Impartiality under threat: a warning from former UK Cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell

By on 15/11/2019
O’Donnell: “An impartial civil service is designed to look at the evidence objectively, knowing that this could result in conclusions that some political masters will like, and others will hate.” (Photo by Graham Martin/EventPics.Biz).

Impartiality is a cornerstone of Westminster-style civil services – but in the UK it’s under threat, Lord O’Donnell warned last month. Mia Hunt hears him explain the seven key benefits of impartiality, and plead for the principle’s protection

“The role of the civil service is to speak truth unto power,” the old saying goes. Power, of course, does not always want to hear it. But ministers should at least listen. And as former UK Cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell argues, the truth is more palatable when delivered by officials who uphold the four values of the UK civil service: honesty, objectivity, integrity and impartiality.

Of these four, impartiality is both the most treasured, and the most threatened: the concept of a permanent, professional civil service, appointed on merit, is coming under pressure. At an event held late last month to celebrate the centenary of civil service managers’ union the FDA, Lord O’Donnell warned that Brexit is leading to attacks on civil servants – with some being accused of undermining the government’s agenda. Former PM Theresa May’s Brexit ‘sherpa’ Olly Robbins, for example, was repeatedly criticised by hard Brexiteers over problems caused by the Cabinet’s own lack of unity and confused negotiation goals: “We’ve got ministers blaming civil servants for their own mistakes,” said O’Donnell. “Serving civil servants quite rightly don’t respond, so it is a form of bullying that I find completely reprehensible.”

As speakers warned at a previous FDA event, impartiality is also under threat from elements within the Labour party – who see the civil service as too ‘establishment’ and sympathetic to the Tories. As O’Donnell pointed out, parties that have spent years in Opposition always suspect officials of bias towards the governing party: when Labour last came to power in 1997, he recalled, incoming ministers thought the civil service was “brainwashed into believing what they described as the last government’s ‘propaganda’.” Right on cue, just 10 days after O’Donnell’s talk a Labour frontbencher floated the idea of allowing ministers to directly appoint permanent secretaries – demolishing a key plank of civil service impartiality.

Impartial evidence-gathering

Yet impartiality is key to effective government, argued O’Donnell. Though civil service effectiveness is “massively under-researched”, he said, the 2019 International Civil Service Effectiveness Index – produced by the Blavatnik School of Government and UK think tank the Institute for Government – ranked the UK, New Zealand, Canada and Australia in the world’s top five civil services. These are all built around the principle of impartiality, he noted, adding: “When you look at the top 10, the richest country in the world – the United States – isn’t there. What does that tell you about the consequences of not having an impartial civil service?” 

In O’Donnell’s view, impartiality brings seven key benefits for civil service effectiveness: it allows for continuity across changes of administration; protects against ‘confirmation bias’; helps civil servants to build trust with ministers; enables them to foster relationships with other public services, unions and businesses; helps to negate the problems caused by high ministerial turnover; makes the civil service a more attractive career; and leads to better decision-making.  

To illustrate the value of continuity, he spoke of his “much-missed successor”: the late Jeremy Heywood, who O’Donnell said “personified the ability of the civil service to operate with all political parties”. Indeed, past and present leaders of the UK’s three main political parties stood in the front row at Heywood’s memorial service to, as O’Donnell put it, “sing the praises of a civil servant”.  

“I don’t know of any other country in the world where that would happen,” he said. “That was a really powerful symbol that impartiality works.”  

Love it or hate it

O’Donnell: “Personal experience has demonstrated to me the biases that can be inherent in civil service systems designed supposedly to produce meritocratic outcomes.” (Photo by Graham Martin/EventPics.Biz).

Impartiality, said O’Donnell, also provides a bulwark against ‘confirmation bias’ – people’s tendency to interpret new evidence as supporting their existing beliefs – and is particularly important in “an era of fake news and the denigration of experts”. 

“Many ministers arrive with incredibly strong prior beliefs,” he said. “An impartial civil service is designed to look at the evidence objectively, knowing that this could result in conclusions that some political masters will like, and others will hate.” And this objective use of evidence is essential both to designing effective policies, and to securing ministers’ support for them: “It gives you a basis for your objectivity and your honesty which, I think, allows you to find your way through and build trust with ministers,” he said.

