The politicisation of the civil service


Why this is an issue – on the back of some … ‘controversial’ tweets from @DWPPressOffice

Until the age of about 20, I had no idea the civil service existed. While I followed politics more closely than most people, I never really gave things much thought in terms of what happened when administrations changed. In the grand scheme of things, I assume that the same is true for many people.

Politicisation of civil servants – a very brief history

The politicisation of the civil service has been an issue for the past few decades – whether one thinks about the role of Bernard Ingham as Thatcher’s press secretary to that of Alistair Campbell and his actions during Tony Blair’s years. The purpose of this blog is not to look in detail about the generic issue over history, but to zoom in on a number of issues raised about the relationship between civil servants, ministers and political appointees in the world of social media.

I was still in the civil service when John Denham, former Communities and Local Government Secretary stung his former department, extracting a formal public apology from the then Acting Permanent Secretary Irene Lucas, due to overtly-political press releases. Denham had the advantage of having worked with members of that press office – and with Irene Lucas (who left the civil service shortly after Bob Kerslake’s appointment as Permanent Secretary). Although the apology came from Ms Lucas, his criticism was aimed at ministers. If civil servants weren’t behaving in that manner under him (Denham), why would they behave in such a manner now? – he asked.

The thing is, most people are not aware of the nuances between a departmental press release coming from civil servants, and a party-political press release coming from politicians. To most people, the party that’s in government morphs into one and the same. Hence my desire to do something about helping educate people on how large public institutions in this country function. (Of which this blog forms a part).

The Civil Service Code

Civil servants are under a series of restrictions on what political things they can and cannot do. I used to be in a politically-restricted post – Fast Stream postings are politically restricted – see also the Civil Service Management Code para 4.4.9. With good reason. If you were a minister, would you want your press officers and senior policy advisers in the civil service actively campaigning for the opposition at the same time? Could you trust them? Hence all of the issues around the NHS risk register. When developing policy, ministers will want to make informed decisions – including all of the risks associated with them. They’ll want to know what the impact of the risk materialising is likely to be, the likelihood of the risk materialising, the steps being taken to reduce both, and the ‘residual risk’ – impact and likelihood after those steps have been taken. Now you can see why many opponents of the NHS Bill want the risk register associated with it to be released – and why ministers & civil servants are fighting tooth and nail to keep it under wraps. Documents such as this being leaked can be political dynamite for both ministers and their policies.

So what makes a departmental press release party political? My take is that it’s anything that involves going after political opponents. It’s the minister’s prerogative to do the political stuff in the Commons/Lords and in outside speeches. It’s not the prerogative of civil servants to help them do it. Civil servants in general should not be doing detailed research into the policies of opposition parties. I recall in the run-up to one of Alistair Darling’s budgets that opposition politicians complained that the Government was directing civil servants to do number-crunching on the opposition’s policies – a major no-no. (I’ve not been able to find a link to this though). It’s one thing to do the number-crunching to support the Government’s policies, it’s another thing to do number-crunching to undermine the opposition’s. That’s the role for party machines, not for civil servants. Otherwise you run the risk of co-opting a civil service machine of thousands of policy-makers becoming an arm of the incumbent party in government.

In terms of who upholds the Civil Service Code (& the more detailed Civil Service Management Code), that’s the job of the Civil Service Commissioners – who have guidance here. If you’re a civil servant with concerns, follow that guidance. If as a citizen you are concerned with a specific example, you need to contact your MP and ask them to write to the Permanent Secretary of the department concerned.

DWP in hot water.

I’ve mentioned in a previous post of the virtual car-crash nature of the Government’s welfare reform policies as far as social media is concerned. Essentially what campaigners have realised is that firms with a large public-facing element (especially retail firms) are far less resilient to protests than ministers and their advisers first thought. A combination of social media firestorms alongside the mainstream media coverage of the firestorms has had a number of firms retreating or ‘clarifying’ what their relationships should be with the DWP and Job Centre Plus on the various Work Programme schemes.

