‘The question is not is the civil service fit for purpose, it’s is government fit for purpose’: how officials and ministers can work together

By on 21/06/2023 | Updated on 21/06/2023
A picture of the UK parliament at night
Photo by Naveen Annam from Pexels

The relationship between civil servants and ministers is in the headlines in the UK like never before. At a Global Government Forum webinar, experts discussed the cause of the breakdown – and how to fix it

From bullying allegations against ministers to briefings calling the civil service a ‘blob’ obstructing government progress, relations between ministers and officials in the UK are under unprecedented strain.

The resignation of deputy prime minister Dominic Raab was just one incident that put a focus on how civil servants and ministers work together. Raab stepped down after bullying complaints against him by officials were upheld following an investigation – but Raab said his departure was the result of “activist civil servants” who were able to “block reforms or changes through a rather passive-aggressive approach”.

As the government prepares to receive a long-awaited review by former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude into civil service governance and accountability, Global Government Forum brought together a panel of experts – Lucille Thirlby, assistant general secretary at the FDA trade union, which represents senior civil servants in the UK; Jonathan Slater, the former permanent secretary at the Department for Education; and Andrew Kakabadse, the professor of governance and leadership at Henley Business School, University of Reading – to discuss how to repair the vital relationship between ministers and the officials they work with.

Thirlby told the webinar’s audience that “the notion of a war between civil servants and ministers or this government is a totally concocted proposition by either those who are not in government or those who are interested in diversionary tactics”.

The experience of the union is that the “vast majority” of the relationships between civil servants and ministers are good and manage to get that balance right in ensuring the delivery of public services in line with government policy.

“I think all the incidents we are aware of are with individual ministers who have had serious personal failings of standards,” she said.

Thirlby said this narrative about a “blob” of officials anonymises ministerial responsibility and “puts the blame on employees and leaders in the civil service for being the obstacle for reform, which actually isn’t evidenced and does need to be challenged”.

She added: “Many of our members feel angry and hurt by ministers using the media to brief against them – whether that’s policy announcements on job cuts or the removal of permanent secretaries or comments and behaviour around hybrid working.

“You just would not see this in private sector employers, nor if you were a leader of a local government council. They would not publicly berate their staff in the way that ministers feel able to do.”

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

‘The tension between ministers and perm secs is the most complex relationship I’ve seen’

Kakabadse, who undertook a review of the workings of the UK civil service for the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in 2018, shared his reflections on how to make the relationship between ministers and officials work.

He noted that his report was initially commissioned to answer the question “is the civil service fit for purpose?”. It took him less than a week to recognise that the guiding question was inadequate, so it instead became “is government fit for purpose?”.

“I could not come up to any meaningful conclusion until the role of the minister, and their interaction with the officials, was at least part of the study.”

As a management expert, Kakabadse said the academic literature highlights that the critical relationship in a business or organisation is between the chair and chief executive officer (CEO).

“You can create the best strategy, but the chemistry between the chair and CEO could damage major corporations. So there is a tension – and the tension between secretaries of state and permanent secretary is probably the most complex I have seen.”

This is primarily due to misalignment between the demand for urgency by the secretary of state and the challenge officials face to be realistic about the implementation challenges.

“On the one hand the secretary of state is an individual publicly exposed, making comments in the dispatch box, and needing to see through a manifesto. But on the other hand, the implementation of that policy – through officials being realistic about how we navigate through the different misalignments, how we bring people on board – creates a tension.”

The urgency versus realism tension is actually quite well understood by the officials,” he said. “It’s the ministerial end that’s the problem.”

Kakabadse said that he had looked at governments around the world including Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Singapore, Saudi Arabia and Oman. “I have never witnessed anywhere – in any corporation or in any government in the world – the devotion like the British civil servant has to their secretary of state. This is not because of the role of the person, but because of the devotion to representative democracy.

“The respect shown to that by officials was immense, by nature of the fact that you are devoted to representative democracy. The focus on the secretary of state, and trying to enable the secretary of state to implement policies, stood out.”

He said that he worried that Maude’s planned reforms – the former Cabinet Office minister has said he will recommend that government be “less mealy mouthed about ‘politicisation’” of the civil service – could undermine this respect.

“If you get rid of this, you’ll simply have a transactional economy, which is actually what most of the private sector organisations have today. [The conversation between ministers and civil servants becomes] ‘You want this? Well, I’ll deliver it but without thinking through the intricacies of the delivery process of a strategy or policy’.”

‘Where’s all this truth to power?’

However, reflecting on his own time in government, Jonathan Slater – who was sacked from his role as Department for Education permanent secretary by prime minister Boris Johnson due to a row over how to decide education qualifications during the coronavirus pandemic – said the civil service was not as good at telling truth to power as it thinks.

“Generally, the civil service is very adept at working out what the minister wants and giving it to them,” he said. However, this can inhibit the willingness of officials to ‘speak truth to power’ – telling ministers the reality of how to implement policy, even if it is uncomfortable.

“We’re so focused on what is it that our minister wants that we find it really hard to do the ‘truth to power’. It’s a great phrase, isn’t it, speaking truth of power? It makes you feel really good when you say it, but it’s bloody hard to do.”

This is due to both the inherent awkwardness of having difficult conversations as well as reticence from civil servants, he said, but ministers get frustrated that the civil servants, who are the subject matter experts, don’t share their insight.

“We focus a bit too much of our attention on what [the secretary of state] thinks. I remember [education secretary from 2016 to 2018] Justine Greening hadn’t been secretary very long before she received a submission from a civil servant saying: ‘I understand this is the overall outcome you want, and you’ve got a range of different options’. And Justine, through her private office, sent a message back to the official saying: ‘Thank you very much. What would your advice be? Which do you think of these various options would be the best?’ And the response she actually got back from the official was: ‘Well, it depends what you want’.”

Civil servants are not serving ministers well with this approach, Slater says.

“Telling truth to power is really important, but I would say it’s not really a very strong feature of the Whitehall model in practice. One of the very first things I thought when I arrived in 2001 was, ‘where’s all this truth of power?’ I just don’t see it.

“I’m not blaming anybody for it. You can see why it wouldn’t happen as much as we think it could, and it’s really important that it should happen.”

Slater has written about possible reforms to Whitehall policymaking to address this, having warned in a March 2022 paper for the Policy Institute at King’s College London that civil service policy advice is “too often disconnected from reality”.

Read more: Former UK cabinet secretary backs call to publish civil service policy advice

“I’ve written about how one might improve that situation,” he told the webinar audience. The current situation does not service ministers well as they are not subject experts and they really need civil servants “to know about it and to tell them what they know, and they would get frustrated that we didn’t know and we wouldn’t tell them”.

What is needed, he believes, is increased openness in policymaking.

“Policymaking takes place in a closed room [and is] not subject to any external scrutiny at all. If you want to know what my advice was, you’re going to have to wait 20 years. 20 years? When I was a local government official [in the London borough of Islington], if you wanted to know what my advice was, you’d find out on the day – just go to the education committee, and I would set out which school I thought should close to an open meeting. Move a couple of miles away into Whitehall, and we suddenly can’t possibly do that.”

Creating a system where civil servants are accountable to parliamentary select committees for the options appraisals they prepare for their ministers would lead to better policymaking – and improve the relationship between ministers and officials into the bargain, he concluded.

“We wouldn’t be just working out what we think the minister wants and quite often getting it wrong. We would know if the policy advice [to ministers] is any good. Ministers would be much better served and our jobs [as civil servants] would be much more effective – we would be much more likely to speak truth to power.”

You can watch the full ‘Civil service relations with ministers – what’s gone wrong, and how to fix it’ webinar on our dedicated events page. The webinar, hosted by Global Government Forum, was held on 25 May 2023.

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About Richard Johnstone

Richard Johnstone is the executive editor of Global Government Forum, where he helps to produce editorial analysis and insight for the title’s audience of public servants around the world. Before joining GGF, he spent nearly five years at UK-based title Civil Service World, latterly as acting editor, and has worked in public policy journalism throughout his career.

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