Truth to power: how Civil Service reform can succeed - Public Administration Committee Contents


The Civil Service is one of the great institutions of state, critical to the continuation and stability of government, and it needs to change to meet the changing demands placed upon it. The Government recognises this and last year, launched the Civil Service Reform Plan (updated in July this year by the One Year On plan). The Government describes this as a programme of "incremental change". Some of the reform proposals, such as the introduction of more "personalised" appointments in the Civil Service, including a much greater ministerial role in the appointment of permanent secretaries, are controversial. Many fear such changes challenge the Northcote-Trevelyan settlement, which established an impartial and permanent Civil Service with officials appointed on merit alone. We wish to make it clear that the Civil Service Commission has our fullest support on this matter. The Government has not however identified any fundamental problem with the Civil Service and the Minister, Francis Maude, says he does not believe that fundamental change is necessary.

We conclude that "incremental change" will not achieve the change required. Unless change is clearly heralded and given high profile leadership by a united team of ministers and senior officials, it is bound to fail.

Tensions between ministers and officials have become all too evident in recent years. We recognise that many ministers feel their decisions are being deliberately blocked or frustrated, but this points to a more deeper problem in our system of government. There is a fundamental question about why ministers feel some civil servants are resistant to what they want and this question has not been considered in any systematic way. Failing organisations demonstrate common characteristics, such as a lack of openness and trust, which are very evident in some departments and agencies. In our deliberations with ministers and civil servants most recognise a prevalence of these behaviours. We remain unconvinced that the Government has developed the analysis, policies and leadership to address these problems. We have found that both ministers and senior civil servants are still somewhat in denial about their respective accountabilities. The present atmosphere promotes the filtering of honest and complete assessments to ministers and is the antithesis of 'truth to power'. It is a denial of responsibility and accountability. There is a failure to learn from mistakes and instead a tendency to look for individuals to blame.

The Haldane doctrine of ministerial accountability is not only crucial to Parliament's ability to hold the executive to account. It is at the core of the relationship between ministers and officials. We repeat our recommendation from 2011 that the Government should consider whether the Haldane doctrine of ministerial accountability remains appropriate for the modern age, and how it could be updated. The Fulton Committee, which reported in 1968, was expressly excluded from consideration of the relationship between ministers and officials. There has been no independent examination of the Civil Service since then, despite the huge changes in the UK and our place in the world since then. The Government's limited proposals do not set out how a sense of Haldane's indivisibility between ministers and officials can be created. Departmental civil servants are in an invidious position with conflicting loyalties towards ministers on the one hand, and to the permanent secretary on the other. This is made much worse by the rapid turnover of lead officials, which is incompatible with good government.

This Report is exceptional. We make only one recommendation: the establishment of a Parliamentary Commission into the Civil Service, in the form of a joint committee of both Houses. The independent evidence in favour of some kind of comprehensive strategic review of the nature, role and purpose of the Civil Service is overwhelming. Our critique of the Civil Service Reform Plan and its limited implementation underlines this. The objections raised by the Minister for the Cabinet Office, and by the leadership of the Civil Service, are unconvincing and can be seen as part of what Francis Maude has described as the "bias to inertia" which he says he is seeking to address. On the one hand, the Government insists that the present reforms are "urgent". On the other hand, they are too modest and piecemeal to address the root causes of the frustrations which ministers feel beset them or to lead to the kind of transformational change that many believe that the Civil Service needs. Sustained reform has to be initiated by cooperation and supported by external scrutiny and analysis that leads to a comprehensive set of recommendations for change. This cannot be done by ministers and officials who are, as they say themselves, so pressed by far more immediate and high-profile economic, political and international issues.

We cannot emphasise enough the importance of this recommendation, reflected by the unanimous support of the House of Commons Liaison Committee. Such a Commission could draw on the extensive experience of government and the Civil Service in Parliament and its conclusions would enjoy cross-party consensus. The Commission should undertake this work alongside current Civil Service reforms, not as an alternative. It should focus on the strategic long-term vision for the Civil Service, for which the Government, in its One Year On report, has recognised the need. The fact that more radical measures that challenge the Northcote-Trevelyan settlement are also being discussed underlines the need for Parliament to oversee proper consideration of issues that are fundamental to the way our uncodified constitution operates. The Civil Service does not exist solely to serve the Government of the day, but also future governments. It is right and proper that substantial reforms to the role of the Civil Service should be scrutinised by Parliament. Such a Parliamentary Commission could be established before the end of the year, and report before the end of the current Parliament, so that after the 2015 general election a comprehensive change programme can be implemented.

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© Parliamentary copyright 2013
Prepared 6 September 2013