Articles about the UK Civil Service and Regulation

Strategic Centre to Replace Cabinet Government?

Here’s the problem:-  Prime Minister Johnson is said to have asked the Cabinet Secretary, Mark Sedwill, to say who was in charge of implementing a COVID-19 delivery plan? One observer recalled: “There was just silence.  He looked over at Sedwill and said, ‘Is it you?’  Sedwill said, ‘No, I think it’s you, Prime Minister.’”

This exchange must seem extraordinary to anyone outside Whitehall, but it reflects the reality of Cabinet government.  Government in the UK is a system, not a command structure.  The Cabinet are meant to be a team of equals.  Each team member takes responsibility when the ball, so to speak, is passed to them.  But there is no organising mind, least of all in the Cabinet Office.  Its main function is to resolve disputes between the players. 

This generally works well.  Most important decisions can be taken following discussions between Cabinet Ministers, refereed as necessary by the Prime Minister or in Cabinet Committee.  And it is usually obvious which department needs to be responsible for which delivery programs.

And it has sometimes worked OK during the COVID-19 crisis.  Neither the Prime Minister nor the Cabinet Secretary needed to tell the Chancellor and his officials how to (or indeed whether to) organise a furlough scheme.  Nor did they need to tell Matt Hancock and his officials how to manage the NHS so as to cope with the first spike in COVID deaths.

But it all clearly fell apart when it came to lockdown and related policies.  Here, the Health Secretary, the Home Secretary (police, civil liberties), the Transport Secretary, the Business Secretary, and the Chancellor all needed to work together.   One of them needed to take charge, but no-one did so.  Mark Sedwill appears to have thought that the Prime Minster should have taken charge, but that is hardly Mr Johnson’s style.  Mr Johnson appears to have thought that officials should resolve all the inter-departmental tensions for him.  But he forgot that, while officials could certainly provide information analysis and advice, they couldn’t make what were bound to be highly controversial decisions.  If the delivery plan was so complex that it could not be led by a single Secretary of State, then there was no alternative but for it to be led by the Prime Minister himself, in effect managing his Cabinet colleagues.  He will have looked in vain for robust structures and levers to pull.  They aren’t normally needed, and they couldn’t be magicked out of thin air in a hurry.  Put simply, the UK government does not have anything approaching a strategic centre.

Should we therefore switch to a more Presidential system?  Or at least a more strategic centre as was recommended by the Institute for Government in its ‘Shaping Up’ report  ten years ago?

It would certainly speed decision making.  Ministers and officials can move very swiftly if they don’t need to consult other departments.  But it can take an age to get others to agree to even innocuous suggestions.  They have priorities of their own, and their own stakeholders to worry about.  Even worse, one Minister can be very unwilling to support another Minister’s great initiative, as they are probably both vying for the next promotion.

A strategic centre would also probably help to ensure that resources could be swiftly moved from one department to another where they are more urgently needed.  This is currently a very slow process, given Ministers’ and Permanent Secretaries’ natural reluctance to lose staff.  Even worse, they will if pressed eventually offer to lose staff that they don’t want to keep.

More generally, a strategic centre would weaken the sometimes excessive loyalty of senior civil servants to their particular political boss. 

Above all, though, isn’t it crazy that the Prime Minister doesn’t have a powerful team to help him monitor progress on his key priorities, to intervene when progress has stalled, and make those all-important trade-offs which will, if unaddressed, lead to endless and fruitless debate?  (Social care, for instance.)

Keen Whitehall observers will be aware that Dominic Cummings is prominent in supporting what is pejoratively called ‘centralisation’, including ‘COBRA style committees’ where Ministers and officials would work together on projects.  I can do no better than quote Jill Rutter’s reaction:

“He’s going to hate this from an ex civil servant – but I think it’s a pretty good idea..  Cabinet committees are pretty useless by and large with bored Ministers reading out departmental speaking notes usually written by junior, quite bored civil servants desperately trying to dig up a departmental angle on an issue of which they know little – or conversely fuming at a last minute ‘bounce’ on an issue in which their department has a big interest.  Ministers are expected to pay departmental roles in such committees and leave their broader political judgement at home.  This is the system that nodded through the Lansley health reforms.”

The problem is that strategic centres and COBRA-style committees would inevitably and intentionally reduce the power and influence of individual members of the Cabinet.  Much the same can be said for already announced decisions to have Downing Street control all government data, and to have all Special Advisers report to Dominic Cummings.  George Yarrow has pointed out that Adam Smith would not have approved of making a significant change to Ministers’ responsibilities, nor would it have been welcomed by previous administrations’ ‘big beasts’.  Former Chancellor Sajid Javid objected, of course, and was summarily dismissed. 

So we are left with a Cabinet which is entirely subservient to the Prime Minister, and presumably perfectly content to work within a command structure rather than within a Cabinet of equals.  It will be interesting to see if ‘centralisation’ continues and if so whether we then experience significantly better government, though some would say that we could hardly have a worse experience than recent years.

Martin Stanley

Editor – Understanding Government

Politicisation and The Civil Service

The appointment of David Frost as National Security Adviser has raised – yet again – the question of whether the UK is still best served by a politically impartial civil service.

