When ministers turn on their civil servants


Musings on recent attacks on the civil service

Over the past few days there have been several headlines and articles about conflict at the top of Government. The difference between the recent spats and previous ones is that the top civil servants have been able to use social media to address the general public directly. Ian Watmore did this upon his resignation from the top of Cabinet Office, and the Head of the Civil Service Sir Bob Kerslake very public slapped down Daily Telegraph reports on the civil service being cut by between 70-90%.

SpAd wars

Conflicts between special advisers and civil servants are nothing new. My first recollection of such spats were during my university days when I read about the breakdown at the mega-ministry of DLTR involving Stephen Byers, his special adviser Jo Moore and the civil servant director of communications (and former BBC journalist) Martin Sixsmith. No one came out of that episode smelling of roses.

The case about Kerslake and Hilton is all the more notable because it’s happening at the very top of government – at a time when the Coalition is on the backfoot on a number of fronts. It’s also notable the amount of briefing that has come out undermining both the role and the competence of policy civil servants. It’s got to the level where both the Daily Telegraph and The Guardian published comment columns by Sue Cameron and Peter Riddell respectively, in defence of the civil service. (My own defence from some months back is here).

How to run a large organisation

One of the things that strikes me about a number of political types I read about is how few of them have had experience of running large organisations. This goes for both ministers and special advisers. Chief executives of private companies have to account for their actions to shareholders (who are becoming more active these days), those running charitable organisations to boards of trustees (and donors too), while those running large public organisations have to account ultimately to Parliament. I go into detail about the challenges of running a large organisation (from a political perspective) in my blogpost Ministerial initiatives and pet projects.

Both ministers and senior civil servants have to account for their actions before Parliament – the latter mainly in select committees. Special advisers do not. Special advisers are also expected to be publicly silent. See the Special Advisers’ Code from Cabinet Office. Hence why so few of them are quoted on the record. Given the disagreements that have been reported at the top of government in recent days, is there a role for Parliament to scrutinise and cross-examine the work of special advisers? It seems strange that the first public scrutiny many of us will see of a special adviser will be when Lord Leveson and Robert Jay QC will be of Jeremy Hunt’s ex-special adviser Adam Smith. Smith may now be an ex, but I imagine Jay will be cross-examining him on his actions during the very recent time he was serving his appointment: i.e. this is not a softer ‘many years after’ look back at what happened. It may well be that both the Culture Media and Sports Committee and the Public Administration Committee will choose to look at the conduct of special advisers following the Leveson session next week.

Why turning on the civil service is so tempting – but is very bad form.

It’s very easy to portray the civil service as what you want it to be. It’s a large ‘faceless’ organisation that’s very easy to pass the blame onto when something goes wrong or when bad stuff happens. It’s like when people blame ‘liberal elites’ or the ‘PC brigade’ – or as I sometimes do, ‘the political establishment.’ It allows the politician to say to the public “I’m on your side – unlike that ‘orrible lot over there who are not on your side and are trying to stop us from doing good stuff!” – knowing that said institution or group of people cannot answer back. In the case of liberal elites or the PC brigade, I can’t think of anyone who claims to be part of either, let alone claiming to speak for either.

In the case of the civil service, civil servants have huge constitutional restrictions on what they can and cannot say in public. That leaves the civil service unions, the largest of whom (The PCS Union – in which I used to be a member when I was a civil servant) is not flavour of the month with politicians and the media.

But coming back to the point about running large organisations, does it make any sense to alienate the very people who are going to be responsible for carrying out your desired actions? Civil servants spend a huge amount of time and effort trying to adapt their working styles and practices to the needs and wishes of ministers that they work for. They also spend a huge amount of time trying to unpick the various problems and issues related to the policies that ministers want implemented. Ministers may not like being told that there are significant problems with some of their policies, but civil servants have a constitutional duty to tell them of these things. This is one of the reasons why the NHS risk register for the Health and Social Care Act 2012 was so controversial.

If ministers and special advisers choose to treat their civil servants with contempt and disrespect, it makes it harder for all three to do their jobs and makes it far less likely that the policy aims of ministers will ever be achieved. Treat them with dignity and respect however, and you find that civil servants – just as anyone else – are more likely to go that extra mile for them. Matt Ross in Civil Service World pretty much makes these points in his criticism of the language used by ministers regarding reform of the civil service. Civil servants know the civil service needs improving, and want to be part of that improvement process – as this survey shows. Why kick sand in their faces?

An organisation as large as the civil service is going to make some mistakes. It’s got that many human beings in it. In civil service world, it’s worth asking whether such a mistake was a one off, whether it’s related to a person or persons, or whether it’s something systemic in the organisation. In the various articles I’ve linked to in this blogpost, numerous points have been made about how the Prime Minister or other ministers have been concerned about policy mistakes. The occurrence of those mistakes does not surprise me at all. Why? Because the civil service is still in the process of going through a significant restructure that includes thousands upon thousands of job losses. When any organisation goes through a process like that, it involves significant disruption. When you have such disruption, people fearful of their jobs and high levels of stress, things will inevitably go wrong. To pretend otherwise is fantasy.

One of the other impacts of those job losses is the loss of a number of highly skilled highly experienced individuals – the likes of whom may well have nipped some of the policy, strategy and communications failures in the bud. But such was the pace of the cuts that little time could be given to identify those who were needed, why and for which areas.

The next test for the relationship between civil servants and ministers will come with the publication of the White Paper on Civil Service Reform. David Walker in The Guardian attributes the rise in anti-civil-service briefing to the looming publication of this document. Given that there is already an existing industrial dispute on civil service pensions with the largest civil service union, will the White Paper sooth or heighten those tensions?


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