Ministers and Mandarins : The IPPR’s 2013 Review of the Senior Civil Service: A Commentary

 by Dave Richards and Martin J. Smith[1]

In penning this review of the IPPR’s newly published report on Accountability and Responsiveness in the Senior Civil Service: Lessons from Overseas we’d like to invoke the spirit of Frankie Howard by starting with ‘The Prologue’.

The Prologue

Governments are continually faced with disappointments. Their ability to achieve their goals is often thwarted by changing circumstances, poor policy design, the difficulty of controlling the rubber levers of policy implementation and the fact that real life often doesn’t fit policy prescriptions.  Over the last three-decades, governments have tended to be somewhat janus-faced in their approach to Whitehall; on the one-hand regularly invoking the pithy idiom of referring to it publicly as ‘a Rolls-Royce machine’ while at the same time blaming it for government failures.  In particular, faced with policy failure a standard response has been to focus on the Civil Service as one of the key factors to explain deficiencies in delivering policy.   The current Coalition has continued this trend which led it to publish a White Paper in June 2012.  The Civil Service Reform Plan contained a number of key action points, the fifth of which declared ‘open policy making will become the default’.  The aim was to break-up what was referred to as Whitehall’s ‘virtual monopoly on policy-making expertise’ (although in so doing, it stood accused of glossing over evidence to suggest such a process has already been in train for nigh on two decades). To help address this action point, the Government established a new Contestable Policy Fund to allow ministers to ‘commission external policy development for example, by academics and think tanks’.    The IPPR became the first recipient of this fund in September 2012, being awarded £50,000 to undertake a ‘review into how other civil services work with a particular focus on accountability systems’.  The Cabinet Office Minster, Francis Maude had by this stage, already gone on public record to make clear his desire to see something akin to New Zealand’s ‘contractual model of bureaucratic accountability’ being rolled-out here in the UK. So it is that 9 months on the IPPR’s 124 page review has now been published.


Commentary on the Review

The basis of the report is to examine lessons from abroad which can be used to improve the performance and accountability of the civil service.  As the report rightly points out, the accountability mechanism for UK civil servants has always been weak because it is indirect and operates through ministers rather than directly to the civil service.  Of course, at a general level, the mechanism by which many modern civil services, especially in an era of executive agencies, are held to account has always been blurred.  Moreover, there are numerous examples of performance failures in government – not least in core services such as education, the NHS and even the economy.

The report makes a number of sensible and reasonable suggestions about mechanisms for improving accountability, particularly concerning external accountability (see p119-120).  However, we would argue that in many ways the report rather unwittingly highlights the problems with contracting out policy advice and that there are a number of weaknesses both in the report and the process.

  • First, the report points out the importance of balancing responsiveness and independence:

‘Tip too far towards ‘independence’ and there is a danger that the Civil Service will become self-serving and immune to political leadership (as depicted by the  Sir Humphrey caricature); too far the other way and there is a danger that it will become captured, serving partisan rather than the national interest.’ (p.4)

However, its key recommendation of greater political (ministerial) involvement in senior appointments would effectively undermine this independence.  This error is made because the report does not interrogate what independence means in the context of the UK civil service.  The nature of the British civil service is built on a counter-intuitive notion of independence.  At one level British civil servants have no independence.  They exist to implement the will of the government.  The government is elected and civil servants must demonstrate their complete loyalty to that government (except in cases of breaking the law or the constitution).  The civil service has no right to independent action.  Yet at the same time, the degree to which it is independent is actually in the very sense that the report potentially seeks to destroy; an official’s loyalty is not to a particular minister, but to whatever government is elected or to whatever minister is appointed.  The independence of officials allows them to service different ministers and the notion of quasi political appointments would actually destroy the existing form of independence.  This notion of independence and a meritocratic civil service is central to the ‘Rolls Royce’ machine.  It means that the ‘best’ individuals are chosen and once in post they serve their political mistress or master, whoever they maybe.  This dynamic is brought into sharp focus if we reflect on the fact that even within a single government, different ministers bring different approaches or ideological inclinations to the table. Compare for example from an earlier era, the contrasting outlooks of Nigel Lawson and Peter Walker as successive Secretaries of State for Energy.  In an era of Coalition politics, this becomes an even more acute issue.  To personalise or politicise the appointments process means to end a pure meritocracy and actually to loose the accumulation of skills and further erode institutional memory that are central to government success.

