Public Administration CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Dr Andrew Blick, Centre for Political and Constitutional Studies (CSR 2)


There may be a case for radical Civil Service reform. But it is not being made satisfactorily by the government at present. However, some of the individual changes presently proposed by the government appear desirable. Others are more problematic.

Many of the themes arising in the present Civil Service reform programme are the same ones that have appeared in a string of past publications dating back at least as far as the so-called “Fulton Report” of 1968. Since successive efforts to achieve change have not prevented the recurrence of similar complaints over a period of decades, ministers should give consideration to the possibility that it is they and their expectations, rather than the Civil Service, which are at least part of the problem. The exceptional centralisation of UK governance is such that organisational problems are unavoidable, however the administrative machine is arranged.

Plans for the opening up of the policy-formation process are attractive in principle. The idea of opening policy-making to outside sources is intriguing, but raises certain issues which must be taken into account. Government proposals portray formal policy-formation practices as a constraint on flexibility, but adherence to basic principles and standards of practice could be a sound basis for wider involvement in policy, and for effective policy-making.

The heightening of ministerial involvement in the appointment of permanent secretaries could create difficulties for the position of some individuals appointed if they were perceived by an incoming minister as being to close to the predecessor. This change could in time undermine certain principles of the Civil Service. Since the enhanced role for ministers in departmental appointments is justified on grounds of securing accountability, it would need to be accompanied by a greater willingness on the part of ministers to accept personal responsibility for their departments and any problems of policy or implementation that may develop within them.

Any fundamental change to Whitehall should only take place overtly and on a basis of wide consultation and preferably consensus. An appropriate vehicle for ensuring that this kind of agreement can be sought would be a parliamentary committee. At present government proposals do not place sufficient emphasis on the value of the input that can be made by Parliament into policy-making in general and Civil Service reform in particular. The Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 makes Parliament, rather than the Royal Prerogative, the source of the legal basis for the Civil Service. For this reason a heightened parliamentary involvement in Whitehall is apt.

1. Is the Civil Service in need of radical reform?

1. The government is proposing what it depicts as major reform to the Civil Service. It therefore falls to ministers to justify that their plans are required. Given the constitutional importance of some of the proposals included in this document a full explanation of the reasoning and evidence underpinning them might reasonably be expected. Unfortunately in its paper The Civil Service Reform Plan the government devotes relatively little space to establishing a need for reform on the scale and of the type it argues is necessary. The section headed “The Need for Change” (pp.7–8) is only four paragraphs long. It asserts that:

There are some superb project managers in the Civil Service, but not nearly enough and too many projects fail. Leadership of change needs to be much stronger and more consistent; performance management is too rarely rigorous; and the culture is too often slow and resistant to change.

2. There may be substance to these claims. Evidence is cited in different parts of the paper to support them. But overall there is an insufficient focus on establishing both that there is a problem with the Civil Service, and that solving it requires the particular proposals that are being put forward. For instance, in some cases, circular arguments are put forward. It is held at one point (p.11) that “the Civil Service will need a much stronger corporate leadership model, and much more sharing of services and expertise, if it is to deliver the step change in efficiency needed”. In other words, changes are held to be needed to deliver the changes that are needed. Elsewhere in the report, a significant constitutional shift, the decision to enhance the role of ministers in appointing permanent secretaries, is explained only in minimal terms with no clear supporting evidence (p.21).

3. The paper is in these senses vulnerable to the charge that it fails to fulfil the very need it commendably identifies (pp.14–16) for open, contestable policy making.

4. Many of the needs identified in The Civil Service Reform Plan: better management and delivery skills; to learn from international experience; to overcome resistance to change; bringing specialist skills into the Civil Service; and a Whitehall more open to the outside world, will be familiar to any student of post-war Civil Service history. A series of official publications dating back at least as far as the Fulton Report of 1968 have highlighted similar shortcomings within the Civil Service. The supporting paper The Context for Civil Service Reform helpfully lists some of these documents: there are more still.

5. Seemingly the continual process of Civil Service reform dating back over nearly half a century, represented by these reports, has not led to a satisfactory correction of the problems that they identified, since they continue to be found. Such faults have been observed once again in 2012. This tendency suggests two observations.

6. First, constant reform of the Civil Service has not been entirely successful, since it has not achieved its objectives. The government might be well advised to reflect on whether further such reform along similar lines is any more likely to be effective.

