Opinion: Labour’s appointment plans say little about civil servants, but much about politicians

By on 13/11/2019
Jeremy Corbyn. (Photo by Garry Knight/flickr).

Last week, unnamed Labour sources floated the idea of letting politicians directly appoint departmental leaders. Matt Ross argues that the plan fails to understand either government or management – and could wreck a Labour government’s ability to deliver its goals

For decades, every incoming UK government has believed that its first task will be to re-educate a civil service wholeheartedly committed to the principles and policies of its predecessor. Thatcher, Blair and Cameron all arrived in Number 10 convinced they’d find a nest of – respectively – socialists, Thatcherites and Blairites, determined to resist them at every turn. And now Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn appears to be making the same mistake: an unnamed shadow Cabinet minister has briefed the Mirror that permanent secretaries, currently appointed on merit under the scrutiny of the impartial Civil Service Commission, should be replaced with political appointees.

But these suspicions say far more about elected leaders than civil servants. For politicians, almost by definition, view life as a battle between competing ideologies; if they see people energetically pursuing a set of policies, they tend to assume that they must be motivated by political convictions. After all, few politicians could imagine putting aside their own views to promote agendas with which they fundamentally disagree: many former civil servants have gone into politics, but it’s hard to think of any former politician who’s taken a permanent civil service job.

The answer, of course, is that civil servants are indeed committed to a set of principles – but that these are built around public service, both to the wider populace and to the democratically-elected government. And to understand how these principles play out, politicians must recognise that serving the government is a much more involved and complex task than dumbly translating manifesto commitments into legislation.

For Opposition politicians lack the expertise, resources or support to develop detailed business plans: their manifestos largely comprise headline goals, spending commitments and roughly-sketched system changes. Civil servants must turn these aims into workable, legal and effective delivery plans – and at this point, political rhetoric meets messy reality.

Gathering evidence, consulting with communities, brokering agreement with other ministers and officials, scoping the legislative barriers and planning the delivery mechanisms, officials develop a set of options for realising ministers’ goals – presenting them, along with advice on their strengths and weaknesses, to elected leaders. Sometimes, these options are unpalatable. But civil servants are charged with ‘speaking truth to power’, providing a realistic, unvarnished picture of the world; they are paid to be realistic, not optimistic. It is in nobody’s interests for government to deliver ill-founded policies that fail in the real world.

If ministers insist on pursuing a policy that, the evidence suggests, is bound to fail, then officials will comply: there are plenty of examples, from the outsourcing of courts interpreters to Andrew Lansley’s 2013 NHS reforms. Often, though, ministers presented with convincing evidence of a policy’s weaknesses will instead find another way forward. Both Theresa May and Boris Johnson built their positions around their readiness to manage a ‘no deal’ exit from the EU; and when exposed to civil service analysis of the likely outcomes, both backed off.

Yet civil servants’ duties to highlight obstacles and test ideas can be perceived by ministers as wilful obstruction – leading to another common fallacy: that officials are inclined to block all change. And here, the Mirror article tries to have it both ways. Corbyn believes “the current service is too steeped in years of austerity, privatisation and right-wing economic thinking to fairly administer Labour’s long-term economic ‘transformation’,” it says, before quoting his frontbencher as saying that “for too long the promises political parties make at election time do not come to pass because they get clogged up or frustrated by the machine.”

So which is it? Has the current civil service become ideologically committed to the policies of previous governments? Or has it blocked them at every turn? The confusion reveals the author’s failure to understand the nuanced truth: civil servants work hard to realise their ministers’ goals, but delivery is difficult.

In the main, these difficulties lie not in obstructive officials, but in the complexities of managing change in a complex, cash-strapped landscape: an environment of multiple stakeholders, diffused accountabilities, vested interests and archaic legacy systems, reaching far beyond government into the wider public sector, business, civil society and public interest groups. Certainly, civil servants – aware of these obstacles – can seem to lack ambition: it’s a fair criticism that many tend to look for problems, rather than solutions. Given strong leadership and clear objectives, though, the civil service can deliver.

Lord Heseltine. (Image courtesy: Policy Exchange/flickr).

