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

1  Introduction

1. The Civil Service is one of the great institutions of state, critical to the continuation and stability of government. It has a crucial role as a guardian of constitutional stability, as pointed out by the Rt Hon Oliver Letwin MP, Minister for Government Policy, in a speech to the Institute for Government last year:

    In their capacity as guardians, our administrative civil servants are called upon to play an altogether different role as servants, not of ministers but of the crown, accountable to Parliament [...] in their role as guardians, administrative civil servants act on behalf of the crown to ensure that the government as a whole acts with propriety and in conformity with the law [...] The importance of this civil service role can hardly be over-stated. It is one of the great bulwarks against tyranny. The administrative civil service provides a continuing safeguard that ministers of any persuasion will not be able to use the machinery of the state to personal or party political advantage.[1]

2. Since the establishment of the modern Civil Service in 1854, there have been regular reviews which sought to refresh and to update the 1854 settlement. These initially took the form of frequent Royal Commissions, taking place around every 15 years in the period between 1854 and 1968. Later reforms have been mainly in the form of internal documents, published by ministers or the heads of the Civil Service. There has been no overall look at what the Civil Service should do and how it should operate since the Fulton Report of 1968—and even this assessment of Whitehall did not address the fundamental issue of the relationship between ministers and officials. Only some of its findings were implemented.[2]

3. In our report, we focus on the relationship between ministers and officials, in which tensions have become more and more evident. This has been detailed in public—in numerous media stories—in an unprecedented way. It is said to reflect ministerial concerns about competence, culture and skills in Whitehall, and this narrative has formed the backdrop to the Government's Civil Service Reform Plan. We have considered these concerns, the changing world the Civil Service is operating within, and the future challenges which the leadership of the Civil Service and ministers must face, as part of this inquiry. This report briefly summarises three of the main Civil Service reform inquiries—Northcote-Trevelyan, Haldane and Fulton—and how the issues raised by each remain relevant to today's debate. We assess the 2012 Civil Service Reform Plan, the 2013 One Year On document, and the prospects for further reform. We look at the main concerns highlighted by current and former ministers about the state of the Civil Service and consider how these systemic issues could be addressed in the long term.

4. This Report, and most of the evidence we have received, underline our main conclusion and our sole recommendation: that, while some elements of the Government's Civil Service Reform Plan may be implemented, as a whole, will have little if any lasting impact. It is not based on any comprehensive analysis of the fundamental problems and challenges facing the Civil Service. It does not constitute a comprehensive programme for changing or transforming the Civil Service. So as a reform programme, the Government's civil service reforms will fail. We will therefore recommend the Government facilitates a comprehensive Parliamentary review of the future of the Civil Service by means of a joint committee of both Houses, along the lines of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards.

5. This inquiry continues the Public Administration Select Committee's (PASC) scrutiny of the performance of the Civil Service and builds on our previous Reports Strategic thinking in Government (April 2012), Leadership of Change: new arrangements for the roles of Head of the Civil Service and the Cabinet Secretary (January 2011) and Change in Government: The agenda for leadership (September 2011).[3] This Report also draws on our findings from our Government Procurement and Migration Statistics Reports (both July 2013).

6. Over the course of this inquiry we received 37 memoranda and held 12 evidence sessions, during which we heard from former ministers, civil servants and special advisers; the Civil Service Commissioner, Sir David Normington, and his predecessor, Dame Janet Paraskeva; academics and think tanks; two of the Civil Service trade unions; the Local Government Association, and representatives from local authorities; the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, and the Head of the Civil Service, Sir Bob Kerslake; and the Minister for the Cabinet Office, the Rt Hon Francis Maude MP. We have also drawn upon our private discussions and seminars. We would like to thank all who contributed to our inquiry, and particularly our Specialist Adviser, Dr Gillian Stamp, Director of the Bioss Foundation.[4]

1   "Why mandarins matter - keynote speech by Rt Hon Oliver Letwin MP", Institute for Government, 17 September 2012 Back

2   Q 14 Back

3   Public Administration Select Committee, Twenty-fourth Report of Session 2010-12, Strategic thinking in Government: Without National Strategy can viable government strategy emerge?, HC 1625; Public Administration Select Committee, Nineteenth Report of Session 2010-12, Leadership of Change: new arrangements for the roles of Head of the Civil Service and the Cabinet Secretary, HC 1582; Public Administration Select Committee, Thirteenth Report of Session 2010-12, Change in Government: The agenda for leadership, HC 714 Back

4   Dr Gillian Stamp was appointed as a Specialist Adviser for this inquiry on 8 January 2013.  Back

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Prepared 6 September 2013