6.Our predecessor Committee’s report on the Work of the Civil Service noted how tensions can arise between a department’s ministers and officials which can have a detrimental effect on policy development and delivery, and the effective running of the department. Ministers in the UK are heavily dependent on their officials. They do not have significant private offices or cabinets. Other than one or two Special Advisers (or “SpAdS”), most ministers rely on the civil servants they inherit to put into effect the policy commitments that they were appointed to deliver. Civil servants are also the source of advice on how to manage emergent issues. Consequently, the relationship between ministers and their officials, which has been described as the “fulcrum of the system” of government in Britain, can also be regarded as a “fault line” or “critical fracture point”. This fulcrum has been a recurrent focus of proposed reform, but without ever gaining access to the evidence about why relationships work well or not, and how those relationships affect policy and delivery. Most debate has focussed exclusively on the civil service, and efforts to promote its responsiveness and increase its accountability. Ministers, in contrast, have been “conspicuously absent” from such discussions. In this chapter, we consider the nature of the ministerial-Civil Service relationship from both sides.
7.In evidence to the inquiry, Lord Maude, who was Minister for the Cabinet Office between 2010 and 2015, argued that the contemporary Civil Service is insufficiently responsive to government priorities. Furthermore, he suggested that civil servants used their independence and political impartiality to resist ministerial instruction. He said the Civil Service “is very protective of itself, and there is an institutional suspicion of changes to the Civil Service that are being promoted by ministers who are, by definition, politicians. They are very quick to cry politicisation—‘noli me tangere: don’t touch us, because you are going to politicise us’”. This was often through ignoring instruction though, on occasion, might be through overt disobedience. In the course of his research, Professor Kakabadse also found ministers and former ministers who suspected their senior officials had blocked initiatives or failed properly to support them.
8.Most recently, much of this type of criticism has focussed on whether the Civil Service has been resisting or undermining the Government’s policy to leave the EU. Professor Kakabadse found that some ministers were particularly wary of their officials in relation to Brexit, suspecting them of “inhibiting or subverting negotiations, and delaying or thwarting the minister’s ambitions”. But Lord Maude disputed the idea that the Civil Service defied ministers for political reasons. For him, the motivation for resistance to ministerial direction was one of narrow self-interest rather than the pursuit of any partisan ends. Baroness Finn, who had been a SpAd for Lord Maude, agreed: “When there is a very big defensive resistance it is about protecting the system. It is about politics with a small “p” and protecting their own rather than resisting specific policies”. Lord Maude has noted that members of the 1997–2010 Labour Government had shared some of his frustrations.
9.This reported lack of trust in the Civil Service has led to successive attempts to reform it, including those that emerged during Lord Maude’s tenure as Minister for the Cabinet Office. The expressed aim of the 2012 Civil Service Reform Plan (CSRP), launched under the 2010–15 Coalition Government, was to address systemic weaknesses in the Civil Service exposed by factors such as ongoing fiscal restraint, the pressure on services caused by an ageing population and changing citizen expectations about the accessibility of public services. However, in both the CSRP and the subsequent report, the Civil Service Reform Plan One Year On, much of the emphasis was on increasing the responsiveness of the Civil Service to ministerial instruction. This included measures to “sharpen” the accountability of permanent secretaries to Parliament. They would be required to take greater personal responsibility for ensuring the implementation of projects in their departments and would be required to be accountable for their leadership of major projects even after they moved post.
10.The CSRP also relied heavily on the Civil Service importing the values and outlook understood to be part of the corporate world, through changing recruitment criteria for senior officials and recruiting non-executive members of departmental boards.
11.One of the more controversial measures included in the CSRP was to allow greater ministerial involvement in the appointment of senior civil servants in their departments, including the permanent secretary. Although the Civil Service Commission subsequently made modest reforms to the recruitment principles to allow greater ministerial involvement (albeit largely arms-length), in a speech in 2013 Lord Maude reiterated his preference for giving secretaries of state the ultimate decision on appointing their permanent secretary from a shortlist drawn up given to them by an independent selection panel.
12.Other proposals in the CSRP and the follow-up report also designed to increase Civil Service responsiveness to ministers included:
13.Professor Kakbadse’s report does not corroborate the suspicions of obstructionism. Instead, he found a strong culture of commitment amongst senior officials to serving their minister. Much of the evidence the Committee received emphasised the strong sense of loyalty that senior civil servants hold towards their minister. Damien Green, Minister for the Cabinet Office between June and December 2017, explicitly rejected the idea that civil servants deliberately thwart government policy.
