A Parliamentary Commission on the Civil Service


Some thoughts on the call from the Chairman of the Public Administration Select Committee for a root-and-branch examination of the civil service.

Bernard Jenkin made a call for a Parliamentary Commission on the Civil Service in a speech to one of my old trade unions – the FDA Union. Mr Jenkin is the Chair of the Public Administration Select Committee – the select committee I keep closest eye on given my civil service background. They are also the select committee that keeps the closest eye on Puffles – with a third of its membership following Whitehall & Westminster’s favourite dragon fairy. It was also on this committee that Puffles was first mentioned in a parliamentary debate. See Qs 231, 235 (asked by Jenkin himself) and 242 – asked by one of Puffles’ followers, Greg Mulholland MP, in the evidence session on Public Engagement in Policy Making.

So…should we have a parliamentary commission?

There needs to be a ‘something’. What that ‘something’ is, I’m fairly open-mined. What matters is the robustness of the evidence presented, the resources the ‘something’ has to scrutinise that evidence, and the likelihood that the recommendations stemming from that ‘something’ are implemented.

Parliamentary commission, royal commission, government review, independent review, judge-led review, think-force paper – it could come from any of those. In the grand scheme of things, call it what you want.

What I fear will get missed out is the millstone currently hanging around Nick Clegg’s neck: constitutional reform. That’s his area of policy responsibility, yet in so many high profile areas of constitutional reform he’s not been able to deliver. I made a similar point in a blogpost on the equal marriage debate. Unpicking the Church of England’s current legal rights and responsibilities started pulling on strings around much needed House of Lords reform – not just because of bishops but because of this, which then leads to undermining the hereditary principle in politics [Good], which then leads to questions on the legitimacy of the monarch.

A small number of chaps working for a smaller number of chaps scrutinised by a larger number of a small number of chaps

This was the world that Whitehall and Westminster was back in the times that all things Northcote Trevelyan were written. Ministers are responsible for policy, civil servants for delivery, and ministers are responsible to Parliament which is then responsible and accountable to the electorate. In those days though, the policy-making functions within the civil service were much smaller than they are today. There was also a much greater role for local government too – as Tristram Hunt describes beautifully in his book Building Jerusalem – essential reading for anyone interested in local government & public services.

Since Northcote Trevelyan, there were arguably two points in history when the principles of civil service accountability & functions should have been reviewed and refreshed in a big way. The first being 1945 and the post-war consensus. The massive growth of public services – including the NHS, along with the widespread nationalisations of major industries (which, to all intents and purposes for the War were under state control anyway) involved a significant growth in the number of people who were working in the public sector, as well as the increased complexity of those operations. The second being the large-scale privatisation & outsourcing brought in by Thatcher & subsequent administrations. Contractual vs democratic accountability anyone?

Why a root and branch review?

One of the reasons why now is a good time to have a root and branch review and refresh of what the civil service should be there for is the increasing connectivity people and institutions have with each other in this digital age. The thing is, once you start teasing away at the tensions within existing policy-making processes, a number of other tensions are exposed – ones that the civil service has little influence over but are stuck with either way: The regular reshuffling of ministers is but one example. Incredibly destabilising not just for civil servants, but for all those with an interest in delivering public services. For some of the non-state organisations delivering public services or government programmes, a change of minister (even in the same party) can be the difference between a contract going ahead or being cancelled.

What I’m saying is that a parliamentary commission on the civil service cannot be looked at in isolation. You’ve got to make it consistent with something similar for the role of Parliament and government. Otherwise you run the risk of having a very partisan commission that ends up weakening/strengthening one institution while doing nothing with the others to ensure that all things balance out. For example you don’t want an over-strong civil service that ends up being viewed by citizens as a powerful unaccountable technocracy in the way the European Commission is. You also don’t want to weaken the civil service to the extent that ministers can easily override important checks and balances that are in place. e.g. “No Minister, you cannot do that because The Law prevents you from doing so.” Then there’s the problem of Parliament – which is far too weak vis-a-vis both the civil service and ministers. The payroll vote and inherent conflict of interest of MPs being ministers is the biggest problem for me. It is an inherent conflict of interest to have MPs tasked with scrutinising the executive being members of that very executive. Have them appear before MPs as they currently do in select committees, business questions and urgent questions, but as ministers only, not as voting MPs.

Who’s said what so far?

The FDA Union published Delivering for the Nation: Securing a World-Class Civil Service. A number of interesting recommendations indeed – in particular on training as well as on big-picture policy making principles. I was struck by the line about departments being given a budget by The Treasury and having to work backwards – which reflects John Birds’ thoughts at JCI Cambridge last week. Interesting to note too that the Shadow Cabinet Office Minister Jon Trickett has been quoted by the Institute for Government that tackling narrow diversity in the senior civil service will be something a future Labour government will tackle. It’s a fair comment to make given how things seem to have gone backwards diversity-wise (in particular for women) in the senior civil service. Read this by Jill Rutter of the Institute for Government.

What seems to be missing in the FDA’s report is a discussion about open policy-making in an era of social and digital media. My anecdotal feeling is that trade unions in general are a little behind the curve on digital and social media in general, looking perhaps to the Labour Party for initiative rather than outwards towards both grassroots members and wider communities.

Will we get a Parliamentary Commission?

Unlikely in the next two years – I expect ministers will three-line-whip the proposal out of the water. The Cabinet Secretary and the Head of the Civil Service have both come out against the plan. It’s something that may come up again after the next general election. I get the feeling that the top of Whitehall wants to just get on and implement the existing reform plan as is, rather than re-opening debates that they feel have already been had.

Technical policy expertise – can we have it back please?

My remaining big concern about the civil service though is about the hollowing out of expert policy teams, and how dependent the civil service has become on secondments from outside the civil service in a number of specialist policy areas – especially those that have lots of very expensive lobbyists thrown at them by wealthy interests. If we are to have a parliamentary commission on the civil service, I’d like to see that issue in examined in detail. In particular, I’d like to see some evidence and analysis around impact (on the economy and society) and expenditure vs the resource (including numbers and types of) allocated to the various policy and delivery functions.

Food for thought.


2 thoughts on “A Parliamentary Commission on the Civil Service

  1. On the subject of secondments and their impact.. you might want to have a chat with the lovely folk at the Centre for Science and Policy about their recent experience of this. They’re developing a programme to place researchers and post grads (mainly Cambridge based but also from other Unis) into part-time secondments in Whitehall. As the Cambridge-based guinea pig for this scheme I can testify that secondees are both highly valued and much needed, at least in the Whitehall team in which I worked. Notably, I was only one of a number of team members on secondment from other organisations, none of which were commercial or for-profit, but were all either Universities or other public bodies.

    Secondments deliver insight into the policy process and some hands on experience of Whitehall for the secondees (which in my case helped me to get a job in science policy) and provide scientific and analytical expertise directly and indirectly, through the academic/professional networks of the secondees, to the receiving Whitehall departments. This would seem to be a good thing to me as it represents both a good example of open policy making and also a way for resource constrained departments to source the expertise they need on a flexible basis.

    Saying this, I am not aware of any systematic study of the prevalence of secondments across Whitehall (and beyond) and would love to know how they divide up in terms of the type of organisation from which the secondees originate. I would predict that this would vary widely depending on the nature of the services being delivered… It would also be fascinating to know how they are all paid for… and what, if any reciprocity is expected and received by the ‘donating organisation’.

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