This blog contains extracts from an internal Cabinet Office note which discussed the question nearly 20 years ago.  It points out that political appointees tend to become political figures in their own right, and this dilutes Ministers’ own accountability.  Some Ministers like this.  Some don’t.  But Parliamentarians and the media generally deplore their reduced ability to hold Government Ministers to account.

Read on for more detail …


Extracts from a note prepared in 2002 by Robin Mountfield, Cabinet Office Permanent Secretary

The case for Political Neutrality

“The major risk in changing the career basis of the Civil Service is to the existing accountability structure. The pressures to increase the external accountability of civil servants to Parliament and the media are increasing generally; but if appointments continue to be made on the basis of political neutrality, these pressures should be manageable. If appointments come to be appointed on political or personal grounds, however, it would be hard to avoid a more public form of accountability going beyond the present convention of accountability through Ministers.

The American system, with confirmation hearings and answerability to congressional committees, is one illustration of this; but even in ‘Westminster model’ administrations where top appointments are now personal or political ones, the tendency is for individuals to become in effect political figures in their own right, for their views to be known, and for the Minister’s own accountability to be diluted accordingly*.

Now, many would regard a development on these lines as good for the UK, good for open government, and good for the robustness and rigour of the advice process. Maybe: but no one should under-estimate the extent and significance of the changes that would flow from it in the constitutional relationships of Ministers, civil servants, Parliament and the media. Changes of that kind should not be allowed to creep up by degrees; they should be made consciously after careful thought and public debate.”

Also …

“The career basis of the Civil Service has been its central feature since Northcote- Trevelyan (justified in their 1857 Report on the principle of “get them in young and they won’t notice they’re being under-paid for the rest of their lives” – a principle which has survived to the present day). The political neutrality in a sense follows from the career basis rather than preceding it – if you join for life, you must serve successive Administrations; and if you must do that, you had best not be aligned too closely with any political party.

The case for political neutrality is thus closely linked to the career cadre: continuity of experience, not just of a particular policy area (often fairly specific, like tax policy or the social welfare system) but of the working of the Government and the Parliamentary machines – these are a professional specialism in their own right, and the Service does itself no favours by describing the mandarins as generalists.”

Civil Service Strengths and Weaknesses

“But the career-based political neutrality also carries with it an intellectual bias towards analysis, comparison of alternatives and the instinctive subjection of ideas to rigorous and sceptical questioning. These qualities must not be carried into excessively academic detachment, an over-literary method of communicating or a negative approach to new ideas (and these are all dangers to which the Service sometimes succumbs, as its critics outside, inside and in between commonly accuse). But they are qualities necessary somewhere in the decision process.

The Service has devoted a great deal of effort in the last 15 or 20 years to developing its management skills – with far greater success than is generally recognised. It is not generally appreciated, in all the chatter about failure to ‘deliver’, that in the areas of public services delivery directly in civil servants’ hands – the 80% of the Service in Agencies etc – productivity rose by about 3% per annum in the 90s, much faster than in the private service sector; and that most aspects of service quality also recorded substantial and measurable improvements.

Other areas of public service ‘delivery failure’ for which Ministers tend to blame the Civil Service are no more in the gift of civil servants than they are of Ministers themselves – transport, education, health, local government: the contribution of civil servants in these areas is an aspect of their advice to Ministers rather than their own ‘delivery’.

In the area of advice, however, there is more room to question how far the Civil Service has performed well. Many civil servants have felt uneasily for some time that their policy-analysis and policy advice skills, though generally impressively strong by external standards, have not developed in parallel, and indeed have not always responded adequately to the growth of academic, think – tank and pressure-group influences on policy. The Civil Service is no longer the monopoly provider of policy advice to Ministers; we live in an altogether more plural world. Recent developments like the re-launch of the Civil Service College in the new Centre for Policy and Management Studies** reflect the determination of the Permanent Secretaries to sharpen these skills for a new environment, and especially to develop a new receptiveness to new ideas and influences, alongside the infusion of new people into the Service at all levels of the policy process.”

Government Communications

As the main issue 20 years ago was the appointment and dismissal of press officers, Robin’s paper points out that effective communication and explanation of policy and decisions should not be an after-thought, but an integral part of a democratic Government’s duty to govern with consent.  Tight co-ordination of the Government’s information activities is not in itself a bad thing – indeed it is really common-sense, if “inconvenient for journalists trying to make a story from inconsistent reports from different sources”.

He went on stress the need for information officers to be kept much better ‘in the loop’. 

“In some Departments, Special Advisers had been seen by journalists as a more reliable source of information on their Ministers’ views than the Departmental press office. This was not new – it had become a recognised role of Special Advisers under the previous Government too – but in some cases … it had become a serious problem. … [It is the responsibility of] the Permanent Secretary, with the Minister, to monitor it closely and take steps to correct any tendency to diverge.”***

Can Ministers ‘Sack’ Officials?

The hot (or at least warm) issue c.20 years ago was the power of Ministers to dismiss, or squeeze out by one means or another, a press officer whose face did not fit.

