Leading article: Civil Service reform is as desirable as it is hard

Ministers are right to ask whether some other countries might do things better

Related Topics

It is a brave government that even considers shaking up its bureaucracy. Not only do the upper echelons of the Civil Service cultivate a very particular sense of self-esteem, but they are bound by an esprit de corps that ministers challenge at their peril. The very hint of an end to permanent appointments or a substantial increase in the number of political appointees will face resistance of the most single-minded and sophisticated kind.

Nor is it hard to defend the Civil Service as currently constituted. Since forever, or so it seems, it has been regarded as setting the gold standard for government administration around the world. Among the strands contributing to that reputation are unimpeachable integrity, utter discretion, and the social polish and breadth of knowledge associated with an elite – probably Oxbridge – education.

But the chief reason, it is always said, why the Civil Service is so envied is the consistency that stems from its political impartiality. The job of a civil servant is to tender advice about implementing policies, based on practicalities, legality and likely repercussions. The idea is that ministers should have all the pertinent facts before they take the political decision – which is theirs, and theirs alone. Because the civil servant has no political, or financial, interest in the outcome, so the argument continues, the minister receives the best and most authoritative advice.

Especially favourable comparisons have been drawn between the British model and practice in the United States, where most top civil servants are political appointees who commonly change with the administration. A new US administration – President Obama's was a case in point – can waste months recruiting officials, only to be plagued by inexperience and an absence of collective memory. A new UK government, in contrast, hits the ground running, as the permanent Civil Service knuckles down to serve its new masters as efficiently and impartially as it did the old.

That, at least, is the theory. But the reality, as many a ministerial memoir testifies, can be too close for comfort to the bureaucratic excesses lampooned in the satirical Yes, Minister. The much-vaunted impartiality of the Civil Service may produce a fence-sitting mentality that fosters the retention of the status quo. It is not only ministers of the present Coalition who complain that their civil servants can be more obstructive than constructive when it comes to policy changes for which there is an electoral mandate. Such complaints go back at least as far as Margaret Thatcher.

It may be that ministers are not determined enough in pursuit of their policies, or unduly cowed by the experience of their top civil servants. Or it may be that some, if not all, of the strictures voiced by civil servants in relation to certain innovations are justified. But the repeated ministerial complaints suggest it may also be time to question whether some hitherto sacred tenets of the Civil Service are still conducive to good government in today's world.

The millions spent by government departments on outside consultants shows that there may be skills the Civil Service recruitment process has missed. Ditto the overspending in military procurement and the failure of big computer projects, from the NHS to e-borders. After three decades of deregulation, and with more localisation to come, it may also be that the Civil Service requires more expert regulators and fewer old-style administrators.

The Government, any government, is quite right to review the way its support services function and ask whether other countries might not do things better. But if the study, led by the Cabinet Office minister, Francis Maude, favours change, ministers will need to gird themselves for the battle of wills to come.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst Consultant (Financial Services)

£60000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

Systems Administrator - Linux / Unix / Windows / TCP/IP / SAN

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading provider in investment managemen...

AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer

£600 - £700 per day: Harrington Starr: AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer JVS, ...

E-Commerce Developer

£45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Exciting opp...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The first lesson of today is... don't treat women unequally?  

Yvette Cooper is right: The classroom is the best place to start teaching men about feminism

Chris Maume
Forty per cent of global trades in euros are cleared through London  

The success enjoyed by the City of London owes nothing to the EU

Nigel Farage
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

Hollywood targets Asian audiences

The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child