Leading Article: The Civil Service must be honest and independent

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The Independent Culture
IN HIS diaries, Tony Benn describes his relationship with his Permanent Secretary, Sir Anthony Part, when Mr Benn was Secretary of State for Industry in the Labour government of 1974. After months of draining fights over nationalisation, Mr Benn complained that Sir Anthony "treats me like a consultant psychiatrist who's got a particularly dangerous patient".

Things are different nowadays. While ministers certainly don't regard their officials as cracked, they are obviously frustrated with them. Mr Blair talks about "departmentalitis". His official spokesman demands that the Government Information Service "raise its game". Hence the latest round of "modernising government" initiatives to reform the Civil Service and improve its representativeness and efficiency, announced by the head of the home Civil Service, Sir Richard Wilson.

Sir Richard, if only from a healthy instinct for self-preservation, is proving to be a a thoroughly modern mandarin. This is good news. It is wrong that the profile of the top civil servants remains much as it was when Mr Benn battled them in the Seventies; white, Oxbridge and male. Few would argue with the idea that public officials need to mirror the society they serve and that they must be managers and presenters as well as policy makers.

The real problem in the Civil Service concerns those reforms that are going on unacknowledged: the trends towards centralisation and politicisation. The growth in the staff at No 10 is played down, but it is symbolic of a worrying tendency. An "under-the-cosh-of-No-10" mentality is developing as political advisers and appointees demand "delivery" from hapless departmental officials. Nothing wrong with that, of course - manifesto promises are there to be kept - apart from two problems.

First, it adds a confusing dimension to the Treasury's traditional grip on the rest of Whitehall, which has been brought to an unprecedented tightness by Gordon Brown. Satisfying the conflicting demands of apparatchiks at No 10 and No 11 Downing Street is a challenge too far for even the most supple of mandarinate minds.

Second, and more dangerous still, rearranging the machinery can act as a substitute for a policy, or a method for simply finding another set of experts in a unit to provide the answers that ministers wanted in the first place. "Joined-up government" is a fine principle, and projects such as the Social Exclusion Unit have the potential to find radical solutions. But the hallmark of an effective civil service will remain the ability to offer ministers what is euphemistically called "difficult advice". Integrity, honesty and independence may not be especially modern values: but they are timeless ones, and the abiding strengths of our Civil Service.