“This is not an easy problem, for two reasons. First, it has always, and sensibly, been understood that in a case of genuine and protracted personal incompatibility, one or other of the incompatibles has to go (this is the ‘personal chemistry’ point …)  But this is clearly inconsistent with a non-political Civil Service if it is used systematically to allow Ministers to surround themselves with personal courts.” ****

How Ministers Can Choose Officials

Finally, Robin noted that there were two politics-free processes through which Ministers could choose between those seeking appointment to senior positions.

  • First, he/she could interview a shortlist of candidates chosen by his/her department, and make a free choice between them.
  • The second, and only other, route is via open external competition, supervised directly by the Civil Service Commissioners. A Minister could then only accept the recommended candidate, or the first recommendation if more than one were judged acceptable. He could not (since the Commissioners’ rules were changed following Ken Clarke’s preference for Derek Lewis over other ‘acceptable’ candidates as head of the Prison Service) choose between ‘acceptable’ candidates: if he was unwilling to accept the first name, the only course would be to re-run the competition from scratch.

These arrangements leave no room for Ministers to parachute in their own candidates.


The full Mountfield paper can be found here.

* Much the same problem can be seen in the media interest in Dominic Cummings and David Frost, including allegations that the former has become the real Prime Minister and that Boris Johnson cannot manage without him.

**Both were subsequently closed, and training privatised.

*** One can only imagine Dominic Cummings’ reaction to Mark Sedwill asking him to ensure that his media briefings were consistent with those of Cabinet Ministers and their press teams.

**** This particularly applies to Permanent Secretaries (and the Cabinet Secretary) who need to have the full confidence of their Ministers. Ministers cannot ‘fire’ such senior officials but, like so much in the UK constitution, this is a theoretical rather than actual constraint.

Martin Stanley

Editor – Understanding Government

We Need Properly Planned Civil Service Reform

For those taking a new interest in Civil Service Reform, and the possible politicisation of the senior civil service, here are some introductory facts and analysis.  Much further detail may be found here.   

First, let’s agree that …

Whitehall is well overdue for reform. 

There hasn‘t been a proper look at the relationship between Parliament, Ministers and the Civil Service since Lord Haldane reported in 1918.  There have been many successful management and efficiency reforms, including under Francis Maude.  Longer ago, ‘Fulton’ and ‘Next Steps’ were very positive developments but they didn’t touch fundamental questions such as these:. 

  • Should Ministers continue to be held to account for the wide range of expertise-based decisions which are now taken by government? Instead, there might be explicit recognition that Ministers are responsible and accountable only for establishing the Government’s strategy (with some support from a small ‘cabinet’ including relevant experts, a few civil servants and others with relevant skills) whilst the would be responsible and accountable for providing advice, consultation, communication and execution.
  • As part of this, should civil servants be accountable to Parliament for the delivery of major programms such the COVID response, Brexit implementation and Universal credit.  But would this would require officials to be able to refuse to implement Ministers’ decisions if they felt that they were being given unreasonable objectives and/or unreasonable timescales and/or inadequate resources.
  • What is the right balance between cost and service quality – in terms of both the service provided by ‘Whitehall’ to Ministers and the service provided by the wider (and much larger) Civil Service to the public?
  • Are senior officials now spending too much time defending their Ministers, and not enough time speaking truth to power?
  • Is there no way of allowing officials to demonstrate promotability other than by moving from job to job every couple of years?
  • How much freedom should officials have to innovate and respond to local needs?
  • Do we still need a single ‘Civil Service’ as distinct from a number of grouped departmental administrations?
  • Or, looking the other way, do we still need a single Civil Service comprising only 8% of, and quite separate from, the rest of the public service?
  • Is the Cabinet Secretariat (created in 1916) still fit for purpose nearly 100 years later?
  • Have we nothing to learn from overseas administrations?
  • Should Ministers be constrained from operating in contravention of the Cabinet Manual, perhaps by requiring senior officials to ask for a Procedural Direction’ in such circumstances?

Francis Maude’s Reform Program

It’s a great pity that Francis Maude did not allow these questions to be asked when he had the chance in 2012, and so missed a golden opportunity to undertake a thorough reform of Whitehall – despite describing his objectives (to the Public Administration Committee) as “intense change” and a “dramatic change in culture”. “The civil service will inevitably become much smaller, flatter and less hierarchical, as it should do.” But he reckoned that he could achieve such changes without any sort of plan. The Minister and his officials, including Gus O’Donnell, Head of the Civil Service, said that there was “no blueprint” and proposed to implement the changes “for the first time without a White Paper”. “A lot of this is just common sense – not revolution”.

To their credit, Committee Chair, Bernard Jenkin, and other committee members were openly sceptical. Surely every successful change programme needed to be planned? “Having a plan is an act of leadership.” In response, ex-Accenture and loyal official Ian Watmore declared that he was a change expert, recruited from the private sector, and saw no need for a plan – a statement so ridiculous that it would undoubtedly have led to failure in any appointment or promotion interview whether within the civil service or with his previous employer.