The thing is, social media users are catching them out left, right and centre. One example includes the alleged editing of documents which some accuse the DWP of trying to rewrite history – this one put together by @LatentExistence. This for me is a classic case of the knowledge of the network and the hive being far greater than that of the hierarchical organisation – observations I first stumbled across in a coherent manner by Paul Mason. Again, I refer back to the slides at the end of my post about UKGovCamp. Any attempts to try and ‘manipulate’ the historical record is likely to get into hot water – especially on something as controversial as this policy. Press offices and policy teams simply do not have the knowledge, resources or, to put it harshly the competency try and cover stuff up like this in social media world. They are hard-pushed enough as it is trying to ensure that the policy is sound, rather than taking on the fun and games of the dark arts of spin.

Another example includes the questionable tweets being put out by DWP’s Press Officewhich has been Storified here by @EvidenceMatters. As you can see, through Puffles I went after DWP over this. It is not the business of the DWP to be going after their opponents. That’s the business of the Conservative Party and/or the Liberal Democrats and their party political functions. It’s the responsibility of the Met Police to deal with protests if there is anything that could be affecting people’s ability to get to the shops or not. It’s not for the DWP to get involved. It’s way outside of their department’s remit and competency. The department of state closes to having competency is the Home Office – as Puffles tweeted. Even then, there is a longstanding convention of the police having operational independence – the Home Secretary does not get involved in operational matters – for which protests against shops in Oxford Street (or anywhere else) would fall under.

Basically DWP have screwed up here. In the grand scheme of things I tend to view stuff like this as screw-ups rather than conspiracies. The reason being that most conspiracy theories make one key error in their assumptions: They assume the competency of too many people.

Departments are still learning what is and what isn’t acceptable in social media. Many – including my last department are taking a very cautious line – understandably so. DWP has a Twitter policy. It’s one thing quoting a minister calling something “misguided” in a tweet. It’s quite another for a civil service press office to do so in their own words. This is because it’s going beyond the remit of being purely defensive of government policy and going on the offensive against political opponents. Again, that’s the role of party political press offices.

All of this reminds everyone of the importance of Cabinet Office’s drafting of new social media guidance. To get an idea of why it is important that Cabinet Office and the wider civil service gets this right, have a read in full of “We the web kids” – which gives an idea of how the first generation that has grown up with the internet. It speaks volumes as to why generations more used to pre-internet ways of working are struggling to cope with the demands emerging from social media world.


6 thoughts on “The politicisation of the civil service

  1. Thank you for this. As an ex-Civil Servant I read this with real interest – it reflects some of my experience, although the problem in my Department was less the question of overt bias than of selectivity in releasing information – and, it must be said, what I and others regarded as the over-use of the FOI exemption for policy advice to cover documents like risk registers that were clearly intended to inform the wider policy-making process through things like consultations but which produced ambiguous and uneasy results. I have certainly seen very senior Civil Servants thrown into a state of some panic by a dispassionate attempt to produce an economic case for infrastructure investments.

    Three thoughts come to mind:

    First, one way in which policy-making has become more politicised is through the active intervention of Special Advisers. In my old Department all significant policy advice was discussed with SPADS before it went to Ministers – this could be a useful process in presenting advice but, far too often, the SPADS tended to operate a veto over what could be presented to Ministers. As the competence of policy officials was almost always greater than that of SPADS – many of whom had no background in the policy area they were discussing, this was potentially very dangerous. The Civil Service Code requires Civil Servants without fear or favour; when SPADS act as a policy filter that cannot happen. My own belief – radical and more than enough to drive most Permanent Secretaries and Press Offices into frenzied panic – is that all policy advice to Ministers should be routinely published. I think we have to have a transparent policy process.

