Monsters in Whitehall?

Summary: Examining a call to politicise the civil service. Naturally I disagree.

"Oh Hai! I iz Monster in Whitehall!"

“Oh Hai! I iz Monster in Whitehall!”

I had a look at the article by journalist, columnist and former Cameron speech-writer Ian Birrell in The Guardian. It’s titled The Civil Service: a monster in Whitehall. The sub-text seeks to prepare the ground for the politicisation of the civil service. The problem is that the article doesn’t make the case how politicising the civil service will improve how the civil service functions. I’ll try to unpick it paragraph by paragraph.

“Britain has a bad habit of deluding itself over its institutions.”

Such as…the banks? The private sector? Marriage even? (Given what some critics were saying about the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill – which has gladly just passed its final parliamentary hurdle before Royal Assent…) The issue is more about large organisations in general, and in particular the following:

  • where do they get their power and influence from
  • how they exercise that power and influence
  • how we the citizens can hold those organisations to account – including but not limited to compelling transparency and propriety
  • how we the citizens can ultimately deprive the organisation or those within it (especially at the top) of that power and influence

Large organisations irrespective of what sector they may fall into, are facing challenges in this connected age. The civil service and other public sector organisations are no different in having to cope with a massive societal change driven by how greater numbers of citizens are using social and digital media to communicate.

“So it is with the civil service, seen as such a well-oiled machine it is often compared with a purring Rolls-Royce”

I’ve always wondered where that description comes from because it’s like comparing chalk and cheese to me. An organisation charged with undertaking a huge variety of tasks, populated by hundreds of thousands human beings shouldn’t really be compared to a car which by-and-large is purchased in order to ferry driver and passenger from point A to point B. At a public policy end, there are so many more variables, factors and forces to account for, a much greater number of uncertainties (not least political) and much less clear success criteria.

“The truth is rather different. [re challenging ministers]”

The problem here reflects the sheer complexity of various aspects of public policy. The big one being what do you do when you have two high profile policies that are inconsistent with each other? Home Office Ministers want to clamp down on immigration while at the same time the Department for Business wants more students from abroad to come and study in the UK. The UK wants to be seen by the Foreign Office as having an ethical foreign policy but at the same time is undermined by calls from say the Justice Department or the Home Office to leave the European Convention on Human Rights and/or revoke the Human Rights Act. You have Cabinet Office calling for more evidence-based policy-making while at the same time ministers from other departments stand accused of ignoring such evidence and ploughing on ahead anyway. There is also a big assumption at the start of the paragraph in the article about the nature of ‘Cabinet’ and collective government. The assumption is that ministers function as a competent and single collective entity over the course of an administration’s time in office. What do you do when you have ministers who despise each other and put personal ambition over the wider party interest and national interest?

“The coalition is the latest government to discover the civil service can be a frustrating creature for its supposed masters”

And vice-versa? I’m struggling to think of a time when departments went through a period of having ministerial and policy stability along with a team of highly-regarded ministers who were competent in running large organisations. One of the problems here is within UK politics itself: politicians are arriving on their first day of ministerial office with little understanding of the functioning of the organisations they are now responsible for. Earlier this year I asked what training for ministers should comprise of. Satirists amongst you may also remember this from Sir Humphrey: “The argument that we must do everything a Minister demands because he has been ‘democratically chosen’ does not stand up to close inspection. MPs are not chosen by ‘the people’ – they are chosen by their local constituency parties: thirty-five men in grubby raincoats or thirty-five women in silly hats. The further ‘selection’ process is equally a nonsense: there are only 630 MPs and a party with just over 300 MPs forms a government and of these 300, 100 are too old and too silly to be ministers and 100 too young and too callow. Therefore there are about 100 MPs to fill 100 government posts. Effectively no choice at all.” [Yes Minister] Now think of the furore around Falkirk and of the MPs parachuted (by both Labour and Conservatives over the years) into ‘safe’ seats. Even in seats that are properly contested, what may make a very good constituency MP may not make for a good minister of state.

“This is why the knives are out for Sir Bob Kerslake, head of the civil service”

Who’s holding these knives exactly? It would be pointless to defend the huge mistakes made on things like defence procurement, the NHS and Westcoast Mainline. But what I don’t see is how politicising the civil service is going to reduce the likelihood of such mistakes being made in the future. My take is that the essential tasks of bring Minister for the Civil Service in the Cabinet Office were ignored by successive ministers under the previous administration. Just have a look at how many people preceded Francis Maude before 2010 and over what time scale. As far as Blair and Brown’s administrations were concerned, the ministerial post was like an apprenticeship before being promoted to a departmental Cabinet post. There wasn’t a long term influential champion for the political service who could deliver both the improvements that it sorely needed in skills and training while at the same time defending it from its detractors that wanted to politicise it.

“The problems lie with a machine still operating on the lines of its creation a century ago”

Again, the case has not been made that politicising the civil service is going to improve things. I’ve argued in the past that The Cabinet needs to be significantly smaller. Paradoxically a smaller number of Cabinet ministers will be less easy to control and steamroller over than a larger number. With a smaller number of more influential people in the room, there is a greater chance to speak out and raise concerns than if there are a larger amount of people with inevitably less influence. My personal preference would be to have a smaller number of Cabinet ministers, more powerful cross-departmental ministers of state that dealt with policies that covered more than one department of state, and to have the chief executive-designates of important departmental agencies subject to pre-scrutiny hearings by select committees along with their regular appearance before such select committees on their work. Amongst other things.

