A less civil service in store?

I’ve always said that the books and DVDs of Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister should be issued to anyone joining the civil service, as the best (humourous) how-to and survival guide there is to life in Whitehall.

Even today, with all the changes that have been introduced in the three decades since the show was first made, it’s amazing how prescient and accurate it is: its 30 minutes on the national ID cards pretty much wrote the outline for the whole sorry story arc of the now-dead 21st century policy. It had stories on cost-cutting, austerity and ministers giving up their official cars long before Cameron and Clegg made that symbolic move after the 2010 election. And just last week I tuned in to an episode on UK Gold to see a story about UK involvement in the global arms trade, and I swear that the arguments in the show uncannily replicated those in the news broadcast on the same day about British sales to Libya dominated the headlines. Truly, Yes, Minister is the closest thing British TV has ever had to The West Wing in terms of conveying hard, topical issues in a funny but informative manner.

The show is a bit of a Whitehall Rorschach test as well: politicians would say “yes, civil servants are exactly like that, always stopping you from getting on with things” while dismissing the representation of weak, dithering, vote-led politicians as rather silly. But ask a civil servant and they will tend to have precisely the opposite view.

Certainly Margaret Thatcher said that Yes, Minister‘s Sir Humphrey was spot-on accurate to the type of obstacle she had to deal with every day; she may have been joking, it was always hard to tell with Mrs T at the best of times. But certainly by the time 1997 rolled around, Tony Blair seemed to completely believe that Yes, Minister‘s view of civil servants was absolutely accurate and indeed had to be tackled head-on from the start. Upon arrival he found the incumbent Cabinet Secretary Sir Robin Butler so little in tune with what he was trying to do – and so clearly not busting a gut to achieve any of the Prime Minister’s instructions – that the man was out shortly thereafter, although after ten years in the post he was about due to leave in any case. His successors Sir Richard Wilson and Sir Andrew Turnbull were scarcely more popular with Blair and had even shorter tenures, until finally the Prime Minister happened upon Sir Gus O’Donnell, the current incumbent, and a man who sees it as his duty to be in absolute lock-step with his political master – just the sort of senior civil servant to appeal to Downing Street.

Blair’s (and subsequently Gordon Brown’s) tenure in Number 10 led to increasing fears of ‘politicisation’ of the civil service – it you weren’t enthusiastically in step with what Labour were trying to do, then you seemed to be eased sideways or out regardless of any lip-service to the impatiality of the service. Or, indeed, the civil servants were by-passed and sidelined altogether: hence the rise of the Special Policy Advisors, leaving civil servants altogether as just faceless facilitators of the routine side of things as so ably lampooned in the biting satire The Thick of It (which while fun, and a definitely-required update to the 80s Yes, Minister, is too busy being witheringly funny to be as useful as the earlier show as an actual how-to/survival guide.)

As concerned and scandalised by this ‘politicisation’ as some politics wonks were in the Labour years, it was still within the bounds of civil service impartiality. While you might be able to ease a civil servant out, you still couldn’t control who would replace them because of the impartial selection and appointment process. But now, under the Coalition, it seems that even this Maginot Line may have been breached.

MP Tom Watson, writing in the obviously highly political Labour Uncut site, has posted answers to FOI requests he’s been making about apparent breaches to civil service recruitment principles – he says that he’s uncovered 30 of them, and that presumably doesn’t include the appointment of former Taxpayers’ Alliance spokesman James Frayne as the (supposedly politically impartial) director of communications at Michael Gove’s Department for Education. According to Mr Watson, other recent appointees to the civil service that have come direct from Conservative or Liberal Democrat political positions include Katharine Davidson, Michael Lynas, Kris Murrin and Rishi Saha – the latter as head of the government’s digital communications after working on the Conservative election campaign at Millbank and previously standing as a candidate for the party in Brent South in 2005.

Mr Watson, in his blog piece, writes: “how could cabinet secretary, Gus O’Donnell, have allowed his appointment to take place?”, adding: “Will civil servants be privately wondering why Gus O’Donnell has not acted to stop these abuses?” When questioned about the appointments, Sir Gus says that he has looked into them and had defended them as entirely proper and verified.

