Martin Donnelly, Permanent Secretary at the UK’s Department for Business (= Economics Ministry), speaking to the Institute for Government on 30 June, set out in a characteristically thoughtful and elegant way a defence of the traditional framework. Deliberately or not, it read as pre-emptive retaliation to Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude, who it transpired, had already denounced to the Cabinet a memo purporting to set out the roles of permanent secretaries and the permanent civil service. There has been a round of broader comment from people like Janan Ganesh in the FT (£), Dominic Cummings on his blog, and Giles Wilkes, an ex-SpAd colleague at BIS.
What is a reasonable person interested in government meant to make of all this?
I think all sides overstate their case. But, putting my cards on the table, I am more with Ganesh and Cummings than with the proponents of the perfection of the current system, though for slightly different reasons. I left government unconvinced by the current system and have come to think it in need of reform.
I’ll explain why, but let Martin Donnelly put the traditional view first. His defence of the system rests on three premises. First, that officials need to be professionally committed to Ministers, but within mutually understood boundaries, based on independence but an appropriate degree of mutual trust. Second, that this collaborative relationship can deliver the best possible outcomes within a given political space, provided that officials understand their limited advisory role and that Ministers can give room to their different perspective. Third, that wider society gets a good deal, provided the civil service can accept limits on its monopoly of advice and communicate with the wider world without usurping Ministers’ ultimate democratic legitimacy and profile.
What could be wrong with this? Capable people serving Ministers professionally and helping them reach the best possible decisions?
Nothing – if it were really like that.
The fundamental problem is not that this is a poor system. It is that it requires super-paragons of the virtues to operate it in the way it’s meant to. In a way the Maude document illustrates that. Who could possibly incarnate all the requirements set out in it to be a good permanent secretary? Anyone who could would be wasting their time on a permanent secretary’s salary. In reality of course people are not like that, either at permanent secretary level or at any other. That is simply human nature.
So what’s the problem? There are lots of issues: the infinite demand for civil servants’ work, the overload this causes for dedicated officials, and the readiness to accept second best in too many areas. But here I want to highlight just three aspects.
First, the very size and opacity of the system encourages everyone to find informal ways round the formalities.
Nowadays every Minister is responsible for the work of hundreds if not thousands of officials and therefore unable to exercise any day to day oversight or even know most of the people who work for them. Moreover, analysis and advice on major questions from such large teams takes time to assemble and to put to Ministers. Yet Ministers are exposed to the 24/7 media calendar and frequently have to take decisions rapidly. In doing so they look for people to advise them whom they can trust and whose judgement they respect.
In these circumstances it is absolutely inevitable that Ministers will reach out for sympathisers and that ambitious officials will seek to make themselves stand out to Ministers. I’m oversimplifying obviously, but by and large simple cleverness or administrative excellence is not on its own enough for recognition or progress, because, as Martin Donnelly points out, the administrative timetable is longer-term than the political one. Try to prove to a Minister that you can deliver good administrative results, and the odds are they will have been reshuffled long before the results become visible. Signal to a Minister that “I get it, I share your goals, I will make the system work for you”, and be effective in managing the system in their interests, and a Minister will spot it. In other words, the system selects for people who don’t work the system as it should work, not those who do.
It is when Ministers invest such officials with particular authority that the system deforms and officials playing by the rules find themselves outflanked and unable to make an impact. An alert Permanent Secretary can stop Ministers promoting officials unreasonably, but cannot stop them investing sympathetic officials with informal authority or listening to them disproportionately. Damian McBride’s picture of the Treasury under Gordon Brown describes exactly this situation in its most extreme form.
Second, the current system selects against those who are sceptical about government’s role.
The civil service is not party political and indeed officials within it are usually discreet about their own political opinions. But massive modern government is bound to draw to it individuals who believe in a role for government and get satisfaction from operating the levers it gives them. Officials are less likely than the average to believe that government action is worthless, prone to error, or just less good than alternatives. They are more likely to believe evidence that government is effective and to downplay or discount evidence that goes in the other direction. So the reflex of the system is – “here’s a problem – and here’s what we can do to help you fix it.” That didn’t matter a hundred years ago when the Government only spent 5% of GDP anyway. Now it spends half the country’s wealth and no area is ring-fenced off. Anyone who says “the solution is for you to stop doing things and let others act” is going against the grain.
For that reason it’s wrong to think that Departments have “departmental” policy that that they pursue regardless of what Ministers want. But officials in them have a real interest in their Department’s continued existence and, where possible, in expanding their own influence. That’s because the value of an official’s work can’t easily be determined by outputs, so people resort to other measures to determine status. Closeness to Ministers (above) is one of those measures, but so is the breadth of your policy areas and the number of people working for you. Where policy choices go with that latter grain, they are more easily pursued. I suspect that if Michael Gove’s reform plans had involved a powerful central bureaucracy implementing his vision, he’d have found it bureaucratically much easier to get things done than by shrinking the DfE and letting schools make their own decisions (though of course the reform would have been much less effective).
Equally, is it coincidence, for example, that the – misplaced - enthusiasm for “industrial policy” comes from the Department (BIS) that has the biggest role in implementing it in practice?
Incidentally, that’s why “reforms” to the machinery of government tend to make things worse rather than better, because existing interests make it hard to implement simple reforms in a simple way. I’ll save the example I know best in this area, trade, for another day.
Third, the system is not compatible with modern needs for transparency and openness.
It is getting harder and harder to manage the contradiction between retaining a ring-fenced policy-making space and keeping broader confidence in the system through transparency. Ministers already lack confidence in policy made solely “in house”, and encourage reaching out to outside experts. Moreover, social media has become more important in communicating government, and successful communication in this area requires “personality”, the sense of an individual behind it, not wooden signed-off tweets and no interactivity. Indeed the system is already adjusting and many senior officials – Permanent Secretaries, Chief Scientists, Chief Vets, ambassadors, chief economists, and so on - are semi-visible media figures nowadays, asked to communicate policy in an engaging and convincing way. That is already usurping the role traditionally that of Ministers. In the modern world, there is no going back.