    Second, the role of consultants. When the Coalition came to power there was in theory a cull of consultants – in practise (in my Department anyway) they were so deeply ingrained in the system that they remained in place, if less visible and fewer in number. With Whitehall losing a huge number of experienced Civil Servants in the last few months, I’d guess they’ve strengthened their hold. Consultants are not impartial – every Civil Servant who has sought to manage consultants knows that they need really strict management to stick to their brief, and they readily bring the assumptions of the private sector with them – which is useful in some respects but in others is very damaging (consultants often find it hard, for example, to deal with the concept of political consultation). Civil Servants tend to be focussed on the job in hand – consultants are always looking to the next contract. However good their advice, it needs to be carefully managed. On the subject of the NHS Risk Register, I do wonder how much of a hand the Civil Service has had in preparing it; reports from the Department of Health do suggest that the policy process has been managed by consultants and kept away from the civil service. Something similar happened in relation to railway privatisation, which is why we got an ideologically-driven model that was no use in the real world. I see something very similar going on with the health reforms – the system proposed in the Health Bill looks exactly like the sort of thing a consultant would come up with in defiance of the sort of grounded knowledge that Civil Servants can bring. I have been involved in a number of projects where the consultants have got control of the bridge and it almost always leads to disaster. We need much more transparency about their role.

    Third, why is it so important that the Civil Service is politically neutral? In Germany it simply isn’t – civil servants have known political affiliations and many are openly politically active. The world has not ended – it’s a more open and transparent system, I’d argue, than one in which Civil Servants are seen as wholly apolitical and neutral. In reality they’re simply not – just as in any large group of people there is a huge range of opinions.

    I think in the future Government has to move towards transparency and openness. Let’s have the key policy debates in the open, and let’s drop the pretence that the Government machine, which has evolved enormously in the last two decades, is a wholly neutral drafting-machine. I think it would be far more honest that way.

  2. This is a very helpful overview of Civil Servants, Press Offices and the activities of Special Advisors and party workers.

    I’m grateful for Serenus Zeitblom’s comment as it’s essential material for further thought. Much uneasiness is caused by the lack of transparency as to the policy process and the perception that a long-term end-game is concealed within it.

  3. I remember well a former Head of Digital at No10 showing me some example work from across the English Channel and telling me that in France was exactly the same as As such I should support a particular piece of very political data work accordingly. Actually is the website of the French President, the give away clue being the words “Presidence de la “Republique” across the mast head, not to mention the multiple photo opps of Sarko all over the home page. Essentially making the equivalent of If anyone is interested is the french equivalent of

    When I raised this anomaly and explained it would be very difficult for myself and my team, given our remit as civil servants, I was pulled up by the Head of Digital Comms at HM Treasury, a guy I respected very much. He said that the permanent secretaries had signed up for this.. leaving the sentence open to inference that I had (or should have) done the same. It was hard to think of him in the same way again.

    Naturally civil servants have strong political beliefs, most that I know are deeply interested in politics. How could they not be? But when it comes to leveraging the mass audience of a service delivery website to produce positive headlines for a political party, which part of civil service code impartiality is it that permanent secretaries have become exempt from? All of it?

    I also remember well how bitter I felt when, one day, I was taken aside by a (SCS1) Deputy Director and warned about my use of a swear word on my personal twitter account. I was laughing about the craziness of rapper Rick James and used an expletive to describe him. At another point I had also griped about the CMS I was working with and how it flattened .js file structures, rendering the code useless. For my complaint “bloody Stellent,” I was warned I had broken the civil service code by criticising a government supplier.

    Given the latter experience you can imagine how I felt about being instructed to engage in a piece of political work while being told that a clearly political foreign website was in fact equivalent to the supposedly impartial one I worked on.

    My wife, an American, simply couldn’t understand my job as a civil servant when I joined up. For her working for the government means working for the President. When a politician leaves office in the US, 9/10 times so does their team. So, is it time for us, like the Americans to ditch impartiality and be honest enough to only work for the government or politicians we truly support? Or should we prolong the charade of civil service impartiality and keep saying Yes Minister?

  4. (I started to write this for the Social Media thread, and it reflects that to a degree, but it really fits better here).

    Looking in from the activist side of the window, I’d argue that the issue isn’t just politicisation, but that we’ve actually seen a sea change in how the Civil Service is regarded, with society moving into a much more adversarial relationship with civil servants.

