How to ensure effective decision-making in the civil service

By on 17/12/2023 | Updated on 15/12/2023
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Civil servants continue to be unfairly blamed for obstructing ministerial plans, but relationships can be improved and repaired through better decision-making, says Andrew Kakabadse, professor of governance and leadership at Henley Business School

Effective decision-making is at the heart of the civil service’s function.

However, many recent headlines indicate the pressure that civil servants face. Increasing briefing to newspapers means that when civil servants dare to offer a range of opinions and options, they can face punitive measures internally and criticism externally. Even more concerning – this situation is getting worse.

The civil servant’s dilemma is essentially based around their role of ‘delivering’ for the minister, while also being mindful of the connected legalities and practicalities that must be met in order to ensure the objective will be successfully realised.

Throughout this process, because of the pressure they face, the minister can view any delay on the civil servant’s part as procrastination, or even plain and simple obstruction.

All of this requires the civil servant to display the highest levels of short, mid and long-term analysis, decision-making and sensitivity to successfully handle the most delicate relationships.

As our previous written evidence – The Kakabadse Report – on Civil Service Effectiveness, found, the pressure of the role forces ministers to focus on a broad range of misaligned interests, resulting in 20% of the policy process effort being centred on creation, while 80% is devoted to delivery.

Read more: Ministers need to better understand the tension between urgency and realism in government if they want to deliver

Despite this, ministers are still seen by many civil servants, other secretaries of state and private sector suppliers as concentrating too much on policy creation and not fully appreciating the reality and importance of policy delivery.

It is all too easy for the government to lose perspective on the distribution of its many stakeholders because of the push driven by a singular narrative to achieve set goals.

This was seen nowhere more clearly than in April 2022 when Jacob Rees-Mogg, then the minister of state for Brexit opportunities and government efficiency, called for civil servants to return to work in their offices instead of working from home due to concerns about low attendance rates and inefficiency.

He was criticised at the time by Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA trade union for senior civil servants, for leaving notes on empty desks reading “I look forward to seeing you in the office very soon.” Penman said the note was “crass and insulting, and undermined civil service leadership.”

Similarly, it was recently revealed that the UK’s top civil servant thought the then-prime minister Boris Johnson ‘could not lead’ as COVID pandemic raged.

In a 2020 WhatsApp message read out at the UK’s official COVID inquiry, Simon Case – who Johnson brought in as cabinet secretary — told Dominic Cummings he was “at the end of my tether.” Case added of Johnson: “He changes strategic direction every day.”

Naturally a civil servant offers a range of options to best make policy work, but that of itself can be viewed as being a non-team player who is attempting to obstruct ministerial decisions.

However, the report I produced – ‘Is Government Fit for Purpose?’, submitted to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in 2018 – shows this simply isn’t the case. The Civil Service will obviously seek to gather and present the very best possible evidence it can, based on expert advice.

So how can the civil servant improve decision making while balancing the realities and challenges of the role?

The first step is to acknowledge that decision-making will never be perfect. There is always difficulty with complex decisions and people will often not know the answer. However, a lot of effective outcomes can be designed by using best judgement and estimates of a likely result.

For civil servants,improving decision-making processes at such a high levels of government – with dynamic, and sometimes clashing stakeholders – requires that they get onto the minister’s wavelength’.

There are often misunderstandings between ministers and civil servants and there is a learning curve for both parties, particularly when a minister is newly appointed.

It takes time to appreciate the nature of a new department, how to relate to and challenge staff in order to emerge with a deeper understanding of the cultural intricacies involved, and allow for more considered decision-making.

Newly appointed secretaries of state and permanent secretaries with no previous experience of the department describe a transition period of up to a year or, even with previous experience of a department, a minimum transition time of up to six months.”

Ministers who are striving for excellence need to work with civil servants more effectively and enable their decision-making, not criticise them at every turn.

An example of exactly how not to do it was highlighted once again by Dave Penman of the FDA, who has urged current prime minister, Rishi Sunak, to stop calling civil servants ‘woke, lazy snowflakes,’ or brand them ‘machiavellian geniuses’ trying to unseat the government amid reports of multiple ‘culture war’ incidents.

When it comes to effective decision-making a fundamental requirement is that civil servants have a responsibility to guide the minister to arrive at the very best possible outcome.

Once this is recognised the relationship becomes healthy and mutual respect will enable things to go well. This is at the heart of politics and civil service leadership.

Read more: Is dealing with aggressive ministers now the reality for UK civil servants?

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About Andrew Kakabadse

Andrew Kakabadse is professor of governance and leadership at Henley Business School

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