Andreas Whittam Smith: After 150 years, the Civil Service needs reform

Civil servants once had the duty of speaking truth to power. But now they no longer can do so
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I don't raise this question because I suspect that civil servants will have been at fault. Quite the reverse. My suspicion is that they have been so emasculated by 25 years of presidential-style government that their advice and their warnings would have been disregarded.

With these thoughts in mind, I turned to a new book, Changing Times, published by the Civil Service Commissioners to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Civil Service, as we know it. Sir Hayden Phillips, who was a permanent secretary in two departments, writes that the Civil Service "will continue to need the values of honesty, integrity, objectivity and impartiality". I stop there because thus far he has described the essence of the 1855 reforms.

However, Sir Hayden has added a codicil of recent date - "but allied to flexibility, political sensitivity and commitment". These seemingly unexceptionable words are where the trouble starts. Political sensitivity, meaning awareness of the government of the day's mandate from the electorate, is something to which civil servants have always paid full attention. But political sensitivity as bowing the knee to the dictates of news management as practised by Mr Blair - that is an entirely different matter. Again, commitment in the sense of working hard to achieve the Government's stated aims is a virtue, whereas commitment in the sense of being a true believer is a dangerous quality in a civil servant.

The 1855 bargain between civil servants and the government of the day, outlined in the celebrated report by Sir Stafford Northcote and Sir Charles Trevelyan, lasted until the 1970s. It describes what now appears like a golden age. Public servants gave up overt partisanship, some political rights and a public profile in return for indefinite tenure, anonymity, selection by merit and the promise of being looked after at the end of a career that did not require paying close attention to their own material self-interest. Politicians, meanwhile, relinquished the power to appoint or dismiss public servants and change their working conditions at will, in exchange for professional competence and non-partisan service to the government of the day.

The first blow to this partnership between government ministers and civil servants was the arrival of conviction politics with Mrs Thatcher. This implied that civil servants were no longer supposed to challenge ministers' core beliefs and ask whether a particular problem had been correctly identified or whether a particular objective had been clearly stated. Then, from Mrs Thatcher onwards, government ministers preached the supposed merits of private-sector methods of working, even though few had experienced them at first hand. They forgot or never knew that business aims and resources are different in kind from public objectives where legality, consistency and fairness is required - which in turn is why there should be due process, lengthy deliberation and the meticulous keeping of records.

Mr Blair has gone much further. Civil servants once had the duty of speaking truth unto power. But now they no longer can do so. All executive authority is held by Mr Blair and Mr Brown. They listen to their special advisers and their pollsters. The influence of the Cabinet Secretary has lessened. Beneath them come cabinet ministers who are like chief operating officers. And civil servants? Subordinates, merely subordinates.

So how much difference will the new Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service, Sir Gus O'Donnell, make? He has written a piece in Changing Times in which he outlines a series of challenges. First up is this: "Even greater sophistication is needed in the traditional policy and analytical functions of the Civil Service". This is indeed reassuring, but it needs stating that no ministerial assumption should be off-limits, that everything requires questioning and analysis. Government ministers have a constitutional right to disregard advice, but they should not dispense with challenge by impartial civil servants.

Sir Gus also highlights the demand for greater accountability and transparency. However I am not sure any longer that Civil Service secrecy is the main problem, though it is something to be overcome. More serious is what the Butler report criticised: sofa government, that is, Mr Blair discussing policy and making decisions with colleagues in his den in Downing Street without any record being kept. The aim, pretty obviously, is the avoidance of blame. No notes taken by civil servants, no accountability. A strong Cabinet Secretary can ensure that there is always an audit trail.

Now we read that Home Office civil servants made a series of aggressive phone calls to the LSE with the aim of making it postpone publication of its critical report on identity cards until after the House of Commons debate. If this is true, it shows that Home Office ministers have corrupted Home Office civil servants. And it would mean that we should be mourning the death of the Northcote/Trevelyan reforms rather than celebrating their 150th anniversary.