New salvos fired in the wars of Whitehall

By on 24/05/2023 | Updated on 23/05/2023
Former UK government cabinet secretary Lord Gus O'Donnell
Former UK government cabinet secretary Lord Gus O'Donnell

British ministers have been clashing with civil servants over Brexit and bullying – with some pushing for greater powers to appoint officials. At an Institute for Government debate, however, panellists suggested that the failures may lie not within the civil service, but among the politicians

“There is something very toxic that is happening right now with some parts of government, which is just a complete breakdown of trust,” said Rachel Wolf. Speaking on Tuesday at a debate on UK civil service impartiality at think tank the Institute for Government, Wolf – a former special adviser, and the co-author of the Conservative’s 2019 election manifesto – warned that some ministers are “terrified that there’ll be leaks of whatever they say; that, fundamentally, the civil service wants them gone. And the civil service, I think, is also – quite rightly – really fed up with consistent attacks on them”.

Certainly, relationships between civil servants and ministers are at a low ebb. Ever since the 2016 Brexit referendum, sections of the Conservative party have claimed that civil servants are seeking to block Brexit – with home secretary Suella Braverman, for example, claiming officials have a “Remain bias”. The Brexiteers’ solution is not a reinvigorated commitment to impartiality, however, but moves towards overt politicisation. Last year Jacob Rees-Mogg, then the minister for Brexit opportunities and government efficiency, commissioned former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude – who during the 2010-15 Parliament expanded ministerial influence over civil service appointments – to produce a review of civil service governance and accountability, while also briefing tabloids that civil servants were frustrating his Brexit work.

Find out more: Civil service relations with ministers – what’s gone wrong, and how to fix it

Exacerbating these tensions, recent years have seen a series of personal clashes between ministers and officials. In 2020, for example, the education secretary very publicly sacked his permanent secretary Jonathan Slater – who will be speaking at a Global Government Forum webinar on civil service relations with ministers on Thursday 25 May.

In 2021, after Johnson’s ethics adviser found that former home secretary Priti Patel had bullied officials, the government paid former Home Office permanent secretary Philip Rutnam £370,000 to settle an employment tribunal claim. And last month, deputy prime minister Dominic Raab stepped down after an inquiry called his behaviour towards civil servants “intimidating”; Raab subsequently blamed “activist civil servants” for his downfall.

Read more: UK civil service review to call for more ‘robust culture’ after Raab resignation

‘If a minister really can’t work with their permanent secretary, you are going to have to change the perm sec’

The principle of an impartial civil service, appointed on merit, lies at the heart of the UK system of government – and Wolf was careful not to support a US-style system of direct political appointments. She did, though, argue that effective ministers “do not just get presented with a group of civil servants, accept them and move on. They are quite careful about learning who they want to work with, finding those people, persuading those people to move departments… They’re quite imaginative about how they use non-executive directors, policy advisors, academics from the outside; they create a diversity of thought and experience”.

“I think you could bring in more people who really know what they’re talking about on a subject,” said Wolf, a champion of ‘free schools’ and former advisor to former education secretary Michael Gove – who appointed political allies into senior civil service roles during the 2010-15 Parliament. “I have certainly observed a complete difference between the [ministers] who get things done, who do not break the rules but explore them to their fullest extent, and those who do not,” she added.

Wolf also argued that “if a minister really can’t work with their permanent secretary, you are going to have to change the permanent secretary at some point. The minister is the democratically elected and chosen person.” And she warned of a lack of diverse backgrounds and views among London-based policymakers, suggesting that more ministerial appointments to the civil service might help address the problem – a proposal also made by Maude, who said last month there was a need for a new settlement in the partnership between ministers and civil servants that was “less mealy mouthed about ‘politicisation’”.

From left: Gus O’Donnell, George Eustice, Alex Thomas, Rachel Wolf, Ayesha Hazarika

Greater ministerial influence over civil service appointments ‘unambiguously bad’

Former UK cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell was not convinced. Asked by event chair Alex Thomas whether greater ministerial influence over civil service appointments is good or bad, he replied: “Unambiguously bad, because it basically reinforces confirmation bias: you see people choosing people who agree with themselves”. Appointing “cronies” ultimately harms ministers’ own interests, he added, “because if they’re not challenged by people inside, they’ll be challenged by people outside – when it may be too late.”