On his third reason for upholding impartiality – the need for mutual trust between the civil service and ministers – O’Donnell cited his experience of working with the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, formed in 2010. “If either party felt we were operating in the sole interests of the other, the process of governing would have ground to a halt,” he said. “Civil servants were often put in very difficult positions, usually inadvertently. It was hard. You ended up having to make decisions that did not make you popular.” But ministers in both parties recognised that civil servants were acting impartially, he said, and that did “enhance long-term trust.”

The fourth benefit of an impartial, permanent civil service, O’Donnell believes, is that it enables the civil service to form long term relationships – with business, trade unions, the monarchy, the judiciary, other public services, the voluntary sector and the devolved nations. These relationships helped O’Donnell when “trying to manage the process of government”, he said.

Fifth, O’Donnell argued that having a permanent civil service helps to cover the cracks caused by high ministerial turnover: there have been nine work and pensions secretaries in the last five years, he noted.

An attractive career

His penultimate argument for impartiality was that it makes the civil service a “much more attractive” career. When he applied to the civil service, he recalled, Labour’s James Callaghan was prime minister; but by the time he joined, Margaret Thatcher was at the helm. If civil servants couldn’t expect to reach the top jobs, or if their career could be ended by a change of administration, the civil service would represent a far less attractive career option. “If you get into a situation where you don’t have the certainty of a career path, I think we would attract a lot less people,” he said. “I would not have joined the civil service if it had been like the American model.”

Personal attacks on officials – like those on Robbins – are already undermining the civil service’s attractiveness, said O’Donnell. And he argued that select committees should also take care not to damage the civil service, recalling former Public Accounts Committee chair Margaret Hodge’s treatment of one official: “Getting civil servants to swear on bibles publicly is not, to my mind, an appropriate thing for MPs to do,” he said. “Of course, it’s right for civil servants to be accountable to Parliament but a witch hunt rarely helps. And it would not be surprising if this environment led to a bias towards risk aversion amongst some civil servants.”

O’Donnell’s seventh and final reason for upholding impartiality was, perhaps, the most important of all: it leads to better decisions: “You are surrounding ministers with people who are not necessarily ‘yes’ men and women. And I think being subject to private, robust challenge helps ministers prepare themselves for the more partisan public challenges from opposing factions that they will get when they go public with their policies. I think that’s a really important part of our system.”

New government, new agenda

O’Donnell: “We’ve got ministers blaming civil servants for their own mistakes… it’s a form of bullying that I find completely reprehensible.” (Photo by Graham Martin/EventPics.Biz).

Few in democratic governments could argue that the seven benefits O’Donnell spoke of aren’t laudable. But as well as considering the upsides, it’s also important to acknowledge the downsides – or perceived downsides – of impartiality. The main argument against it, he said, is that it slows down change. “A new government with a new agenda might just want a civil service that does what it’s told and doesn’t question [the government’s] reasoning or decisions,” he suggested, particularly if the incoming government “believes the consensus of evidence is wrong”.

So O’Donnell emphasised civil servants’ duty to be rigorous and self-critical in their use of evidence, citing an example given in Caroline Criado Perez’s book Invisible Women concerning the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Those in charge of recruiting musicians to the orchestra were certain they were picking the best, Perez explained – but when they moved to blind auditions, the number of women chosen went up considerably.  

“What does that tell you about systems that are allegedly neutral?”, O’Donnell said. “I take this very seriously. I think the civil service might well have its own biases and selective procedures which impact on how it views evidence. That is something we need to be really careful about. I have no illusions, and personal experience has demonstrated to me the biases that can be inherent in civil service systems designed supposedly to produce meritocratic outcomes.”

No civil service is perfect – but in O’Donnell’s view, impartial civil services are more perfect than the rest. “An impartial civil service has served our country well,” he concluded. “The current divisions over Brexit have certainly created a challenging environment for both ministers and the civil service. We can only hope that the forthcoming election will provide more clarity about the future direction of the country. But whatever form the new government takes, it can be assured of a civil service that will combine honesty, objectivity, integrity and impartiality to help it deliver its objectives.”

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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