14.Gareth Hills, the FDA President, suggested to us that this loyalty to serving and protecting the minister could lessen with distance from the centre: that it was more intensely held by those in senior posts in the main departments who were more likely to come into contact with ministers and who were likely to be the recipients of ministerial instruction. For them, responsiveness to their minister was ‘hard wired’ into them through their career development. Unsurprisingly, those in non-ministerial departments or arms-length agencies and those in posts more remote from the centre felt loyalty to individual ministers less strongly. Nonetheless, the ethos of public service throughout the Civil Service was emphasised by the union representatives: Garry Graham of Prospect described this commitment to public service as “visceral”.
15.However, despite the devotion of civil servants to understanding and serving ministers, the peculiarities of the relationship and the different pressures they face can place it under strain. Rather than wilful obstructionism by civil servants, Oliver Dowden MP, the Minister for Implementation (who also previously served as a SpAd in No 10 under David Cameron) thought that such accusations were the product of a lack of ministerial clarity or officials’ reticence about speaking sufficiently bluntly to their minister. Paul O’Connor of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) made a similar point from the civil servants’ perspective:
When there is a change of Minister, I think it is important for that Minister to be clear about what their vision is for the Civil Service and what they want that public service to do. If that is communicated in a proper way to the workforce and it gets them engaged, they will buy into that delivery model.
16.Ministers are often under pressure to act rapidly. A timeframe dictated by the electoral cycle or the prospect of an even shorter ministerial tenure, and media pressure to act immediately can all contribute to the “urgency of the political imperative”. Civil servants, on the other hand, might want more time to assess available options, running counter to this sense of urgency. Civil servants may also feel inhibited about explaining potential problems with a preferred ministerial approach.
17.Professor Kakabadse identified the personal relationship between ministers and their senior officials and, in particular, their permanent secretaries as crucial. He highlighted the “transition phase” that follows appointment as particularly significant in determining this:
It takes time to appreciate the nature of the new department, how to relate to and challenge the staff in order to emerge with a deeper understanding of the cultural intricacies that allow for more considered decision-making.
Professor Kakabadse suggested that it can take up to a year for a newly appointed secretary of state or permanent secretary to get to grips with a new post. Even where they have previous experience at that level, the transition to a new department can still take six months. But he found that it was the first three that were particularly crucial in determining the relationship between ministers and their officials. It is in this phase that attitudes can become engrained to the extent that it can even affect a minister’s attitude toward officials, potentially for the rest of their career. The Minister acknowledged that the period immediately following a new ministerial appointment is significant. He noted that the immediate pressures on a new minister to get up to speed on the policy challenges facing the department, left little time to put time aside in order to establish a working relationship with senior officials.
18.Professor Kakabadse said that some civil servants had found “speaking truth to power is seriously stretching, bearing in mind the urgency demanded by the Secretary of State to realise their agenda and their frustration when progress is impeded”. A similar point was made by others. For example, Gareth Hills of the FDA told us that “At some point the Civil Service, probably too often, just gets on with it rather than maintaining that challenge.” In his submission, Professor Hugh Pemberton from the University of Bristol, said that:
There is a continuing fear that the [senior Civil Service] has developed an institutionalised aversion to challenging Ministers. Where there is a challenge, governmental blunders are all too often associated with ‘activist ministers’ who tend to dismiss such warnings as typically obstructionist.
19.Sir Amyas Morse, the Comptroller and Auditor General agreed. On the Civil Service’s balance between impartiality and its responsiveness, he said that “the ship has probably tilted in the opposite direction over a number of years to where it is difficult for civil servants to feel they can stand up”. Matthew Taylor, a former SpAd in Number 10, said that civil servants self-censored rather than challenge their minister. Faced with the prospect of challenging a minister’s preferred policy, too often they decided “it was better to nod sagely than look career-threateningly unhelpful”.
20.The National Audit Office has found that even permanent secretaries who, as Departmental Accounting Officers (AOs) are individually accountable to Parliament for the value for money of their departmental expenditure, can be reluctant to challenge ministers’ preferred course of action. The NAO found that the:
incentives on an AO to prioritise value for money are weak compared with those associated with the day-to-day job of satisfying ministers. In terms of the balance of priorities AOs have to strike, the emphasis has shifted over a number of years towards political drivers—sometimes at the expense of safeguarding public value.
21.The Minister emphasised to us that it was important for ministers to be challenged by their officials, as well as challenging them. The former ministers, Lord Maude and Sir Oliver Letwin MP, both said that they had welcomed robust challenge whilst in office. Lord Maude said that “No sane minister wants to embark on a policy without having had well informed advice”. But challenging ministers constructively is only feasible where there is a “healthy relationship” between ministers and their officials characterised by “a culture of challenge, openness and assurance”. Professor Kakabadse found that many officials “are reluctant to speak up, fearing more harm than benefit would result to their relationship with the minister” and that “speaking truth to power can be damaging where the relationship between the minister and civil servant is ill prepared for such an encounter”. Sir Oliver Letwin MP emphasised this point: “It is up to Ministers to create an atmosphere around them where open, genuine, serious, prolonged debate can take place”.
22.The significance of a trusting, confident relationship between ministers and their senior officials is vital to effective policy design and delivery. This is amply illustrated by, in its absence, ministers publicly criticising their civil servants, and civil servants apparently countering by leaking internal, confidential information to the media. Neither of these can be justified. Where ministers work with their officials well, apportioning blame is replaced by forward-looking lesson learning. This depends upon ministers feeling comfortable with their sense of accountability, which also means their feeling comfortable in their dependence upon on those they “instruct”. This in turn depends upon the quality of personal working relationships, including between ministers and officials, and the degree of trust between them. This underlines how important it is for ministers to create the right atmosphere for these crucial relationships.
23.The experiment with Extended Ministerial Offices has ended after they were not widely used. But it remains vital that ministers have confidence in their private offices. This depends on how permanent secretaries engage their ministers in the appointment of staff and their work.
24.Professor Kakabadse told the Committee that the senior civil servants and, in particular, permanent secretaries, make strenuous efforts not only to understand the priorities of a new minister but also to understand their temperament and psychology and preferred ways of working to better establish a strong and trusting working relationship. But ministers do not necessarily make the same investment in working effectively with officials. Some new ministers might have familiarity with the role gained in parliamentary private secretary (PPS) or SpAd roles. But, for the most part, “people are massively underprepared for the role they will have, the amount of work and understanding how the levers work inside departments”.
25.Officials prepare induction material for incoming ministers, designed to familiarise them with their new department and the immediate issues facing them. However, these do not focus on more generic aspects of being a minister. Lord Maude said that “As a new Minister coming in as Minister in charge of a department, it will be very unfamiliar. You will have some support from special advisers, who may have worked with you before but may not. The induction you get from the department will be very varied in quality and in what it seeks to do”. The Minister acknowledged that, such was the immediate pressure on incoming ministers, there was little room left for establishing trusting working relationships with officials.
26.In its report on Civil Service Skills in 2015, our predecessor Committee recommended a Civil Service Parliamentary Scheme, along similar lines as the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme (AFPS). The AFPS aims to promote understanding of the Armed Forces and how they train and operate, to enable better informed debate on policy on the armed forces through a system of placements for MPs. An equivalent Civil Service scheme could see MPs take up brief attachments to Whitehall departments or agencies. This would give MPs better insights into the ways of working in the Civil Service and better equip them for ministerial office. It could also improve civil servants’ understanding of Parliament. We were pleased that the Minister received this proposal positively.
27.We welcome the Minister’s commitment to investigate ways of establishing a Parliamentary Civil Service Scheme. We recommend and expect proposals and plans for this to be set out in the Government’s response to this report.
28.A Civil Service Parliamentary Scheme would help to increase general awareness and understanding amongst MPs and future ministers, but there is also scope for the political parties to provide training to prepare their prospective ministers for office. Even with that, much ministerial development will inevitably have to take place “on the job”, after appointment. The Minister told us that, when he was first appointed, “within 12 hours I was on my feet answering questions in the Chamber and by the weekend one of the major strategic suppliers was entering liquidation”.
29.There have been efforts to provide some introductory training for incoming ministers. Lord Maude said that even the limited, half-day training he was able to organise for Cabinet colleagues following the 2010 General Election was “hugely appreciated”. However, the Better Government Initiative (BGI) said that such activities have sometimes been insufficiently prioritised and attendance patchy.
30.Professor Kakabadse emphasised the need for much more comprehensive induction for ministers at the outset of their tenure and suggested that this induction might include an element of coaching to facilitate the establishment of an effective relationship between ministers and their civil servants. The onus has been exclusively on the Civil Service to make this relationship work but, in Professor Kakabadse’s view, the relationship is so “fundamental to the delivery of policy, that it requires a better appreciation by both parties of the chemistry factor and its consequences will enable both parties to appropriately discuss and position their relationship”. Professor Kakabadse thought that, with facilitation from coaches, the three month transition phase that he considered so crucial in determining the subsequent relationship between ministers and their officials could be reduced to three weeks.
31.Reflecting on his own experience, the Minister noted the extent to which new ministers can find themselves facing significant crises immediately on taking office. Because of this, he was not in favour of an extensive, formal induction programme being imposed on new ministers on arrival in their department. The experience is that in practice this is too little and too late, and has insufficient political authority behind it to be effective.