What’s more, he argued, politicising appointments creates a “ratchet effect”: knowing that civil service leaders have been appointed by their political opponents, each incoming government then seeks to clear them out. “If you get a number of appointments made that are political, then you can understand a new administration coming in saying: ‘Well, I’m not going to work with this lot. They were appointed purely because of their political views’,” he commented.

Addressing Wolf’s comment on moving permanent secretaries, Lord O’Donnell recalled former chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s decision to sack Treasury permanent secretary Tom Scholar after two days in the job. If a minister has only worked with a permanent secretary for a very short period, he said, “I might say to them: ‘That’s really stupid. You have no idea what working with this person is like. And if you sack them, believe me, the markets are going to kill you’ – and surprise, surprise, we saw that happening.”

While cabinet secretary, however, O’Donnell would intervene if a relationship between a minister and permanent secretary had clearly been tried and failed. “I’ve done that by moving the people and coming up with a different answer, and generally it’s been done quite smoothly to everyone’s satisfaction,” he said. “Of course there are going to be personality things that just don’t work, and you have to deal with that.”

A permanent civil service, but insufficiently so

Former Conservative minister George Eustice is, he explained, a “big supporter of the system we have.” He did, however, identify a major problem in “churn” among senior officials. “If the great strength of our civil service is that permanence and accumulated institutional knowledge, don’t change your civil servants every two years: try to keep good people in place for five years or 10 years, so they’ve got that experience and knowledge,” he said.

This is equally true of ministers, he argued. “Like all eccentric British inventions, you need to know how to work the machine,” said Eustice. “It takes the best part of three months [for a new minister] to even find the reins; it’s six months before you get any kind of ability to do anything; after a year, you might have just worked out what you want to do – and then you get moved.”

“That’s hopeless,” he added. “And if civil servants know that’s probably going to happen, there’s a natural tendency for them to think: ‘Well, this one’s probably going to be gone in three months anyway, so let’s put this [ministerial idea] in the slow lane’.”

Eustice himself worked in the environment department for nine years, culminating in two years as secretary of state. In the eight months since his departure, the department has already had two further secretaries of state. There is, he argued, “an onus on prime ministers to recognise the importance of getting good ministers of state and leaving them there for as long as possible.”

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

Higher civil service pay would help here, commented O’Donnell: “The way you get promoted in the civil service is moving, so you’ve got to move to get more pay. If we had a better pay system, we wouldn’t get the churn.” This would help improve diversity too, he added: “You can’t live on a senior civil service salary in London and get a property,” he said, so people “vote with their feet” and “the only ones you’ve got left are the ones with the bank of mum and dad – and that is not a diverse civil service.”

Supporting more flexible and remote working could also improve diversity, said Ayesha Hazarika, a former civil servant and special advisor – opening up opportunities for people with caring responsibilities and disabilities. While in office, Rees-Mogg campaigned against working from home; but “if you took that level of aggression away on that front, I think you could encourage a lot of people” to enter public service, said Hazarika.

Expressing a very different approach to managing and motivating a workforce, Eustice recalled that during his period in office he would “let people quite a long way into my confidence, and just treat them with respect and, actually, respect for… the ethos of the civil service. And I think if it’s in your body language that you genuinely do [respect people] and you go out of your way to engage people, I think you get the best out of them.”

Hazarika was on the same page. “We should really treasure what we have in the civil service,” she said. “Yes, it can be improved. But when you constantly slag it off, and you criticise everybody as being stupid and lazy and pathetic, and say they don’t understand the world, and they’re the ‘Blob’… then guess what: people want to leave the civil service.”

At that point, of course, you lose your best people. “They can get a better paid job, a more fun job, somewhere else. And you’re not going to attract people,” she concluded. “The best ministers – and these are ministers of all political stripes – have a great relationship with their civil servants.”

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About Matt Ross

Matt is Global Government Forum's Contributing Editor, providing direction and support on topics, products and audience interests across GGF’s editorial, events and research operations. He has been a journalist and editor since 1995, beginning in motoring and travel journalism – and combining the two in a 30-month, 30-country 4x4 expedition funded by magazine photo-journalism. Between 2002 and 2008 he was Features Editor of Haymarket news magazine Regeneration & Renewal, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development; and from 2008 to 2014 he was the Editor of UK magazine and website Civil Service World, then Editorial Director for Public Sector – both at political publishing house Dods. He has also worked as Director of Communications at think tank the Institute for Government.

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