UK: Civil Service Reform Covers Up Government Shortcomings

Last Updated: 4 February 2013
Article by Stuart Thomson

The proposed reform of the Civil Service received a welcome boost with comments made by Steve Hilton, the Prime Minister’s former ‘policy guru’, that Downing Street often learns of government policy through the media.

Francis Maude, Cabinet Office Minister. has been at the forefront of proposed reform and issued the, largely overlooked, Civil Service Reform Plan back in June 2012.  He has continued to lead the campaign for reform suggesting that officials do not focus on the direction of policy set out by Ministers.  Speaking on the Today programme he went as far as saying that ‘(we) need a new civil service’.

There are worries particularly about the politicisation of the civil service which could result from reform.  But there is also a danger that reform is simply used to cover-up the shortcoming of the political side of the administration and Government – it is not always the fault of the civil servants.

1) Ministerial churn – there is no guarantee about how long Ministers will remain in post and when a change comes that often, and is often because of, a change in government priorities.  Officials are the only constant.

Add to this the largely non-expert Ministers that are appointed, they need and rely on their officials for impartial advice.  Ministers may set the big picture but when it comes to detail many are not able to grasp it or are simply not interested.

It also takes time for Ministers and officials to get to know one another, it is not simply a case of a Minister coming in and flicking a switch.  There need to be briefings, relationship building and deliverables established.  There is a human element to the relationships as well.

Some degree of tension can be useful.  A few arguments or battles can actually help to deliver a better policy outcome.  Having a series of people who simply say ‘yes’ and are afraid to challenge does not guarantee success.

2) Timescales – political timescales are not always best suited for long term decision making.  You only need to look at the problems over aviation to see an example of where the politics trumps the long term national interest – successive Governments have put off a decision.

3) Coalition government – in many Departments, officials have two sets of masters and these masters do not always agree amongst themselves.  This means that instructions are not always clear and could even be contradictory.

Criticisms of the civil service assume that Government knows what it is doing and that Ministers are all able to direct and impose their will on their officials.  This will not come as a shock but some Ministers are better than others, know and understand their issues, and are intellectually up to the task.

This is not a defence of the civil service.  There is no doubt that some change is needed.  The recent example of the West Coast Main Line franchise shows that sometimes outside help is needed and the civil service should be prepared to bring it in especially in dealing with complex financial matters.  They may also need help in negotiations, especially with the private sector, which is adept and used to such situations.

In the run-up to Labour’s victory in 1997, there was a fear expressed by many that the civil service was a largely conservative (small ‘c’) organisation and that it would try to block the bidding of a radical new incoming Blair Government.  That did not come to pass.  In the early days of that Government at least, there was a clear agenda, vision and path for reform which the civil service helped to implement.  It is now slightly ironic that a Conservative-led Government is the one to voice its concerns about the civil service.   Although Tony Blair has recently weighed into the debate to add his voice to the criticism.

Reform has been seen as a largely Conservative-led part of the Coalition’s policy agenda but the party has form for ‘taking on’ the civil service.  It should not be forgotten that one of the big areas of reform under Mrs Thatcher was the development of ‘arms-length agencies’ (quangos in the more modern parlance), moving parts of the civil service out into new bodies which would have a clearer focus, drive and inspired by business.  Their establishment would also slim down the civil service.  The policy was hugely controversial at the time.

The danger is though that rather than admit to their failings, politicians will blame others for ‘not doing what they were told’.  Reform does not always deliver the expected, or hoped for, results.  After all aren’t the current Government busy abolishing quangos?

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Stuart Thomson
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