    I’ll state my interests up front: I’m disabled, a disability rights activist of reasonably long standing, a disabled benefit claimant for the last several years, I’m an active blogger and tweeter against both ESA/WCA/ATOS and the Welfare Reform Bill, and by recent extension Workfare, and both I and other disabled friends have been repeatedly attacked in the street as supposed benefits scroungers, which does tend to make me view government, and DWP in particular, in a rather jaundiced fashion.

    Staying with my jaundiced view, if we look at DWP’s activities, then, over the past couple of years, we’ve seen a story being spun on a near daily basis to and through an eagerly compliant media that portrays benefits claimants, and particularly disabled benefit claimants, as overwhelmingly frauds and scroungers (whereas in fact disability benefits have a far lower rate of fraud than every benefit but the pension). That’s a clearly political message which would seem to be a clear breach of the Civil Service code for any civil servant asked to participate in preparing and delivering. DWP have been repeatedly hauled over the coals by the Work and Pensions Select Committee, and by the UK Statistical Authority over the overtly political and misleading nature of their press releases, their response was to distract attention from those criticisms with even more lurid press releases. That seems to be the kind of activity where we should see the professional heads of the Civil Service firmly explaining what can and can’t be done to their political lords and masters, but the silence has been deafening.

    Looked at from where I stand, DWP (and I do mean the department as a whole and not just its political leadership) appears to be actively engaged in a campaign to demonize disabled people in order to justify a far harsher benefits regime. Given that that has resulted in worsening social attitudes towards disabled people (benefit claimants or not), then it isn’t just the Civil Service Code that is being bent, but the Department’s Public Sector Equality Duty under the Equality Act.

    Obviously it’s difficult to distinguish which parts of the web of misinformation have originated with civil servants and which with SPADs, but it’s difficult to believe that the SPADs have done all of this on their own. Someone is digging out all of those incredibly egregious, and incredibly atypical, examples of benefit fraud, someone structured the ESA criteria to systematically ignore the actual reality of disability, and so on. I’m normally a fan of never blame conspiracy when cock-up will do (and I’ve been caught up in some immense DWP cock-ups) , but the attitude to disability emanating from DWP is so overwhelmingly negative that it’s impossible to believe that the department as a whole, Civil Service and all, hasn’t actively and deliberately bought into a policy of treating disabled people as the enemy, rather than the people they are there to help. And people are going to react to being treated as the enemy by becoming it.

    Even if you believe all of the misinformation is coming from the political side of the house, the problems are that Social Media and the Net mean that what were previously delivered as policies on tablets of stone to be accepted by a population who didn’t have access to the background facts and couldn’t see any way of contesting anything they didn’t agree with, are now rapidly dissected by the activist communities (been there, done that), the flaws, and outright lies, analyzed, identified and publicised by people who are far more savvy users of social media than DWP can ever be. Policy isn’t just accepted anymore, everyone can add their piece of analysis to the crowd-sourced synthesis of what it really means for the person on the street and where the logic and spin will fall apart as policy encounters reality, and the fact that we’re networked together, and more than a few of us are media savvy, if not media professionals, means that journalists can now get their hands on a professional analysis of a policy by subject matter experts within hours of that policy being released, and that means ministers and civil servants facing both more timely questions and more penetrating, more adversarial questions than was previously the case.

    It isn’t so much that social media is a problem for Civil Servants trying to adhere to the Civil Service Code, but that social media enables _society Itself_ to be a problem for government. We’ve shifted into a far more adversarial relationship with government, and society en masse has never really worried about the distinction between Civil Service and government. That’s problem enough for the Civil Service, but when people see a government department engaged in active demonisation of a minority, and no one from the Civil Service crying foul, then the distinctions cease to matter, the Civil Service has become a legitimate target of the political opposition. When you compare it to that, Social Media policy is actually only the tip of the iceberg the Civil Service is facing, and whether people agree with my analysis or not doesn’t really matter when so many other people think the same or worse.

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