Reporting in 2013 Sir Bernard’s committee said that “The Government has not … identified any fundamental problem with the Civil Service and the Minister, Francis Maude, says he does not believe that fundamental change is necessary. We conclude that “incremental change” will not achieve the change required. Unless change is clearly heralded and given high profile leadership by a united team of ministers and senior officials, it is bound to fail.”

Does the Civil Service Resist Change?

I do not believe that there is any organised resistance to change. None of the so-called reform programs since ‘Haldane’ threaten the fundamental nature of the civil service.

Lord Bancroft offered an interesting take on the question in his 1984 lecture Whitehall and Management: A Retrospect:

“During my time the Service was not always as well managed as it could have been … But it wasn’t the result of a dogged resistance to change; precisely the reverse.

We were a bit too nervous and defensive.  As a result we tended to pick up every management nostrum, normally a few years too late just when it was going out of fashion … We planned, we programmed, we budgeted; we managed by objectives; we analysed programmatically; we policy planned by units.  We mucked about.  What we should have done was to stick solidly to basic principles …

We were stunningly good at reinventing the wheel … We should have devoted more of out efforts to collecting, recording, and disseminating good and bad lessons learned by individual Departments …  But the climate of the times would not have tolerated this prescription.  How woeful a response to the Fulton report it would have seemed .”

It is of course genuinely difficult to manage serious change in any organisation, let alone one so large, complex and federal as the Civil Service.  One major problem is that no-one can be put in charge of a service-wide change program:- The Head of the Civil Service has too much else to do, but none of his Permanent Secretary colleagues are likely to take much notice of anyone else.

The other big problem is that – as every business school will tell you – you cannot change just one element of an organisation at a time. One expert defined ‘the 5 Cs’:- the five fundamental elements of any organisation, none of which can be changed without simultaneously causing change in the others:

  1. Capacity, i.e. resources, and in particular staff numbers;
  2. Capability (or Competence), i.e. staff skills, training, experience and motivation;
  3. Communications, including not only communications whilst the change program is being implemented, but also new ways of communicating once the changes have been implemented;
  4. Culture, new relationships, attitudes to innovation, reward structures etc.;
  5. Constitution, i.e. organisational structure, reporting lines etc.

The civil service tries its best, and you can see various attempts, over the years, to bring about change in most of the above areas. But the attempts are essentially uncoordinated so that, for instance, Gershon’s drive to refocus effort into the front line happens at the same time as tight pay settlements and a decision that senior civil servants should move even more frequently between jobs. There is no doubt that today’s civil service is better, in many ways, than its predecessors. But it could be so much better still – especially when it comes to policy-making, where it arguably performs less well than in previous generations.

Sir Michael Bichard makes the same point:

“To improve efficiency levels in the service, the government needs to look at how civil servants’ work should be done and how the service as a whole is structured. Different departments develop initiatives in isolation. There have been too many false starts, too many initiatives that don’t come together as a coherent change program. And it is this incoherent approach that leaves civil servants demoralised and confused.”

Three Possible Approaches

Let’s assume that serious reform of the government machine might be necessary. There are, broadly, three possible approaches.

The first approach – the politicisation of the upper reaches of the civil service – would ensure that Ministers are supported by officials who share their political agenda and are energetic in taking it forward.

The British Civil Service is now the only major Civil Service in the developed world to remain wholly unpoliticised in its upper reaches. Others sometimes claim to be, but no longer are. New appointments in these countries do not always clearly follow from party allegiance, but they reflect Ministerial preference and thus personal and political rather than constitutional and institutional loyalty. The Canadian system is probably the nearest to that of the UK, but the Canadian equivalents of British Permanent Secretaries are appointed by their Ministers, although appointments seem to be made on merit and incumbents are often reappointed when Governments change following election defeats. In Australia, the equivalent appointments are clearly political. And in the American system, most of its top three layers change every four or eight years to make way for new Presidential appointments.

But any move in the direction of politicisation meets determined opposition in the UK, and is not helped by the fact that politicians are currently so unpopular. Serious politicisation therefore appears to be a non-starter, for the time being at least. But those interested in this subject might like to read:-

The second approach would be a new constitutional settlement. Ministers would no longer be held to account for the wide range of expertise-based decisions which are now taken by government. Instead, there would be explicit recognition that Ministers are responsible and accountable only for establishing the Government’s strategy (with some support from a small ‘cabinet’ including relevant experts, a few civil servants and others with relevant skills) whilst the civil service would be responsible and accountable for providing advice, consultation, communication and execution.

The third approach would be more incremental –addressing, one or two at a time, the questions listed at the beginning of this note. 

So What Stops these Reforms from Happening?

The first approach (politicisation) has very few strong supporters. UK politicians seem to need more robust advisers, not more committed political soul mates. Indeed, even the current tiny number of Special Advisers is regarded with considerable suspicion by many commentators.

Ministers, too, sometimes hesitate when they look at overseas administrations where the tendency is for politically aligned appointees to become in effect political figures in their own right, for their views to be known, and for the Ministers’ own accountability to be diluted accordingly.