As former defence secretary Michael Heseltine – widely viewed as a highly effective minister – said in 2010: “I don’t believe that the civil service is full of crypto-communists or barking fascists. They’re there because they love the sort of work they do. What they despise is someone who can’t describe what they want, or is simply prejudiced, or rude. And I hope that they would say that, while they might not have liked what I was doing, they always knew what I wanted to do.”

To be fair to those who briefed the hapless Mirror reporter, while they appear confused as to what the problem is, they do at least say what they want to do: to give elected leaders the power to directly appoint permanent secretaries.

Like their diagnosis of the problem, their solution says more about politicians than about civil servants. For politicians – few of whom have ever run anything bigger than a constituency office – have peculiar ideas about organisational leadership, tending to laud the skills of those in certain fields while assuming that management skills are eminently transferrable. So Conservatives see businesspeople as the pinnacle of management expertise, while Labour admires union leaders and the champions of civil society; and both sides believe their favoured leaders would shine as brightly in any field of human enterprise.

The truth is that every area of management demands a specific set of skills, attributes and experience. We would not expect an airline executive to succeed in running a social enterprise delivering NHS contracts, or the head of a development charity to excel as the chief executive of an investment bank. And in many ways, civil service leadership is more complex than any of these fields – involving awkward intersections with legislators and ministers, and a lattice of democratic accountabilities that leave many important levers outside the control of departmental chiefs. So why would we expect people lacking any sectoral knowledge or experience to outperform those who’ve spent their careers building relevant skills in government?

Even in a best-case scenario, politically appointed permanent secretaries would spend months understanding the system before they were equipped to successfully manage policymaking and implementation. And in countries whose senior mandarins are appointed, there’s often a long hiatus before new leaders are installed: in the US, senators are warning that unfilled top positions in the Department of Homeland Security are damaging the organisation – nearly three years after Trump came to power.

The civil service is not perfect, and each incoming administration implements a new set of changes. Thatcher, for example, installed highly influential advisers, and empowered arm’s length agencies. Blair allowed special advisers to instruct civil servants, and created a central delivery team. Cameron gave ministers more weight in permanent secretary appointments, and allowed them to appoint more advisers and commission external policy advice (the latter reforms did not, as the Mirror claims, disappear “into Sir Humphrey’s shredder”: ministers simply found that they didn’t work, and abandoned them).

But radical changes such as those proposed by Corbyn’s unnamed shadow minister are rooted in a suspicion of the ‘establishment’ and the prejudices of politicians, rather than any real understanding of how the civil service operates – and how it fails to operate. And their introduction would bring a huge risk: that of destroying many of the civil service’s greatest strengths – and thus its ability to deliver effectively for the new government – without addressing its real weaknesses.

Every new minister would like to be greeted by cheering civil servants able to deliver their pet policy exactly as they’d envisaged it. Instead, they find their ideas tested, challenged, and adapted for delivery; and that can be a frustrating process, with many concepts altered and some ultimately deemed unworkable. When the resulting policies are finally implemented, though, they are evidence-based and designed by people who understand the delivery environment – giving them the best possible chance of success.

So elected leaders should ask themselves a simple question: if you suspect that your policy wouldn’t survive that process of scrutiny, testing and evidence-gathering, might the problem be not civil service bias or obstructionism, but the fact that it isn’t such a great idea in the first place?

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

3 Comments

  1. Paul

    14/11/2019 at

    What a great article – well constructed and pointing out the pitfalls of moving to an American style system of appointing senior Civil Servants. I’ve spent more than 30 years in the Civil Service and seen at first hand how political ideology takes very little account of how a policy might work in reality and what the knock on effects might be. Of course when it all goes wrong, the politicians look for someone to blame with a perceived lack of support from the Civil Service being their first port of call. A case of the workman blaming his tools

  2. Gus O’Donnell

    14/11/2019 at

    An excellent article . An impartial civil service has many advantages which I tried to spell out in my lecture to the fda.

    • Mia Hunt

      14/11/2019 at

      Thanks Gus – I’ll pass that on to Matt. I’ve written a feature on your impartiality lecture. It will be published tomorrow afternoon and will be sent out in Monday’s e-newsletter.

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