Public Administration CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Professor the Lord Norton of Louth, Professor of Government, University of Hull (CSR 26)

I offer a general observation in relation to evaluating the proposed reforms. I would test them against three criteria:

1.Do they identify clearly where the civil service will be in five–10 years?

2.Do they identify clearly how they to get from here to there?

3.Do they delineate the criteria by which to judge whether the changes have been successful?

The Civil Service Reform Plan identifies important changes but is not as clear as it could be in identifying the ultimate goal—where the civil service will be in five or 10 years—and the criteria by which we will be able to judge whether it has been successful. Question 3 may be seen as similar to the first, but is distinguishable: the goal may be achieved but not necessarily by the most efficient means.

The Civil Service in Context

My principal concern is with putting reform of the civil service in the context of the political system. The civil service does not exist as a discrete entity. It is part of a network of bodies that form the process by which measures of public policy are generated, approved and implemented. The civil service is a body of Crown servants that serve to facilitate the generation of tested, evidence-based policy of Her Majesty’s Government and to deliver the public services that fall within the responsibility of Government. Most civil servants are employed in the delivery of services rather than policy formation. My principal focus is those within the Senior Civil Service responsible for facilitating the generation of public policy.

The formal situation in relation to ministers and Parliament is that civil servants are responsible to the senior minister heading the Department, that responsibility channelled formally through the Permanent Secretary, and the minister is answerable to Parliament for the Department. The constitutional convention of individual ministerial responsibility is important for ensuring line control by the minister. It tends, though, to be seen in terms of culpability rather than answerability.

The Government’s plans are designed to reform the civil service so that it is more effective both in service delivery and in offering policy advice. The justification for change is advanced by Government. My concern is to identify what, if anything, is missing.

The principal concern is that the proposals see the civil service largely in isolation of ministers and Parliament. The Reform Plan includes the relationship between civil servants and ministers, but the proposals are confined to one side of the relationship. There is an intention that civil servants will be more efficient and effective in generating policy advice and some proposals are offered to enhance delivery, but the plan is silent on the effectiveness of ministers. Government comprises ministers and civil servants and for public policy to be effective (necessary, tested, evidence-based and justified) one needs ministers who know how to lead and to manage effectively their Departments and make use of the resources at their disposal.

Civil servants speak for their ministers, but increasingly have to appear before select committees to explain policy. They have a significant role in advising ministers, who then have to account to Parliament for their policy and their actions, and communicate with parliamentarians on behalf of ministers or accompany ministers in meetings with parliamentarians. Parliament is the body that has to approve measures of public policy and has the responsibility of calling Government to account for its actions. Even though civil servants are not answerable for their actions directly to Parliament, Parliament has a right to question and challenge ministers as to what Departments do, what they propose, and to ensure that the Government is operating efficiently and effectively. Government works within boundaries set by Parliament.

Given this, there are to my mind two lacunae in the Government’s proposals.

Ministers and Civil Servants

The civil service since the days of Northcote-Trevelyan has been characterised by the generalist civil servant. That point has been made frequently and the Government’s plan is to move away from the generalist to a more specialist civil service. There is nothing novel in this. It has been an up-hill struggle. “The post-Fulton changes”, as Kevin Theakston observed, “failed to dislodge the generalist.”1 However, the emphasis on the generalist civil servant has masked a key feature of Government in the UK: that is, the generalist minister. Historically, it has been a case of generalist civil servants serving under generalist ministers. There was no expertise on the part of either. Civil servants (and some ministers) may specialise, but there is a difference between specialisation and expertise. The culture of the civil service has even been one that has been wary of the specialist.2

The generalist civil servant could look at issues from different perspectives. Stability in post contributed to a corporate memory. The Government’s reform plans recognise the need to move away from the generalist, but the emphasis is on managerial efficiency rather than subject-specific knowledge. One needs to distinguish managerial skills from specialisation and expertise. One also needs to be clear on the point that specialisation and expertise are distinguishable. The move towards delivery skills on the part of civil servants may be deemed necessary, but I am not sure it is sufficient.

