civil Service. Private sector execs can generally rebuild their careers elsewhere. Civil servants cannot.

So can anything be done? Here are three possible positive developments.

Senior Responsible Officers

I had hoped that the 2013 introduction of SROs would help. SROs were supposed to be personally accountable, including to Parliament, for the delivery of major projects such as the National Cyber Security Programme.  I had naively thought that newly appointed SROs might have been concerned to ensure – before accepting their appointment – that their project was properly resourced and had sensible timescales and objectives.  This would reduce the chances of their having to account to their Permanent Secretary and Parliament when things went wrong. And it would ensure that a senior official – the SRO – was forced to challenge Ministers if a major project were being established without proper resources etc.

 In practice, however, little changed. SRO appointment letters were no more than that. They specified neither the programme's objectives nor its resources or timescales, and I am not aware that any Parliamentary Committee has criticised an SRO or his/her department for accepting such an appointment.

Even worse, most departments appear to have decided to appoint very senior staff as part-time SROs, rather than nominate SROs who were truly responsible for key projects. The SRO for the National Cyber Security Programme was accordingly told that he would need to devote only two days a month to the role:-

“I am writing ... to confirm your appointment as Senior Responsible Owner (SRO) of the National Cyber Security Programme ... This will be a part time role which requires two days per month. As SRO you have personal responsibility for delivery of National Cyber Security Programme and will be held accountable for the delivery of its objectives and policy intent; ..."

So there appears to be little prospect, at the moment, that the appointment of SROs will lead to officials speaking rather more truth to power, nor being held to account for appraisal optimism when projects fail.

Parliamentary Committees

A second improvement might result from a change in behaviour of House of Commons Select Committees.  They mostly do good work by calling for evidence and analysing issues very thoroughly.  But they can too often appear to be much more interested in seeking political advantage than in learning useful lessons. Civil servants who appear before Select Committees (other than the Public Accounts Committee) do so under instruction from Ministers, and are accordingly cautious and defensive, particularly - and most seriously - when drafting departmental evidence and responses to committee reports. 

Even the Public Accounts Committee (the PAC) seldom attempts to exert real influence over the way the government machine is managed.  I have yet to hear of any Accounting Officer whose primary aim, when dealing with the PAC, is other than to avoid censure.  Most of them start by assuming (correctly) that they probably won’t learn anything from their interaction with the PAC, and they certainly don’t feel that the purpose of the exercise is to improve or learn in any way. Worse still, many very good PAC reports have little or no impact.  There is no follow up.  The reports seldom if ever feature in civil service training programmes – although videos of embarrassed Accounting Officers certainly do, thus perpetuating their defensiveness.  Apart from this, everyone involved in a report just shrugs and moves on to the next issue.

Procedural Directions

Another development was that the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee considered a proposal from the Better Government Initiative in the light of Chilcot’s criticisms of Blair government decision-making before the Iraq War. The suggestion was that

1.  Prime Ministers should continue to be asked to consider, after appointment and after each election, how they propose to make important and sensitive policy decisions, including the way in which they expect to work with Cabinet colleagues, share legal advice, and the like. Their decisions should continue be recorded in an updated Cabinet Manual.

2.  However, unlike now, Ministers would know that they would be held to account if they were to deviate from the processes laid out in the Manual. 

3.  This accountability would be ensured by having the Cabinet Secretary and/or individual Permanent Secretaries seek a ‘Procedural Direction’ when asked to support Ministers operating outside the terms of the Cabinet Manual. 

        • One example, had this mechanism already existed, might have been Tony Blair’s failure to circulate pre-Iraq War legal advice to Cabinet colleagues.
        • Another might have been that the instruction not to undertake contingency planning for a “leave” vote in advance of the Brexit referendum might have been challenged.

4.  Unlike the already well established Financial Directions, Procedural Directions might be kept quiet until the need for secrecy  had passed, but the responsible Ministers would know that they would one day be held to account for their decision.

The Constitution Society supported the proposal and suggested that a revised and extended version of the Cabinet Manual should be subject to Parliamentary approval.

The Government's responses were disappointing.

  • Rather depressingly, since the proposal was clearly directed only at departures from established procedures, not the merits of a policy, the initial response completely misrepresented it as being “for a formal Ministerial direction to be given, if Ministers decided to go ahead with a policy against the advice of officials”. Having set up this misrepresentation HMG then (quite rightly) rejected its own foolish proposal.
  • The second response wasn't much better. The rejection of the case for a procedural direction was based on a distinction between accounting officers’ direct responsibility to Parliament and permanent secretaries’ responsibility to ministers and the prime minister for the conduct of departmental business. But this was a false distinction since permanent secretaries have a duty to Parliament as accounting officers for the efficient conduct of their departments.  

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Martin Stanley


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