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

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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.

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