The intention is to make greater use of external expertise, drawing it in for particular projects, but one needs a basic level of knowledge in a subject to know who to use and how to engage with them. There is a case for addressing how you to draw in more expertise to the civil service. The proposal under Action 5 for “contestable policy making” is a step in the right direction, but the resources proposed appear inadequate to the scale of the task. It also flows from what I have said that there is a need to have some in-house expertise. This is not a radical, certainly not a new, proposal. As the Fulton Report argued, civil servants “must also have a thorough knowledge of the subject-matter of their field of administration and keep up to date in it.”3

Equally important is the question of how to strengthen ministers in dealing with civil servants. Effective Government requires a competent minister working with an effective body of civil servants. Ministers are selected by the Prime Minister for a variety of reasons: skills in managing a Department are not necessarily the sole consideration, or even a consideration. Ministerial appointments are important components of Prime Ministerial patronage and recent decades, as the Committee has reported, have seen an increase in the number of ministers, not necessarily related to departmental needs.4 Senior ministers take office, historically have been given little guidance by the Prime Minister as to what is expected of them, and in the running of Departments have been left to re-invent the wheel.5 There has not been a dissemination of best practice and ministers have adopted a variety of styles in running their Departments.6 Essentially, as with civil servants, it has been a case of on-the-job training.

A greater emphasis on ensuring civil servants have the requisite skills for fulfilling the tasks expected of them needs to be matched by a greater emphasis on ensuring that ministers are able to make the most of the resource at their disposal. There has been much comment on the proposal for ministers to have some involvement in the appointment of Permanent Secretaries. Historically, ministers have had some say in who goes—if there is a clash between minister and Permanent Secretary, the latter has been expected to fall on his or her sword—but not in who succeeds them. The concern with involvement in appointment (Action 11) is a fear of political bias. This rather misses the wider point, namely that ministers usually have no training or qualifications in making managerial appointments. There is, in essence, what may be termed an HR issue as much as a political issue. Ministers are not only not trained in making appointments, they usually have no training in how to run Departments.

If one is to get the best out of the civil service in terms of public policy and the operation of government, then one has not only to reform the civil service but also to make changes to how ministers going about running their Departments. This means introducing some element of training for ministers. I have previously drawn attention to the need to ensure that ministers are better informed as to best practice in terms of managing Departments. Former Cabinet Secretary Lord O’Donnell, in evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, has now made the case for the training of ministers.7 There have been sporadic attempts to provide some element of training in the past, but they have not been sustained or rigorous. Ministers have been eligible to have some training through the National School of Government and, now, Civil Service Learning, but there appears to have been little take-up and, it appears, little initiative on the part of ministers to make use of what is available.

I have pursued various parliamentary questions relating to training, both in respect of civil servants and ministers. In relation to the absence of ministers being trained, not least in matter covered by their Departments, I record that answered on 9 November 2012:

Asked by Lord Norton of Louth

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many Ministers presently in the Cabinet Office and the office of the Lord President of the Council have received training from the National School of Government or Civil Service Learning in constitutional principles and practice. [HL2847]

Baroness Northover: None.

I think one needs to consider seriously the issue of training ministers, both in terms of management of Departments and in the subject matter covered by Departments. Relying on in-house briefing by officials is not sufficient, not only because of potential departmental-capture but also because it entails generalists being briefed by generalists.

Ensuring that ministers are trained, in order to maximise their effectiveness as heads of departments, is important for Government in terms of policy generation and implementation, but it is also important in terms of the relationship between Government and Parliament. Ministers answer to Parliament for their Departments. If the ministers are the weak link in the chain between Departments and Parliament, then that is an argument for enhancing the ability of ministers, rather than deciding that civil servants should be accountable directly to Parliament.

However, if ministers are to answer effectively to Parliament, they need to be supported by officials who understand the constitutional significance of Parliament and how it operates. This brings me to the second lacuna.

The Civil Service And Parliament

Civil servants who advise ministers, or who service ministers in their dealings with Parliament, often appear to have little appreciation of the institution and how it works.

In 2010, I moved an amendment to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill which was accepted by Government. This now constitutes section 3(6) of the Act:

In exercising his power to manage the civil service, the Minister for the Civil Service shall have regard to the need to ensure that civil servants who advise Ministers are aware of the constitutional significance of Parliament and of the conventions governing the relationship between Parliament and Her Majesty’s Government.

I have since pursued the extent to which this provision has been complied with by Departments. There remains a problem in that civil servants receive no training in respect of Parliament. Some appreciate its role and significance. Others do not. If anything, the problem is exacerbated by the demise of the National School of Government and its replacement Civil Service Learning (CSL), offering primarily modules online, with officials left to decide their own training needs. As the Reform Plan basically acknowledges (p. 23), the change from the National School to CSL is to save money.