Does any of this actually matter? Shouldn’t we expect any incoming government to want to install some friendly faces who can be trusted to be committed to getting things done: like a new houseowner, they want to come in, redecorate, hang new curtains, put the furniture where it suits them and not the previous owners, right? We’re all the same with a new home. Except that the problem with that analogy is that of course the party of government is not the owner, merely the tenant. Any government, no matter how successful or long-lived, is only ever renting – and so the property is not theirs to simply make any changes that it wishes without clearing it first with the landlord (which would be us, the public.) Ad hoc changes on the fly have repercussions: it’s surely partly Labour’s “easing out” of non-likeminded people that after thirteen years left the Coalition in a position where the civil service looked like hostile territory to them upon arrival, and which justified (in the Coalition parties’ minds at least) urgent and dramatic action to redress the balance by bringing in the ‘right’ sort of people by any means necessary. The roots of the current ‘scandal’ of politicised appointments, therefore, lie rather more in Labour’s four-term ‘redecoration’ and reinvention of Whitehall than the likes of Mr Watson and his former ministerial colleagues would probably care to admit.

The British system has always been that of an impartial, non-politicised civil service, one that continues even when governments fall. It’s not the same in the United States, where whole tiers of the civil service up and leave when the administration changes. In order to do this, there is a 7-week interregnum between the election and the installing of the new government, during which time there’s a frantic round of hiring anyone who has a pulse to fill the tens of thousands of suddenly-vacant positions providing that they have the right political allegiance. The American system emphasises the political need to get things done fast, while the British system emphasises continuity, constant professionalism and an aversion to recklessness albeit at the cost of speed.

It’s surely possible to make the case that the British system is now simply antiquated and out of date, that it needs a kick up the backside if it’s going to be able to deliver the government’s policies with the speed and dedication necessary for the modern world of 24-hour news; while to have a civil service that needs to be convinced first before it’ll start thinking about moving into action could prove disastrous. The fire and passion of true believers getting things done, versus the experience and in-depth knowledge of the impartial civil service who abide by “first do no harm”: each have their strengths – and undoubted weaknesses.

Ideally you’d want to create a service that blends the strengths of both approaches (even if such attempts often end up with the weaknesses of both instead.) That’s what led to the rise of the Special Policy Advisers (SPADs) in the Noughties, a way of adding a political layer without radically changing the underlying bureaucracy; unfortunately the whole approach became discredited over the years to the extent that the Conservative election campaign had to promise to do away with these political appointments on the public payroll – and David Cameron quickly got his fingers burnt when the press roasted him about his ‘personal photographer’ being paid out of the Number 10 budget and had to put him straight back on the Conservative Party books.

So that avenue has been closed up, and the only way the Coalition sees to get that politically-energised and aligned personnel is to bring it into the civil service itself – hence the appointments that we’ve seen over the past year. But this approach has its consequences too: with top jobs going to those “in the party” all the time, what would be left for the dutifully impartial civil servant to aim for career-wise? All the best people will leave if they want advancement and success – or will need to choose a political party as a dance partner. Furthermore, a creeping politicisation will end the impartiality of the civil service: if you allow the top appointees to take overtly politically positions and action in public, then you’ll be powerless to complain about or discipline anyone in the lower echelons who follows suit. We’ll swiftly lose any pretence of a politically-neutral civil service and find ourselves with American-style wholesale clean-sweeps after every administration-changing election, and with it that loss of knowledge and experience of how to get things done that is built up from careers lasting lifetimes.

We might not like it, but we have to admit that it’s the result of past actions on the part of political parties, the media and indeed periodic bouts of outraged public opinion about SPADs, spin and expenses over the last decade. The question is whether we now care enough to do anything about it – to recognise it and talk about it openly rather than let the civil service be twisted and bent out of shape by the slow build-up of dubious precedent as has been the case since the 1980s. If things are going to change, at least let’s think and talk about it properly first.

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