(Much the same problem can be seen in the media interest in Dominic Cummings and David Frost, including allegations that the former has become the real Prime Minister and that Boris Johnson cannot manage without him.)

The second approach (a new constitutional settlement) has significant support, not least from the Public Accounts Committee and the Liaison Committee, but powerful opposition from the following groups within the Whitehall establishment.

• Opposition politicians want to retain the ability to gain political advantage by criticising Government Ministers rather than unelected officials.
• Government Ministers are unwilling to admit that they are not solely responsible for important decisions.
• MPs want to be able to continue to write to fellow MPs (currently serving as Ministers) about all aspects of a department’s performance. (A small number refuse even to correspond with Agency Chief Executives, for instance about the Driver and Vehicle Licensing decisions.)
• Last, but not least, many senior officials would not like to be publicly accountability for the effectiveness of their departments, knowing that this would open up areas of conflict with their political masters.

The third, incremental, approach suffers from lack of profile. Nobody has the time or energy to investigate the questions listed above, nor the inclination to stir the nest full of hornets that would be devoted to maintaining the status quo. … A pity, really.

Martin Stanley

Editor – Understanding Government

Responding to Crises

This blog is now on my Understanding the Civil Service website.

Martin Stanley

Editor – Understanding Government

Alienation and Regulation

Ian C Elliott recently drew attention to Jimmy Reid’s 1972 address at University of Glasgow, described by The New York Times as one of the greatest speeches of all times. Jimmy’s theme was that ordinary people, having won the vote, were nevertheless increasingly excluded from much decision making, leading to a deep sense of alienation.  I am no political scientist but it does appear that many politicians have responded to the need to attract those votes by offering populist policies, of which ‘Take Back Control’ and ‘Drain the Swamp’ are perhaps the most obvious examples. 

Jimmy Reid’s speech reminds me that technological change, spurred on by intense competition, can also be highly alienating.  And I would argue that politicians have responded to this form of alienation by offering to defend everyone with increasingly complex regulation. Ironically, however, this can be highly alienating in itself.  So … for those interested in these issues, here are the arguments in a little more detail:-

These extracts provide an effective summary of Mr Reid’s speech, though I do recommend reading the whole thing.  It is quite short and very powerful:

[Alienation] is the cry of men who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control.  It is the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the processes of decision making.

Society and its prevailing sense of values … partially dehumanises some people, makes them insensitive, ruthless in their handling of fellow human beings, self-centred and grasping. The irony is they are often considered normal and well adjusted.

Those of us who refuse to be pawns in their power game can be picked up by their bureaucratic tweezers and dropped in a filing cabinet under ‘M’ for malcontent or maladjusted.  When you think of the [tower blocks around us in Glasgow] it can hardly be an accident that they are as near as one could get to an architectural representation of a filing cabinet.

And here are my own thoughts on technology, competition and all that:

Those of us born in the 1950s and 60s entered a world which was easy to understand. Energy, transport, education, health care and some other goods and services were provided by UK-based monopolies. Bank customers – even large ones – had only current and deposit accounts. Our families were to a great extent self-sufficient. Our houses and water were warmed by coal, gas and electric fires, so there was no need for thermostats and electronic controllers. Washing machines, telephone landlines and TVs became increasingly widespread but it wasn’t too difficult to understand how they worked, and to manage without them, whilst motor cars, for instance, could easily be maintained by anyone willing to wield a spanner and screwdriver. 

We now live in a transformed world in which competition has brought us bewildering choice, delivered by technology which most of us can only dimly understand and which is controlled by huge multinational companies. 

  • Individually, we are astoundingly ignorant of even the basics of the production of food, shelter, clothes, medicine and much else. 
  • Most of us are, quite reasonably, inclined to assume that ‘they’ wouldn’t allow goods into shops unless they were of a certain standard and quality. 
  • Quants employed by financial services companies trade huge quantities of obscure financial instruments whilst their managements do not appreciate the risks that they are taking.
  • Many of these companies, along with other such as railway franchisees, cannot be allowed to fail.
  • Utility and communications companies offer complex contracts with expensive termination provisions.
  • Aircraft and road vehicles are driven by complex algorithms – and will soon be self-driving.
  • Health care, and many medicines, are becoming very expensive.
  • If our electricity – or even just our broadband – fails, we have serious problems.

In short, we are now pretty much totally reliant on the expertise and good faith of others – others who may be subject to commercial and other pressures of which we are only dimly aware. We therefore need help in choosing appropriate energy suppliers, schools, hospitals etc., and we need to be protected from those whose behaviour might cause us harm. These factors surely drove much of the explosive growth in regulation since the 1980s.

Martin Stanley
Editor – Understanding Government and Understanding Regulation
Twitter @ukcivilservant


A similar argument has been made by Gillian Tett in respect of the growth of regulation in the USA.

Failure to Learn:- The Role of Politicians

Grenfell Tower, COVID-19 and numerous other examples have in their different ways demonstrated that governments, as well as many other organisations, find it very difficult to learn from previous experience.  This article focusses on how government ministers learn, or too often fail to learn, from catastrophic events.