  • Second, the recommendations in the report actually pay little attention to the evidence.  So for example, the report suggest that the Prime Minister has the final say on the appointment of permanent secretaries because:  ‘the Prime Minister will want to select the most able and competent candidate, and will be less likely to be swayed by other considerations’ (p.110). We wonder on what basis they make this point. Why should prime ministers be less swayed than anyone else? Would Margaret Thatcher have been less swayed?  For those Whitehall insiders familiar with the cases of Donald Derx, William Ryrie or John Steele, this would appear not to be the case (see Richards 1997).   We already know that she had sizeable influence over the appointment of senior officials – did that mean the best were always appointed?   Moreover, when setting out the rules of government it is important to think not about the government we have or have had, but the governments we could have.  Do we want a system which allows any potential prime minister to control appointments of civil servants?  What the report doesn’t do is actually consider the balance of argument or of evidence.
  • Third, the report states that in the UK, minsters have relatively little influence on appointments.  However, there is considerable evidence of a ‘personalisation effect’ by various Prime Ministers in the UK (Richards 1997, 2008).  But more awkwardly, the report points to how in the cases of the much used Tsars, ministers directly make these appointments.  Yet what the report fails to then consider is how deeply problematic this approach has proved to be.  There is little transparency, almost no attention to employment legislation, little clarity over their roles or performance and no assessment of whether they are doing a worthwhile job (Smith 2011).

The key problem for the report is that whilst it collects a good deal of interesting material on comparative civil service systems, much of this information is already very well known and most of it, it is hard not to conclude, bears limited relevance to the UK case.  There is, for example, little or no justification for the case studies.  Why for example choose a semi-authoritarian state such as Singapore?  Elsewhere, lip-service is paid to justifying the choice of Canada, Australia and New Zealand as ‘Westminster systems’.  However, while Canada and Australia have traces of Westminster in their DNA, they are nevertheless federal systems, far removed from the ‘power-hoarding’ model that is the existing centralised British approach.  New Zealand may be closer, but with a population less than half the size of London, can only have limited lessons for the UK.  We would not be surprised to see undergraduate students on a comparative political analysis module querying the methodology employed here.

What is revealing about the report is that it does not actually review the evidence and present different arguments.  It in fact takes a particular line that is not dissimilar to the one taken earlier by the Cabinet Office minister when launching this venture.   It maybe that this offering by the IPPR triggers a useful and informative start to a debate, but it would benefit from a much more informed and critical examination and consideration of appropriate and realistic alternatives to properly inform any future options for Whitehall reform.

The Epilogue

We are both strong advocates of the need for encouraging greater pluralisation in the policy advice made available to ministers.  Yet in this case, it maybe that if Bernard Jenkins’s PASC was scouring round for a new inquiry, then in an era of austerity and based on what has been produced here, the future efficacy of the Contestable Policy Fund would be a theme it might wish to alight upon.


Richards, D. (1997) The Civil Service under the Conservatives 1979-97: Whitehall’s Political Poodles? (Brighton: Sussex Academic Press)

Richards, D. (2008) New Labour and the Civil Service: Reconstituting the Westminster Model Basingstoke: Palgrave

Smith, M.J. (2011) ‘Tsars, Leadership and Innovation in the Public Sector’ Policy and Politics 39/3 pp343-359.

[1] Dave Richards is Professor of Public Policy at the University of Manchester. Martin Smith is Anniversary Professor of Politics at the Department of Politics, University of York.

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One thought on “Ministers and Mandarins : The IPPR’s 2013 Review of the Senior Civil Service: A Commentary

  1. Hear, here. I found the whole report to be creating a rationale for a specific kind of change, not an examination of what needed to change. Outside of a civil service, it is almost certain that pipers will call the tunes… ironically, that’s the point of having an independent civil service!

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