7. Second, there may be wider constitutional issues inhibiting Civil Service performance. Perhaps most notably, the UK, even after devolution, remains an exceptionally centralised state when considered in international perspective. Despite successive governments pledging themselves to localism, movement has generally been in the opposite direction. English local government, in particular, has been stripped of responsibilities, which have been transferred to Whitehall. A recent example of this trend is the promotion of free schools. The consequence of this tendency is to place ever-increasing responsibilities on an already over-stretched centre. The frustrations felt by ministers about the effectiveness of government, which may have prompted the present set of Civil Service proposals, may be the product not of Civil Service weakness but of an overloaded UK central government. It has arguably taken on over time a range of functions so great that they would be difficult for any organisation, however it was configured and managed, to perform satisfactorily.

8. Consequently, as it considers its future steps with respect to the Civil Service, it would be beneficial if the government took into account the possibility that, as much as the Civil Service itself, it is ministers and the expectations they have of Whitehall that are the problem. The urge to overhaul and load new functions on to the Civil Service should perhaps be resisted.

2. Are the Government’s plans for reform, as outlined in the Civil Service Reform Plan and related documents, likely to lead to beneficial changes?

9. As noted above ongoing Civil Service reform has apparently not so far corrected the problems it addressed. In fact it may be that the continuous flux it has created has actually served to undermine the effectiveness of the Civil Service as an organisation. The apparent determination of the present government to seek more reform could make this problem worse. If a strategy is flawed, it should not be pursued more aggressively, but altered, or abandoned altogether.

10. However, within the overall package of changes included in the main paper, some have merit. One attractive proposal is for the introduction of a (p.20) “cross-government Management Information (MI) system”, which has the potential to make a genuine contribution to effectiveness and accountability. So too does the establishment of the principle of former accounting officers giving evidence to select committees (pp.20–1).

11. The general idea of open policy-making on a basis of contestable evidence is valuable, particularly if it continues the movement away from closed government which has developed over the past two decades, in particular with the John Major open government reforms and the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

12. The proposal to (p.15) “open the policy development process to competition from external sources” such as academics and think tanks is intriguing. It is already beginning to be applied to Civil Service Reform. The first contract under the Contestable Policy Fund was awarded in September to the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR), to conduct comparative international studies of civil service operation and accountability structures.

13. However, it is important to keep this practice under review (it is not implied that the following concerns apply to the IPPR project). Issues which should be considered are: how far the organisation carrying out the work is being co-opted into government, with negative implications for the independence of civil society. Equally, potential exists for concern about the impartiality of organisations which may be entrusted with policy development work, and whether their enhanced influence might be used for inappropriate purposes. Furthermore, might organisations be selected to carry out such work because their thinking its known to be in line with the views of the government? And could they also be tempted to deliver the answers that are expected of them to ensure influence and the award of more such projects in future? Finally on the subject of the commissioning of outside policy development, it is worth drawing attention to the emphasis correctly placed in the paper on the importance of integrating policy development with implementation (Chapter 3). Policies developed at one stage removed from Whitehall may not be infused with sufficient awareness of the particular relevant implementation issues. Moreover, if civil servants do not have significant involvement in developing a proposal they may lack the motivation required to ensure they are effectively put into practice.

14. Another observation is possible regarding wider involvement in policy formation. The government paper tends to portray formal policy-making procedures in negative terms, as a constraint on flexibility. It refers to a need to replaced “dead process with real engagement” (p.18); and for the Civil Service to be (p.9) “focused on outcomes and results rather than process”. But the desire to dispense with certain formal methods of operating carries with it the danger of the abandonment of clear principles and objective standards in policy formation, which may be vital to those outside Whitehall who wish meaningfully to become engaged in decisions (and to effective policy formation). The government might be advised to promote closer adherence to rules rather than display its present dismissive attitude.

15. Another plan set out in the government paper is clearly potentially problematic. It calls for (p.21) “ministers to have a stronger role in the recruitment of a Permanent Secretary”. This proposal raises concerns about the impartiality of the Civil Service, which the government asserts elsewhere in the document it is committed to maintaining, stating (p.8) “the current model of a permanent, politically impartial Civil Service will remain unchanged”. A key component of Civil Service impartiality is that officials loyally serve the minister to whom they are responsible at present while retaining the ability to provide a similar service to future ministers of a same or a different party. If a civil servant becomes too close to a particular minister and the policies pursued by that minister—or is merely perceived as doing so—problems may be created for their ability to establish the necessary working relationship with future ministers, who might see them as part of the entourage of their predecessor and be reluctant fully to trust or rely on them.

