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The relationship between ministers and the civil service can be bumpy - but is the system still working?

Recent policy decisions have exposed the tensions between ministers and civil servants

7 min read

The connection between civil servants and ministers has come under increased scrutiny after reports of tension over recent policy decisions.

In an episode of the 1970s comedy series The Goodies, the government outlaws fun and enjoyment. Were this to ever transpire in real life, the details of this unhappy policy decision would have had to be planned and implemented by civil servants, whatever their personal misgivings or views on banning merriment.

Back in our world, enjoyment thankfully remains legal, but governments of all colours have issued decisions down the decades that civil servants may question – impartially – on grounds of value for money or of simply being bad policy.

Right now, the Civil Service is attracting a lot of attention on exactly these issues. Home Secretary Priti Patel was portrayed as "facing a mutiny" from staff over her proposal to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda. Meanwhile, Cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg has left "sorry you were out when I visited" messages on the Whitehall desks of civil servants working from home.

The Civil Service’s role within our unwritten constitution is being forensically scrutinised: is it still possible to stay on a government agenda while challenging poor policy and remaining neutral?

It is perhaps useful to understand what is meant in such circumstances by "poor". This does not mean a civil servant dislikes the policy – they may or may not. Rather, it’s whether the policy meets metrics for value for money, feasibility and propriety. In the case of the Rwanda scheme, Patel was asked by her permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft to issue him with a Ministerial Direction (MD) after he made clear there was little evidence the policy offered value for money.

"The permanent secretary was not saying he thought it a bad policy, just that there was no evidence for it on a value for money basis," says Alex Thomas, programme director at the Institute for Government. "For me, the system of MDs is evidence of a system working properly. The policy was highly controversial but the MD was uncontroversial in essence."

MDs show the systems of checks and balances between ministers and the Civil Service is generally working, suggests Clare Moriarty, former permanent secretary at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and then at the Department for Exiting the European Union. "The permanent secretary is being explicit about the [value for money] issue, but the minister may bring different things to bear. An MD is a calm acknowledgement the minister has reached a decision and is taking responsibility for it. That is important because it’s the permanent secretary who sits in front of the Public Accounts Committee and answers for the value for money of departmental spending."

Ultimately, Thomas points out, "ministers have the democratic legitimacy to do what they want. The Civil Service, when it comes down to it, needs to do what ministers say, whether they agree with it or not."

According to Thomas, the degree to which ministers express their power is key, and the pitfalls of a heavy-handed tone were exposed by the recent furore over working from home.

Many observers, including some of Rees-Mogg’s Cabinet colleagues, believe he went against empirical evidence of high productivity from home-based working. "If Rees-Mogg has the Prime Minister’s backing then he can do whatever he wants," says Thomas. "But in practice, taking a highly oppositional approach is not going to work."

Dave Penman, head of the union for the senior Civil Service , the FDA, is disturbed at the message the comments send to the wider public. "It was crass, demeaning and a failure of a minister to base a view on delivery outcomes. Tarnishing the brand matters. He left these notes on Cabinet Office national security desks. Highly able people who the government and public trusts with the UK’s security are being patronised, undermined, by a minister."

Moriarty is concerned there may be an emerging tendency for some ministers to simply disregard the advice they are given. "A lot of how government works is fundamentally based on mutual respect between ministers and officials. The Rees-Mogg letters about working from home didn’t feel consistent with that," she says.

Does this mean the assumption that ministers self-regulate to a degree, what Lord Hennessy (crossbench peer and history of government expert) called the "good chaps code," needs revisiting? Hennessy himself has not stayed quiet on recent matters. Excoriatingly, he declared that Boris Johnson had "shredded the ministerial code" over the recent scandal involving parties in Downing Street: "It’s an assault on not just the decent state of mind which keeps our society open and clean but also on the institutions of the state," he told the BBC.

Thomas agrees recent events imply there would be a benefit from greater clarity on just where accountability lies for both ministers and civil servants. "As a country we’ve never really had that debate,” he says. "It’s not easy – there has always been and always will be a grey zone between policy making and the technocratic implementation."

Moriarty wonders if the detail of the Civil Service and ministerial codes also needs revisiting. "Those codes provide guard rails but they are not floor-to-ceiling barriers. Some ministers are minded to jump over them unless there is unequivocal guidance in black and white that they can’t. It may be that more needs to be spelled out in detail, rather than being left to the spirit of the code."

Is wholescale change to how civil servants operate the answer? Some want our Civil Service to move towards an American system, with far more political appointees. Jonathan Slater, former permanent secretary at the Department for Education (DfE), sees pros and cons. "It is perfectly possible to have a well-run Civil Service that is political; the individuals will be aligned with their bosses’ agenda," he says. "But the United States shows the challenges with such a system. When a new president comes in, it can take them a year to appoint their team, and those individuals tend to be inexperienced."

Former Downing Street chief of staff Dominic Cummings went further than the US model, warning of the “hard rain” needed to repair an "incoherent" administration and a need for a "smaller, more focused and more elite centre".

"The Civil Service is not as responsive as many would like it to be and I have a lot of sympathy for those who are frustrated by that," says Moriarty. "There’s a lot of work the Civil Service still needs to do in respect of reflecting the country.

"It’s come a long way in terms of gender diversity, less so on race and disability. The Civil Service view of what ‘good’ looks like still owes a lot to the public school debating forum. It’s right that all institutions should constantly reform. The Civil Service is there to serve society, and as society changes so should the Civil Service."

The issue of just what is meant by neutrality could also do with a rethink, suggests Slater, who describes the Civil Service’s "studied neutrality" as a barrier to good outcomes. "Political neutrality is important, but it doesn’t mean being neutral about implementing a task. The Civil Service is best when it is passionate about getting things done. This is not because you are necessarily in favour of the policy, but because you want to do the job professionally, to the best of your ability."

A useful reform, suggests Slater, would be for all Civil Service advice to ministers to be placed in the public domain. Controversial decisions at the DfE during Covid lockdowns on how to manage the 2020 exam season may have been better had the reasoning been made transparent.

"We essentially debated the merits of the options, such as algorithms or teacher assessment, between ourselves in Whitehall rooms," he recalls. "A much better system would have been to present all the options to a parliamentary committee in public, outlining the pros and cons, the reasoning, and handing all the evidence over to the minister to decide."

"What matters… is the combination of political and Civil Service leadership," says Slater. "When that relationship is healthy and involves mutual respect, things go well. There are trade-offs when things get bumpy. I’m not saying it’s the best system, but it is just how it works."

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