I argued in my previous post that the traditional model of relations between Ministers and officials was unrealistic in the modern world.
So what is the alternative?
Bringing in the odd special adviser or technical specialist is not enough. There aren’t enough SpAds and there never will be. Anyway, their role is firefighting and obstacle-clearing, not complex policy design. Equally, specialists recruited from outside government often find it hard to work as policy officials. It takes them time to adjust to the risk-aversion of government or to the fact that subject expertise often takes second place to political needs.
Instead, our system needs to evolve more significantly. I therefore recommend two reforms.
First, normalise movement in and out of the system. Not at the margin but as the norm. The UK is fortunate in having a conglomeration of think tanks, professional advisers, academics, and experts in all fields that is second to only the US. Few of the people who work in them would think of spending a spell in government except, occasionally, as a specially recruited political adviser. That is a real loss.
Instead, we should make it easy for experts to come in and out of government in much larger numbers. We should actively expect rotation of senior officials and advisers into and out of the bureaucracy when a new government comes in, probably for fixed but renewable terms, precisely because they are subject experts and because they have sympathy with the political goals of the government. As governments changed, this would happen again. Over time the higher reaches of outside organisations would be peopled with individuals who understood the realities of working in government and might yet have that experience again.
Some will argue this is not consistent with Northcote-Trevelyan. But that train has left the station. There already are outsiders in government, at all levels, not recruited through the civil service entrance exam. There just aren’t enough of them to make a difference and they have to operate in an culture shaped by the permanent officials. Bringing in a critical mass of such people, with executive authority, would dramatically change the mood in government and the incentives on officials.
Second, designate certain senior official roles as “public-facing” and requiring a confirmation process before the relevant Parliamentary Select Committee. This would include permanent secretaries, probably DGs (the next grade down), specific professional roles such as chief economist or chief scientist, and a significant subset at least of ambassadors. Such confirmation would be needed whether the incumbent was a permanent official or an outsider brought in. Procedural rules could be devised to ensure that confirmation processes did not drag out like the US system. The point here is that such officials could be questioned about political and party political realities and their own views about them. They’d have to have the confidence of their Minister in doing so (or else they wouldn’t be proposed or would fail confirmation) but once endorsed they would share in the Minister’s legitimacy to speak publicly on controversial issues, to make a case, and even to take decisions on Ministers’ behalf.
Both these reforms would go in the same direction – to have capable and intelligent people running our government, but people who are not committed for life to a subordinate bureaucratic role. Both reforms would help us manage the reality that such relatively expert officials would have views and perspectives of their own.
That is an important point. I don’t believe you can reasonably expect intelligent people to restrain their judgements, to do things they believe are mistaken, to suspend their own judgement in favour of others – just because Ministers tell them to. The whole of the rest of society encourages people to speak up, to say what you think, to be true to your convictions. What I am recommending goes with this grain, while managing it and using it for Ministers’ and the system’s best advantage.
Martin Donnelly is right to say that under current arrangements officials develop ironic detachment as a defence mechanism distancing themselves from things they are asked to do. But that’s not a good thing. There are few other organisations where that would be seen as a desirable quality in employees. Lear’s Fool is scarcely a good model for good administration.