“Politicians, of course, are not immune from blame, often rushing to pursue poorly worked policies, and targeting officials when in trouble”

That is a huge and significant concession. If politicians ***often*** rush poorly worked policies, then the civil service has a constitutional duty to improve such poorly-worked policies in a manner as set out in the Civil Service Code. Integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality. It’s one thing to criticise civil servants over not being held accountable for failures but how often do you see ministers resigning over specific policy failures? In terms of civil service reform, I’ve argued before that this needs to be placed in the context of wider constitutional reform & improvement, as I set out in this blogpost. If you don’t reform and improve one without the other, you run the risk of making one branch of state too powerful vis-a-vis the others – in this case the ministerial branch of the state vs both the civil service and Parliament.

“One of the coalition’s biggest mistakes upon taking office was to limit the number of political advisers”

The Coalition has control of Parliament so there’s nothing in principle to stop it from voting through more money to pay for more political advisers. But this doesn’t match the rhetoric on reducing the cost of politics. Personally I would go for increasing the resources available to Parliament’s select committees. Given the remit and responsibilities they have, the amount of support staff select committees have is far too small. Again though my point stands: this all has to be done as part of wider constitutional and political reform.

“All the main parties back timid plans unveiled this month to create bigger political offices”

This was the IPPR’s report about which I blogged here. Again though this paragraph does not say how politicising the civil service is going to improve anything. The reference to the Second World War and bringing in outsiders is quite frankly bizarre. Normally when politicians and commentators appeal to all things WWII as a means to justify their points it’s jumping shark time. Oh – and of those ‘best outsiders’ that were brought in at high levels during WWII, how many of them were women?

“A more fluid civil service should be accompanied by greater accountability and openness”

I can’t see how politicising the civil service is going to lead to either. It decreases accountability because it increases the number of taxpayer-funded posts that politicians can make direct political appointments to – with no constitutional checks. More jobs for the chaps? It will increase the perception of corruption as lobbyists inevitably switch their focus to political appointees not bound by the the same code that civil servants are bound by. Having more political appointees risks creating the political firewall around ministers, reducing openness and accountability and increasing the likelihood that policy is created by small political cliques in Whitehall.

“There must be more open-source development of policy”

I’m getting annoyed at how open-source and outsourcing are being conflated as one and the same thing. They. Are. Different. I stand by the points I made in my original article Open-sourcing vs outsourcing – points around risk that were subsequently adopted by the Public Administration Select Committee in their recent report (see here for details). Outsourcing of policy is where you contract an outside organisation to come up with policy proposals to deal with a given issue and to come up with policy recommendations for a minister to consider. Open-sourcing of policy is where you use both traditional offline consultation and social media tools in a manner that allows far more people to input into policy proposals and problem solving in an ongoing and continuous manner. Both are not without their problems – not least because the big elephant in the room is the role of political parties in all of this. Furthermore, to what extent do ministers want to be influenced by the results of either policy activities? In the case of outsourcing of policy, it might be politically convenient to outsource in the way ministers have ‘independent reviews’. ie to provide political cover for unpopular policies. Think the much-derided Browne Review (see under “When is independent not independent?” where I shredded it & you’ll get my point).

“Just as we need to restore public trust in politics, so we need to ensure the civil service is fit for purpose in a fast-changing world”

I just don’t see how politicising the civil service will make it fit-for-purpose in this fast-changing world. Personally I think embracing a culture of transparency and accountability while embracing the benefits of new communications tools (& upskilling civil servants to use them effectively) will be far more effective in the longer term than politicising the civil service.

This entry was posted in Law and legal issues, Party politics, Public administration & policy, Social media. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Monsters in Whitehall?

  1. Pingback: Monsters in Whitehall? – A dragon’s best friend | Public Sector Blogs

  2. I have sympathy for the view espoused in The Guardian and I’ve often wondered if in the UK we should more to a more West Wing system with the executive. Having a completely clueless executive suddenly come into power without even the handover period they get in America is even more worrying, however.

    I don’t think the blame is entirely with the civil service – a large chunk of it definitely rests with a poor choice of political advisers and lack of access to political advisers/ministers by the grass roots. (The latter may be forced upon the ministers by diary constraints, having never been a minister it’s hard to tell) Having said that, I don’t think more SPAds are the answer. Quite the opposite, if we had fewer SPAds (And ones that stayed in post longer) we might have a clue who to talk to.

    But on the civil service side, it would help if they would actually engage with members of the political party whose minister they are supposedly working for and dropped some of the unnecessary secrecy.

    Lets say there’s a hypothetical bill, and the bill directly relates to the work of one high-profile organisation within that party. The draft bill isn’t public, so nobody who knows the topic in detail outside the civil service gets to see it and discuss it properly before it goes to parliament. There are some clauses in the bill that go against party policy, and the relevant party organisation tries to get that changed. It’s only route in is via the minister, as the civil service won’t engage with non-ministerial politicians. The minister doesn’t have time to learn about the intricacies of the topic (They have quite a wide portfolio) and ends up just repeating what the civil servants, who appear to have their own prejudices, say. (Often, the briefing documents for the minister are confidential, which makes a written point-by-point rebuttal of any problematic arguments much harder)

    There is no mechanism to replace the civil servants with someone whose views are more progressive, so no matter what happens the same issues reoccur. Replacing the minister with someone willing to push the civil service hard on the topic works for a short period, but requires a well-briefed minister (Something civil servants hate) who is not likely to be in post long enough to effect real change.

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