32.However, the Minister was supportive of the principle that more should be done to encourage new ministers to reflect on how they work with their officials. He thought that even the addition of a checklist including the requirement to discuss with the permanent secretary immediate priorities, concerns and preferred ways of working over a short series of dedicated meetings could help establish a better mutual understanding and avoid the relationship souring from the start. At a minimum, it would require the new minister to clarify these things for themselves and make their position clear.
33.Continuing reform and renewal of the Civil Service must acknowledge how much depends upon the relationship between ministers and senior civil servants. We are pleased that the significance of the minister-civil servant relationship highlighted by this Report is already acknowledged by the Minister.
34.Newly appointed ministers should be required to hold structured discussions with their permanent secretaries in the days and weeks following appointment to establish a clear understanding of priorities and ways of working. No.10 should ensure that these have taken place. Ideally, coaching and facilitation by a third person of sufficient standing and experience should be made available to facilitate a clear working relationship between a minister and his or her permanent secretary as quickly as possible. The necessary advice, support and resource should be provided by the Cabinet Office, and should not be refused by a department without the Cabinet Secretary being satisfied that there is good reason. Once such facilitated preliminary meetings are part of the culture of Whitehall, and provided the body of facilitators gain a reputation for their effectiveness, few permanent secretaries or ministers would resist the opportunity to accelerate their learning and effectiveness.
9 PACAC HC253 15th Report of Session 2016–17, para. 29
10 M Taylor “The critical fault line damaging departmental effectiveness? The relationship between politicians and senior officials” 4 November 2015; RAW Rhodes “So You Want to Reform the Civil Service” in K. Trewhitt et al (eds Reform September 2014; (Professor Kakabadse), p.3
11 C. Hood and R. Dixon A Government that Worked Better and Cost Less? Evaluating Three Decades of Reform and Change in UK Central Government Oxford University Press 2015, p.3
12 A. Tiernan “The Dilemmas of Organisational Capacity” Policy and Society, Vol.34, No. 3–4, p.214
13 Lord Maude “” 13 September 2017; Q227 (Lord Maude)
15 Q227; Lord Maude “” 13 September 2017
16 , p.14
17 D. Gayle “Rees-Mogg repeats claim Treasury is ‘fiddling’ Brexit figures” 3 February 2018
19 Lord Maude “” 13 September 2017. Also Q221 (Baroness Finn)
21 Lord Maude “” 13 September 2017
22 Cabinet Office 2012, p.7–8
23 Cabinet Office 2013
24 Cabinet Office 2012, p.20
25 We return to these themes in more detail in chapters three and five respectively.
26 Civil Service Commission December 2012
27 Francis Maude 5 June 2013
28 Francis Maude 5 June 2013. They were drawn from recommendations from an IPPR report the Cabinet Office commissioned reviewing the responsiveness of the Public Service overseas: IPPR June 2013.
29 Cabinet Office 2013, p.31
30 , p.18
31 E.g. Q297 (Professor Kakabadse); (Andrew Greenaway), para. 4.
32 Tamsin Rutter “Damian Green rejects Civil Service ‘conspiracy theories’ – and says some ministers don’t like evidence” 21 February 2018
34 See M. Bevir and R.A.W. Rhodes Governance Stories London: Routledge, p.121
35 Q143 (Paul O’Connor)
38 Q148 (Paul O’Connor)
39 (Professor Kakabadse), p.18
40 (Professor Kakabadse), p.28. We return to this theme in paras 18–22.
41 , p.26
42 , p.26–28
44 Q524 (Oliver Dowden MP)
45 , p.17
49 M Taylor “The critical fault line damaging departmental effectiveness? The relationship between politicians and senior officials” 4 November 2015
50 NAO HC 849 Session 2015–16, p.6
51 Q523 (Oliver Dowden MP)
52 Q232 (Lord Maude)
53 Q561 (Oliver Dowden MP); See also Q466 (Sir Jeremy Heywood)
54 , p.47
55 Q274 (Sir Oliver Letwin MP)
56 , p.13–14
57 Q301 (Julian McCrae)
58 Q209 (Lord Maude)
59 Q561 (Oliver Dowden MP)
60 PASC 2014–15 HC 112, para.46
61 Q563 (Oliver Dowden MP)
62 Q561 (Oliver Dowden MP)
63 , para 23
64 , p.44
65 , p.46
66 Q561 (Oliver Dowden MP)
67 Q566 (Oliver Dowden MP)
Published: 18 June 2018