Civil servants: they’re really rubbish, aren’t they? Always getting in the way, blocking things, dragging their feet, ignoring the will of the electorate. It’s almost as if they had never spent a moment at a think tank or written a column for a newspaper. Don’t they know anything? Kick them out.
This, crudely, is the thrust of some of the things that have been said about civil servants in the past few days. A leaked memo from an anonymous senior civil servant (£) caused something close to hyperventilation in some circles. A now familiar story – told mainly by current and former special advisers and journalists – has been established. It is that principled, straightforward politicians (and their advisers) are being stymied by the slippery and obstructive behaviour of civil servants. The permanent civil service has forgotten that it is there to serve. And it is not just Conservative party figures who argue this. Some people from the last Labour government say so too.
Perhaps that last point should not be surprising. It was Tony Blair, after all, who announced that he bore scars on his back from trying to pursue public sector reform as long ago as 1999. The implication was that some elements in the civil service were insufficiently enthusiastic about the proposed changes.
For a defence of the role of the civil service as currently constituted you can turn to a speech by Martin Donnelly, permanent secretary at the department for business, innovation and science, which he delivered at the Institute for Government a few days ago. This was a clear, conventional if not uncritical account of how civil servants should be working with their ministers.
“If ministers are never challenged they are unlikely to be getting the best advice around an issue,” Donnelly said. “If the boundaries of their views are not subject to scrutiny they may miss the opportunity to change their views as the evidence changes. The desire to please ministers is rightly a strong motivator of policy civil servants; but it needs to be tempered by challenge – which in my experience good ministers expect and have a right to. Ultimately ministers have the last word, so mutual trust requires the ability to offer conflicting views in the confidence that it will not erode that trust.”
That is a neat and lucid description of how things are supposed to work. And yet to listen to some critics of the civil service this version completely ignores the alleged duplicity and cussedness of civil servants who do not agree with the thrust or content of government policy.
How much “challenge” has been offered to ministers over government policy by civil servants during the past four years? By definition it is hard to know for sure: civil servants leak less often than political special advisers, part of whose job it is, admittedly, to explain to the media and others what it is the government is trying to do. But one way of measuring if departmental officials are struggling to carry out policy owing to principled objections is to see how many “letters of direction” have been requested by permanent secretaries. A “letter of direction” is written by a minister when civil servants make it clear that they have serious concerns about a government policy, and wish those concerns to be recorded. In these circumstances the civil servants are effectively saying: we don’t really believe this policy can be carried out and require you to order us to (attempt to) do so.
How many “letters of direction” have been written since May 2010? None at all. This does not mean there have been no disagreements or rows. But it also means, I think, that ministers can hardly claim civil servants have succeeded in regularly blocking policy. If ministers have changed their mind, or abandoned a policy after receiving advice, then that is how the system is supposed to work. Unless ministers and their advisers are really saying that they are just too feeble to argue their corner with officials?
Consider the slow, fumbling, faulty and grossly delayed launch of Universal Credit. Have officials at the DWP stymied this policy? Or have they in fact ensured that the whole thing has not collapsed by insisting that the policy proceeds in stages? Arguably there should have been far more “challenge” over this reform, not less. Perhaps a “letter of direction” will get written at DWP before the year s out.
A more measured account of working with civil servants has been offered by Giles Wilkes, until recently a special adviser to Vince Cable in the same department where Donnelly is permanent secretary – BIS. He argues that talk of “coups” by civil servants is pretty wildly overblown.
Does government, as it is currently structured, work perfectly? Of course not. Could civil servants sometimes grasp the political necessity for speed and decisiveness with a bit more enthusiasm? Undoubtedly. Does the centre of government – No 10 and the cabinet office – have enough control over the development of policy and the speed of its execution? Is the centre adequately staffed? No, and no.
But the permanent, independent civil service, as described by Martin Donnelly, offers much more than an army of newly hired officials would be able to do if we copied the US system of clearing out senior civil servants every time there is a change of government. The ability of the same civil servants to work for governments of different colours is a great virtue of our current system.
Mature and competent ministers can work very successfully with officials. Politicians should provide a sense of direction. Civil servants should carry out the work that ensues. It may not always be easy, but it must be doable. The protests you are hearing at the moment stem mostly from the disappointment of ministers and advisers who have failed to navigate the system and manage relationships properly.
Where do we think the problem with Universal Credit really lies: with civil servants, or with the Rt Hon Iain Duncan Smith MP?
Sometimes perhaps even a “coup” might be justified!