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

Share
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

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £60,000

£25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Care Workers Required - The London Borough of Bromley

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This homecare agency is based in Beckenh...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Polish minister Rafal Trazaskowski (second from right)  

Poland is open to dialogue but EU benefits restrictions are illegal and unfair

Rafal Trzaskowski
The report will embarrass the Home Secretary, Theresa May  

Surprise, surprise: tens of thousands of illegal immigrants have 'dropped off' the Home Office’s radar

Nigel Farage
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas