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

By on 24/04/2023 | Updated on 24/04/2023
A street sign displaying the word Whitehall, the name for the centre of the UK government.
Photo Steph Gray/Flickr

A government-commissioned review of the UK civil service is set to call for greater ministerial involvement in the appointment of top officials, with Singapore and France among the nations that could be used as examples for Whitehall reform.

The review by former Cabinet Office minister Lord Francis Maude is looking at the efficiency and effectiveness of the UK civil service, focusing on leadership responsibility, autonomy and models of accountability.

Maude has been undertaking the review since July last year, but it is now subject to an increased focus following the resignation of UK deputy prime minister and justice secretary Dominic Raab.

Raab resigned on Friday after a bullying inquiry found he acted in an “intimidating” and “aggressive” way towards officials, although Raab said the inquiry was “flawed and sets a dangerous precedent” for providing clear and robust feedback to officials.

Read more: Former UK Cabinet Office minister launches review into civil service governance and accountability

In an article for the Observer newspaper on Sunday, Maude said that Raab’s resignation raised important issues for the civil service.

In particular, Maude said that there was a need for “a much more robust culture, with less groupthink, more rugged disagreement, and the confidence to both offer challenge and to accept it” across government.

This needs to include officials accepting “candid feedback” from ministers, Maude said, whose report is set to be submitted to UK prime minister Rishi Sunak shortly.

“Today there is no external accountability for the quality of advice, other than to ministers. There could be value in regular external audits, conducted by qualified outsiders, with published results. This would reward officials who get it right, and provide a stimulus to the rest.”

Government must be “less mealy mouthed about ‘politicisation’”

This new settlement in the partnership between ministers and civil servants would also need to include being “less mealy mouthed about ‘politicisation’”, Maude said.

He highlighted that other systems deal with the issue of politicisation in official appointments. In France, for example, permanent civil servants often have overt political affiliations, while in Australia, permanent civil servants in ministers’ private offices are released from the obligations of political impartiality, and can take part in party political activity.

“We don’t need to go that far, but the key, as always, is transparency and pragmatism,” said Maude.

Such an approach could help address what he called “the inevitable tensions and frustrations” in working between officials and politicians. These can be exacerbated because ministers rely on officials to implement policies and run their department but have limited say over the appointment of officials in their department.

Maude said there is no perfect way to balance the tension between maintaining impartiality and continuity, and ministers’ legitimate need for key officials to be effective and responsive, but that other governments with similar systems to the UK, such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada, manage it better.

“The UK is now an outlier, and a better balance needs to be struck. It is perfectly possible to preserve impartiality and, indeed, improve continuity while allowing ministers more say in appointments,” he added.

Maude’s highlighting of potential external audits of the quality of advice given to ministers comes after former UK Department for Education permanent secretary Jonathan Slater called for policy options documents prepared for ministers by civil servants to be published for scrutiny, with officials permitted to respond openly to select committee questions instead of representing their minister’s position.

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

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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.

One Comment

  1. Lee Jones says:

    Well I agree with Maude’s observation that the UK is an ‘outlier’, but I suspect that is not in the sense he intended the comment.
    On the issue of the ‘politicisation’ of the UK civil service: Doesn’t that *completely* fly in one of the fundament founding principles of this institution? Isn’t this entire argument contrary to his other argument centred on ‘groupthink’, in that having a government appoint senior officials will (by definition) create a groupthink cell of their own which is contrary to the basic principles of the civil service.
    Talk about cherry-picking your arguments ….

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