16. In the late 1930s Horace Wilson was the key lieutenant to Neville Chamberlain, including over the Munich Agreement. He became publicly associated with the Prime Minister and his goals. When Churchill became premier in 1940 he sidelined Wilson, who had become Permanent Secretary of the Treasury and Head of the Home Civil Service, and eventually forced him to retire. Another career civil servant, William Armstrong, experienced similar problems after developing a particularly close link to Edward Heath, Prime Minister from 1970–74.

17. The changes the government seems to be contemplating will invite problems of this nature. Potentially the relationship of trust between permanent officials and possible future ministers will be undermined. It is possible that some permanent secretaries, though appointed from within the career Civil Service, could come to be associated with the particular minister who played a part in their appointment, and the next minister will find it difficult to place full confidence in them. The eventual outcome could be the appearance of a Civil Service of a different character to the mainly impartial institution which exists at present. Permanent secretaries may not be removed altogether but become marginalised and perhaps feel encouraged to go quietly at a convenient time. Eventually a practice of new ministers appointing new permanent secretaries could develop. The possible increased use of temporary Civil Service appointments also envisaged in the government paper (p.21) may help compound this tendency towards change, with more departures and arrivals still.

18. Ministers have other means by which they can obtain support from aides whom they have personally selected, in particular through recruiting special advisers, and it may be preferable for them to continue to rely on these practices, rather than there being a constitutional change of the sort contemplated. If there is to be a major constitutional change, while there may be a case for bringing it about, it should be executed overtly, on a basis of the fullest consultation and preferably consensus, and not by stealth nor by accident.

3. What is the best approach for achieving consensus on the future size, shape and functions of the Civil Service?

19. There is evidence to suggest that major change to the Civil Service is likely to prove more successful if carried out on a basis of cross-party consensus. The Next Steps reforms, first initiated in the late 1980s, involving the transfer of many central functions to arms-length agencies, benefited from the existence of agreement between parties. The apparent intent of the present government on pursuing radical Civil Service reform, particularly through the enhancement of the role of ministers in the appointment of permanent secretaries, suggests a need for cross-party involvement.

20. Recent constitutional developments suggest that Parliament may be a suitable means of ensuring cross-party consultation takes place. It is surprising how little attention the government paper gives to the role of Parliament. While it devotes significant space to different means of involving groups outside the government in policy-formation, little mention is made of the possibility of taking the views of Parliament more fully into account.

21. Given that Parliament is an institution representing the country as a whole, containing a chamber directly elected by the whole of the UK, it would surely be the best place to start any attempt to open up policy making processes. It is an already-established entity and would not in itself demand any additional resources, unlike the other processes discussed in the paper.

22. Moreover, since the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, Parliament, rather than the Royal Prerogative as previously, has become the legal source of the authority to manage the Civil Service (s.3). The Act also establishes the Civil Service Commission (s.2). It could be reasonably inferred that Parliament has a responsibility to oversee the execution of the powers and institutions that are now derived from its own legal enactment. An enhanced role in Civil Service matters for Parliament could therefore be appropriate, though it has yet to be realised.

23. In future, consensus over major Civil Service reforms might be sought through the full involvement of a parliamentary committee—either an existing select committee or a specially convened joint committee of both Houses—in considering proposals at an earlier stage in their development. This committee could also keep the operation of the 2010 Act under review and make recommendations of its own.

24. Changes such as the decision to separate the roles of Head of the Home Civil Service and Cabinet Secretary, taken last year regrettably without satisfactory parliamentary involvement, could be referred in advance to the committee, which would not need to have the power of veto but could express a view.

25. It may also be that—if the government is insistent on an expansion of the ministerial role in departmental appointments, including of permanent secretaries—a further extension of parliamentary involvement in the Civil Service could be necessary. Those chosen for the posts involved could be subject to an appointment hearing with a parliamentary committee prior to taking up the role. Such a practice might seem undesirable and likely to move the Civil Service further into the realm of party political controversy. But it would be a regrettable corollary of the intended changed role for ministers, since there would be a need for Parliament to safeguard the integrity of the organisation for which it is now responsible.

26. Finally, a greater part for ministers in departmental appointments is justified in the paper on the grounds that it will enhance the accountability of ministers (p.21). The logic of this argument (though it is not made explicit) is that ministers will need to accept greater personal responsibility for their departments, including problems with policy and implementation that may develop within them. Conventions governing individual ministerial responsibility to Parliament may need accordingly to be refined.

November 2012

Prepared 5th September 2013