Ministers’ first reaction to a tragedy will inevitably be defensive.  “We couldn’t have foreseen it, and our preparations were anyway sensible and proportionate to the risk.”  After a while, though, they will recognise the need to learn from the experience.   But then … progress slow or stops   This is sometimes for good reasons, but it is also often because of politicians’ incentives and personalities.

Good Reasons for Delay – Probably

It is generally a mistake to rush to legislate, whatever the reason.  The causes of catastrophe are usually many and complex, and need to be addressed following sensible consultation and analysis.  Here are some of the issues that need to be considered:-

  • It is often necessary to ‘think small, first’. There is no point in introducing new regulations which are incomprehensible to the public or SMEs.
  • If regulation is necessary, might it be sensible to put the onus on employers, or an industry, to decide the best way to meet regulatory objectives? Or does the nature of the risk mean that detailed regulations are required, and if so how soon can we build and fund an Inspectorate to enforce them?
  • Should any new/expanded regulator be funded by industry? Will that incentivise efficient, targeted regulation?  Or will we end up with a tame mouse of a regulator, far too scared to upset its paymasters?

More generally, there is a balance to be struck between under- and over-regulation.  The current government requires the cost to business of many (not all) new regulations to be calculated and then regulations costing three times as much to be repealed. Crucially, the benefits of the new regulation are not to be taken into account in calculating the net cost.  This is a major disincentive to the introduction of worthwhile new regulation, and may have led to delay in improving the building regulations before the Grenfell disaster.

More generally still, Ministers are never free from pressure to introduce new policies or improve old ones.  They can get pretty punch drunk from incessant lobbying, and they would hardly be human if they didn’t occasionally get quite sick of their more persistent critics, even if those critics are making very valid points.  Sadly, therefore, even the best proposals can come to be regarded as yet another element in a long wish list.

So … designing and introducing new laws and regulations need not take many years, but it can’t be done in months.  Unfortunately, even a few months delay can cause the issue to slip a long way down any government’s priority list.  This has been a particular problem as the UK spotlight has swung from Grenfell Tower to Brexit and Covid-19.


None of us are entirely free always to do what we regard as the right thing.  We all have to bear in mind the views of our bosses, Boards and/or shareholders.  Quite properly, by analogy, Ministers cannot totally or for ever ignore the views of the electorate that appointed them.

And many voters are loss-averse.  They are generally reluctant to face immediate loss (more taxation), or regulatory constraints on their behaviour even if these will lead to intangible benefits such as safety or a healthier environment.

Voters will also punish Ministers whom they suspect of over-reaction to real or perceived threats.  Lives would have been saved at Grenfell if there had been fierce enforcement of the rule that doors should slam closed once they were not being used.  But who is going to support such intrusive regulation?

One example of more current relevance was the lampooning of French Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot.  She was portrayed in cartoons as a fat idiot and accused of waste and scaremongering, and of exaggerating a problem so as to give money to big business.  Her crime? Ordering large quantities of (ultimately unused) vaccines and masks in advance of the feared H1N1 pandemic.

Finally, in this section, Minsters are all too aware that they are likely to move to a new job – or be sacked – quite soon, and their performance is anyway assessed by voters at least every five years.  They therefore have no incentive to consider the long-term costs or benefits of their policies, and their planning is almost inevitably short term and not strategic.  Put more sharply, any deaths arising from their inaction will most likely occur on someone else’s watch.

Ministers Characters

Last, but not least, we need to remember that our highly adversarial system creates politicians who are not at all like the rest of us, and this has consequences for their behaviour in office.

It makes no sense, for instance, for one Minister to help a rival Minister achieve that Minister’s objective.  All Ministers are fierce rivals, whatever they may say.  The most immediate victim is the cross-department cooperation that should be tackling the most complex problems.

More insidiously, politicians’ precarious career path means that most of them are, deep down, true risk takers.  Also, once in office, they are inevitably forced to take some unpopular decisions.  So they develop a fairly thick skin and are not predisposed to display imagination or ‘chronic unease’.  This in turn means that they seldom react like the rest of us if asked to imagine a disaster that has yet to take place.  Many terrible railway accidents, for instance, all too often followed debates in which the industry and Ministers pointed out that “no-one has died from that yet”.  Similarly, the authorities seemed unconcerned by the numerous pre-Grenfell cladding fires which had failed to make the headlines.

And then, rightly or wrongly, most politicians hold the following to be true:

  • Voters like optimism, positivity and good news. Ministers thus become predisposed to clutch at straws and to suggest that all is going swimmingly when it isn’t.  Much the same happens to officials who, in a crisis (and without any explicit pressure from above), will quickly report anything that looks promising even if the information or analysis is highly uncertain.  But these rose-coloured spectacles reduce the pressure to take action to avoid future calamity.
  • Most (not all) voters hate complexity. Black and white is good.  This drives even clever Ministers to take little interest in complex issues.  There is no reward for putting in the time and effort necessary to fully understand expert advice. It is much easier to speak in clichés and soundbites.  In the regulatory sphere, this results in Minister  preoccupation with cutting – or making bonfires of – red tape.
  • Voters punish mistakes, and mistakes will be loudly trumpeted by the media and the Opposition. Ministers must therefore spend much of their time in defensive mode and certainly cannot publicly entertain the possibility that their preparation for any crisis might have been inadequate, or their previous decisions might have been inadvisable.  This impacts the speed at which politicians learn from disasters, for why should anything change if we already live in the most perfect or worlds? And if they are honest (and foolish) enough to admit error, the media will move on to pursuing their resignation whilst  lawyers will start looking for compensation and prosecutions.