Answers to parliamentary questions on the subject have been either uninformative or revealed the permissive nature of what is available. Thus, for example, the answer to one question on 28 June 2012:

Asked by Lord Norton of Louth

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many civil servants of permanent secretary or equivalent presently in post have received dedicated training on the constitutional significance of Parliament and the conventions governing the relationship between Parliament and Government; and whether it is a requirement that those appointed as Permanent Secretaries have received such training. [HL523]

Baroness Verma: Information on the training which civil servants currently at Permanent Secretary or equivalent level have received in the past is not held centrally.

All civil servants can attend training provided by Civil Service Learning covering the role of Parliament, understanding the parliamentary process, and the relationship between Parliament and Government.

The Civil Service Reform plan published last week made clear that all civil servants will receive five days training in the future.

The key word in the answer, in relation to training on the role of Parliament, is “can” (“All civil servants can attend training...”) rather than “must” or “are expected to”. As to the five-days training embodied in the Civil Service Reform Plan, there is no indication of what the training will comprise. It is also notable that Action 12 of the Plan states: “A new Civil Service Learning (CSL) core curriculum and learning and development offer for all staff is currently being rolled out” (my emphasis).

A further question, answered on 9 January, elicited the fact that there is no clear leadership in Departments in determining the training needs of senior civil servants:

Asked by Lord Norton of Louth

To ask Her Majesty’s Government who is responsible in each department for determining the training needs of civil servants pursuant to Section 3(6) of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. [HL3653]

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: As part of the Civil Service Reform plan, the Government committed to addressing skill gaps across the Civil Service. A capabilities plan will be published in due course with further information, as well as how commercial, project management, management and leadership of change, and digital skills will be improved.

A further question revealed that responsibility for training is seen as an HR issue rather than something requiring direction from the top within a Department:

Asked by Lord Norton of Louth

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Written Answer by Lord Wallace of Saltaire on 9 January (WA 97), who will be responsible in each government department for determining the training needs of civil servants pursuant to Section 3(6) of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 until such time as a capabilities plan is published. [HL4489]

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: Departments with dedicated HR staff will oversee the demands and requirements for training from Civil Service Learning. A capabilities plan will be published in due course containing further information on key priorities for building the capability of the civil service. Publication of the plan is unlikely to change these responsibilities.

The essential point is that ensuring that civil servants have an understanding of the role and constitutional significance of Parliament is acknowledged by Government, but there is little evidence of steps being taken to ensure that such knowledge is imparted.


My purpose has been to draw attention to gaps in the proposed reforms, rather than to offer a critique of the Reform Plan as a whole. They are, to my mind, significant gaps if the Government’s plans to deliver an effective civil service are to be delivered. There is a need for training, both of ministers and of civil servants. The position appears not to have changed dramatically since William Plowden noted almost twenty years ago that “senior officials still receive too little formal training”.8 The ministerial side has to be an integral part of change. There has to be strong leadership if change is to be delivered, but intrinsic to that change is an enhancement of ministerial capacity to lead. It is also crucial that civil servants not only fully grasp their responsibilities to ministers, but also to Parliament. Government has to answer to Parliament. Parliament is therefore entitled to expect that both ministers and civil servants understand their responsibilities and are equipped effectively to fulfil those responsibilities. Reform has to be seen in the round; Parliament is not an optional extra.

January 2013

1 Kevin Theakston, The Civil Service Since 1945 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), p. 99.

2 See, for example, Peter Hennessy, Whitehall (London: Secker & Warburg, 1989), p. 159.

3 The Civil Service, Vol. 1: Report of the Committee 1966-68 (Chairman: The Lord Fulton), Cmnd. 3638, London: HMSO, 1968, para. 98, p. 35.

4 Public Administration Select Committee, Smaller Government: What do Ministers do? Seventh Report, Session 2010-11, HC 530.

5 See Philip Norton, “Barons in a Shrinking Kingdom: Senior Ministers in British Government”, in R. A. W. Rhodes (ed), Transforming British Government, Vol. 2: Changing Roles and Relationships (London: Macmillan, 2000), pp. 101-24.

6 See Philip Norton, “How to be a minister – get some training”, The Edge, Issue 1, May 1999, p. 4.

7 Evidence before the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, 28 February 2013.

8 William Plowden, Ministers and Mandarins (London: IPPR, 1994), p. 146.

Prepared 5th September 2013