In defence of the civil service

The civil service is one of the easiest of institutions to attack if you are a politician – simply because those who work for it cannot answer back publicly. David Cameron’s comments about civil servants being enemies of enterprise went down like an iron brick – especially in those areas where people were (& still are) giving up their free time & money to drive enterprise in the public sector. The TUC White Paper on The Case for Public Service sets this out.

“The TUC also objects to the tone of language applied to public servants in the White Paper and by Ministers elsewhere. The use of caricatures of ‘bureaucrats’ and ‘enemies of enterprise’ fails to recognise the dedication, hard work and expertise that exist within the public service workforce and the added value those workers create.

From nurses to climate scientists, there is a wealth of specialism and knowledge across the public sector that is a public asset that should be highly valued and regarded with respect. The depiction of adversarial relationships between service users and public sector professionals is misleading and unhelpful.”

Having attended UKGovCamp in January 2011 (thanks to a tip off from Sarah Baskerville) I was astonished to find a hidden hive of innovation and innovators inside the civil service as well as a group of like-minded people on the same wavelength as me, that I had never previously found. This opened up further horizons via the OpenTech gathering in May later that year.

Defending the civil service as an institution does not mean keeping things as they are – whether it be the size or functions of. The principle of a party-politically impartial civil service is an important one – if anything to ensure that the country carries on functioning when party politics is on hold. (For example during general election campaigns or, as is more recent, coalition negotiations). Even the most pro ‘small government’ types on the whole will acknowledge the need for a public sector to ensure a functioning external defence and the functioning of law and order services. Someone’s got to purchase the arms which our armed services use, someone’s got to process all the paperwork for those court cases and someone’s got to run the minister’s diary in a manner that ensures ministerial time cannot be bought for by the highest bidder.

On the issue of ‘advice to ministers’ there is the issue of impartial advice based on evidence (as opposed to partial advice as a result of lobbying). This is especially important in the field of quasi-judicial decisions such as large infrastructure projects (such as HS2) to decisions such as the one Jeremy Hunt was due to rule on regarding News International’s proposed takeover of BSkyB. Part of the training that civil servants working in policy areas go through is on the consideration of complex issues where there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ decision, but whether you can formulate a recommendation and justify it as objectively as you can based on the information and arguments made available to you.

One of the things a then minister in the last administration said to me in a conversation about ministerial briefings & submissions, ministers like to know what their options are and like to be given a range of choices – with recommendations and the potential consequences of each choice. That way, they can make reasonably informed decisions that they can then justify and account for at the dispatch box or in front of a select committee. Any party-political issues are for ministers and their political advisers to deal with – civil servants do not (or certainly should not) get involved in those discussions.

On issues where ministers may have to make a quasi-judicial decision – such as on planning or transport, MPs often ask ministers to comment on planning applications that are happening in their constituencies – only to be told (quite correctly) by ministers that the latter cannot comment on individual applications lest that application lands in front of said minister to make a decision on. This was one of the criticisms of Jeremy Hunt when the role of ruling on the proposed BSkyB takeover by Murdoch – the former had already gone on record commenting positively on the latter (just as Vince Cable had commented negatively) – with the risk of potential judicial review proceedings being raised irrespective of which way he may have ruled.

When it comes to holding ministers to account, three of the most important questions MPs (and members of the public) can and should ask regarding ministerial decisions are:

  1. What criteria did the minister use to assess the case in question?
  2. How did the minister’s decision meet the criteria set out in 1?
  3. Can the minister provide evidence to justify how the decision met that criteria? (Which is basically an FoI request to all intents and purposes)

Far better, I think, to have a group of politically impartial civil servants receiving, analysing and summarising representations made on issues ministers have to make decisions on than party political advisers who may have an incentive to one stakeholder or another (e.g. party donors, friendly pressure groups etc) to get involved with that work. Also, far better (I think) to have some sort of continuity of expertise in a policy area that can cope with the inevitable political churn. I’m not a big fan of regular high-level reshuffles.

It takes several months for a minister (and their political & special advisers) to get up to speed in their new portfolio and with those who work with them. Regular changes of ministers – and senior civil servants too – can be incredibly disrupting for a policy/policy area. It’s not fun having to speak to a public audience about a policy area that you’ve only just taken responsibility for. In fact it is frightening. It can also cause problems for those organisations and institutions who inevitably have to be in regular contact with departments – such as independent professional regulatory bodies that are responsible for maintaining and regulating professionals and standards within their industries. (Such as the various chartered institutes). Ministers kick sand in the faces of those that work for them at their peril. Disciplinary due process is one thing, but anonymous briefing to the media against people who constitutionally cannot answer back publicly is quite another. Not only is it bad people management, it alienates the very people who are charged with delivering your policies – putting the achievement of the policy objectives in jeopardy. Peter Oborne goes into this in far greater detail in The Telegraph.

When the civil service needs a kicking I can give it with both feet if necessary – but sparingly. What’s been going on at HMRC in recent years speaks for itself – as to the problems of defence procurement and public sector IT projects. Yet these failures I think are an argument for more transparency in how the public sector functions rather than an argument for the wholesale privatisation of it. Most recently I gave Job Centre Plus a piece of my mind in my blog post Today at the Job Centre. But what I try to do when I throw criticisms around in the field of public administration is to suggest possible solutions and improvements. I did the same in my comments about CreativeFront’s Culture Hack Day in Cambridge this week.

In terms of improving things in the civil service, my personal view is that public servants who are on six figure salaries – in particular those who are decision-makers in large public sector organisations with big budgets, should have higher public profiles. The Coalition has tried to address this by forcing departments to publish departmental organograms (Search “organogram” at data.gov.uk) to show which civil servants are responsible for which functions. However, this does not deal with the issue of regular public scrutiny.

The issue of regular public scrutiny is linked to the issue of select committees – which I pay particular interest in because the level of scrutiny can be forensic. (This is because rather than the ‘one question and then you’re out’ style of departmental questions in the Commons, MPs can follow through lines of questioning – which ‘hostile’ witnesses find incredibly uncomfortable, as Anthony Inglese of HMRC found to his cost. Part of me thinks that there is a role for the chief executives of executive agencies to appear either alongside ministers at monthly departmental questions, or at separate regularly scheduled ‘Westminster Hall’ debates that any MP can attend (rather than the current limited system of cross-examination only by those MPs on the select committee that has the remit of scrutinising that agency).

There is a separate ‘party political’ debate to be had as to what the functions of both the civil service and the wider public sector should be – in particular regarding service delivery. The civil service isn’t the most perfect institution in the world. If it was, I probably wouldn’t have left it. The civil service needs to improve, but it also needs people to stand up for it at a time when few others will.

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