Finally, most Ministers are nowadays career politicians who have never worked within a large organisation.  They can’t understand why their policy statements do not immediately translate into action on the ground, nor why cuts to the resources of regulatory bodies cannot follow several previous sets of cuts without serious consequences.  The resultant light touch regulation or limited inspections might well lead to another serious regulatory failure (and perhaps many deaths) but no-one is likely to blame a Minister for the later performance of what was, after all, an ‘independent’ regulator.

Unless, of course, Sir Martin Moore-Bick does just that.

Martin Stanley
Editor  Understanding Government


This article first appeared as my contribution to the recent Bennett Institute report  Policy Lessons from Catastrophic Events.

Some further thoughts on ‘failure to learn’ are here.

And I recommend the IfG’s report  How Public Inquiries Can lead to Change

not_learning copy

The Dominic Cummings affair has much more in common with Hillsborough and Grenfell Tower than with politics.

The Dominic Cummings affair has much more in common with Hillsborough and Grenfell Tower than with politics.  It is about loss of trust in those in power. And it has as much more to do with Ministers’ response to mistakes than with the mistakes themselves. 

We have an unwritten ‘psychological contract’ with those in power. We expect that the police will treat us with respect.  We expect that the government will ensure access to impartial justice.  And we expect governments to do everything in their power to protect us from novel viruses – including ensuring that key carers will have enough PPE.

But mistakes will be made, and things can go badly wrong.  Crucially, those in positions of power then have a responsibility to restore the psychological contract, even if they are not personally responsible for its failure.

And yet many leaders’ response is sadly lacking.  Examples include:

  • Theresa May visited Grenfell Tower the day after the fire but failed to meet Grenfell survivors or bereaved;
  • The Chief Executive of the company that managed Grenfell, whilst watching the tower burn, wrote a memo to colleagues saying “We need to pull some of this together pretty fast in terms of health and safety compliance”
  • Health Minister Matt Hancock’s warned the NHS to not overuse PPE
  • Prime Minister Johnson’s has failed to acknowledge, and apologise for, Dominic Cummings’ failure to comply with the COVID-19 lockdown.

By contrast, leaders who understand the psychological contract respond to crises in a way that builds trust. The outstanding example is New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, both in her response to COVID-19 and to the 2019 terrorist attack.  Chancellor Rishi Sunak is also showing both empathy and a determination to do everything he can to mitigate the economic effects of the virus

Restoring the psychological contract with citizens requires:

  • swift retribution,
  • swift correction of issues,
  • appropriately borne consequences, and
  • transparency

Let’s apply these tests to the government’s responses to COVID-19 and Grenfell Tower.

Swift Retribution

The public expect there to be consequences when those in authority appear to fail.  This is not about legal fault.  It is targeted at individuals who held positions of power at the time of the event, or at the time of decisions that led to it.

The formal processes for this (such as Public Inquiries and civil and criminal investigations) take too long to play out.  It can be hard to establish negligence and in the absence of such proof it can be difficult verging on impossible to sack senior decision makers.  In addition, whole institutions, and not least governments, will strongly resist the suggestion that fault could be found within their senior teams.  That is why resignation as a matter of honour sends such an important signal that those in power both care and are willing to accept consequences.

The Brexit debates demonstrated that not all politicians have lost the ability to resign as a matter of principle.  But no-one has resigned following, nor even expressed contrition for, the 72 deaths at Grenfell Tower. And Dominic Cummings’ failure to resign following his breaches of lockdown seems quite inexplicable.

Swift Correction

To be fair, it does seem that the government is trying hard to correct its failings over COVID-19, even if it won’t admit them – see further below.  But its failure even to criticise Mr Cummings’ behaviour taints all its positive efforts. Given that the police consider that he had committed an offence, Attorney General Suella Braverman’s support for Mr Cummings (“Protecting one’s family is what any good parent does”) is particularly shocking.

Grenfell revealed systemic issues with the UK’s building stock.  Hundreds of high-rise residential buildings have ACM cladding similar to that on Grenfell Tower. Thousands are clad in other flammable facades.  Post-Grenfell fire safety inspections revealed systemic issues such as non-compliant fire doors and missing or incorrectly fitted cavity barriers which can compromise compartmentation. And yet, as of March 2020, 68% of buildings had not completed remediation, including 15% where work had not even started.

Failing promptly to make buildings safe is a gross violation of the psychological contract that citizens should be safe in their homes. For those that watched Grenfell burn or lost loved ones, it is unforgiveable.

Appropriately borne consequences

The issue of correction is linked to that of where consequences are borne.  Rather like resignation (see above) this is not a legal question; it’s a moral one.

