A new Whitehall: rethinking the Civil Service

Posted by Richard D North under 'Power To The People!' / Dare to be dull / The Archipelago State on 10 February 2010

Looking at the work of the Institute for Government makes me all the more interested in describing some radical changes in the way the Civil Service operates. Here goes…

The thinking below draws on the chapters on government in my books, Mr Blair’s Messiah Politics (2006) and Mr Cameron’s Makeover Politics (2009).

Institute for Government trawls of the evidence show that the Civil Service is slimmer than it used to be, more trusted and admired by the public than one might suppose, and rather better managed (with reservations as to whether it looks quite so good when viewed from its own middle ranks).

The IfG is doing very important work in describing useful practical changes which need to be developed. My angles of attack are a little different.

Firstly, I think we need to describe to the public how modern Britain is managed, right now. Secondly, we need to make it much clearer the different sorts of job public servants do. Thirdly, we need to consider a role for Civil Servants as custodians of public policy, accountable to Parliament not ministers.  

In turn then:

(1) Mapping the Archipelago State
There is a huge need for a proper description of how modern Britain is managed. I think there is an Archipelago State. Whitehall is its largest island, but the scattered network of agencies, boards, commissions and Quangoes which are the real bulk of the system are vastly important and not readily seen or understood for what they are.

(2) Colouring in the Archipelago State
The Archipelago State grew Tospywise and is muddled. You can’t always tell the bits which advise ministers from the bits which devise policy from the bits which deliver it from the bits which run things from the bits which police bits of society from the bits which deliver public services. Accountability is difficult to discern. So my second call is: colour-code the different bits of the Archipelago State according to the sort of work they do. If that is unclear, make it so.

(3) A new role for the Civil Service
For all sorts of reasons (see below), one part the Civil Service should be the professional and statutory adviser to Parliament on policy matters. That is, the Civil Service should be a publicly-sponsored centre for policy assessment, both in formulation and delivery. This wing of the Service should develop plausible and operable policy scenarios for Parliament and Government to choose amongst and it should provide a public analysis of the state of policy delivery.

The objections to this reform would be that other bits of the Civil Service would be doing this work for ministers but in secret (rightly), and delivering policy for Government, whilst my new bits of the Service would be developing Government policy but in public and possibly in a way which undermines ministers.

The current system, has the Civil Service working (often in public) on the policies favoured by the exisiting Government, whilst my reform would have the Civil Service also, and separately, working on policy for the Opposition (and indeed for the public). 

In short, this reform would blow away the constitutional myth that the Civil Service is the creature of ministers, with no voice of its own.

My answer to that is: tough, and so what? We cannot leave it to a hotchpotch of think tanks, opposition politicians, interest groups and commentators to arm Parliament and the public with policy options.

The public nature of its policy development work would not amount to the Civil service having opinions as to the political or moral desirability of different policies. Its job would be to discuss in private and public  the workability of policies. 

The State should be capable of working up alternative possibilities, and should hire and mandate its own professionals in this work. This wing of the Civil Service would of course operate in the public glare, and that would be hugely energising. It should also be efficient in the sense of allowing Civil Servants to be devote time to understanding policies which opposition parties are likely to need them to introduce.

If you want a picture of the kind of farce the existing system produces, try the IfG document, Transitions: Preparing for changes of Government by Peter Riddell and Catherine Haddon.

A few reasons this reform is needed
Parliamentary and government life is likely to get more complicated if we see hung parliaments and great turnover of administrations between exisiting (and maybe emerging) parties; we are likely to see even more young and inexperienced ministers; we are likely to see quite profound management issues as we move away from the model of the big central state owing and running a vast welfare state aparatus.

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