This cannot be more tragically evidenced than the deaths of those at the front line of care, and care home residents, as a consequence of government failure to stock PPE in preparation for a pandemic.  Whatever the reasons for this failure, and irrespective of legal liability, the psychological contract requires that the government’s response should be generous compensation for those injured, and the avoidance of any form of further cost.  The Prime Minister’s initial determination to impose the NHS surcharge on foreign nurses showed that he and his colleagues were quite oblivious to their responsibilities under the psychological contract with those they aspire to lead.

In the wake of Grenfell, it is estimated that 500,000 people are caught in flats that are unsellable while work is carried out to identify cladding and other fire safety issues. The government could have worked with industry to create a fund for making buildings safe.  They could have diverted money away from litigation, and toward ensuring people are safe in their homes.  They did neither.


Attempts to spin the narrative, and refusal to admit that mistakes were made, will inflate already heightened emotions and increase distrust.

The governments’ reporting of COVID19 deaths is a good example.  There was little transparency when initial figures included only those who died in hospital after testing positive, and when deaths in care homes or in the community were not included.  Likewise, the lack of transparency in what counted as a ‘test’ have done little to build trust, nor have numerous missed deadlines.

Whilst bold promises may make sense, ungrounded promises damage trust.  This was clearly illustrated by Theresa May’s promise that those left homeless by Grenfell would be re-housed in 3 weeks.  Nearly 3 years after the fire not everyone has been re-housed.

And something is terribly wrong when the Prime Minister jokes that he is no longer allowed to commit to actions to save lives during the current pandemic.

The Bereaved Will Not Forget

It is noticeable that the current anger with the government is most strongly expressed by those who have self-isolated from their families, have seen relatives die in care homes, and who have been unable to attend funerals. History tells us that they will continue to call for justice.   Grenfell United, Doreen Lawrence and the Hillsborough families[1] are good examples. The pain and anger of the bereaved is inconsolable.  People do not simply ‘move on.  Mr Johnson’s intransigence will haunt him for years to come.


Martin Stanley &  Gill Kernick


This article draws heavily on Gill Kernick’s contribution to the recent Bennett Institute report:- Policy Lessons from Catastrophic Events. Gill Has also blogged about Dominic Cummings and the psychological contract.  You can read her blog here.

Psychological contracts are typically found in employment relationships, and such contracts can be more influential than formal rules.[2]

Martin Stanley is the editor of Understanding Government .

Gill Kernick works with senior executives in some of the worlds’ largest organisations to develop the leadership and organisational capability to create safe cultures.

[1] See ‘The patronising disposition of Unaccountable Power: A report to ensure the pain and suffering of the Hillsborough families is not repeated’.


Ro and Herd Immunity are Intimately Connected

I have only just understood the intimate connection between R0 and herd immunity.  I offer this explanation to others who may have shared my ignorance.

If R0 is 10, every infected person typically passes enough virus on to 10 other contacts to make them ill – unless of course they are already vaccinated or otherwise immune

But if over 90% of the population is already immune, every infected person will still pass the virus on to 10 others, but less than 10% – that is less than 1 of them – will now also become ill, and the illness will die out.  The perceived R, in other words, has become less than 1.

Measles is highly infectious.  Its R0 is around 15 which means that the illness will spread through a population if more than 1/15th of the population lacks immunity.  This is why medics want to see around  93-94% of the population vaccinated.

COVID-19 R0 appears to be around 3.  If so the illness will spread quickly if more than 1/3rd of the population lacks immunity.  But herd immunity might be achieved at around two-thirds (67%)  of the population.

Further information about epidemic theory is here.


Martin Stanley

Editor Understanding Government websites

GRENFELL TOWER INQUIRY – Phase 2 Opening Statements

It must have been heart-rending to listen to the lawyers representing the organisations responsible for the Grenfell Tower refurbishment.  Astonishingly – or maybe not? – only one of them accepted that their client had made any mistakes. The BBC’s inquiry podcast recounted how representatives for the bereaved survivors and residents reacted as follows:-

Sam Stein:

  • “The companies responsible killed those 72 people as sure as if they’d taken careful aim with a gun and pulled the trigger.
  • Those companies responsible killed when they criminally failed to consider the safety of others.
  • They killed when they promoted their unsuitable dangerous products in the pursuit of money and a place within the market.
  • And they killed when they entirely ignored their ultimate clients, the people of the Grenfell Tower.
  • When hearing the evidence about these companies and when watching them wriggle on the hook during these hearings, let us not forget who they killed and the bereaved who have been left behind.”

Stephanie Barwise:

  • “The behaviours of arrogance and complacency which caused the disaster at Grenfell still rage unchecked among many of the core participants.” …
  • “They either did not think about compliance at all or many of those who did address it seemed to have understood what was required and ignored it.
  • This is one of the more troubling emerging themes. That many of the professionals and contractors wilfully failed to comply with the regulations or statutory guidance despite being fully aware of and understanding the guidance”.

What about the local council?  They were the only group clearly to recognise that were responsible for failings in their actions:  The BBC reported as follows:

… So, finally, we come to the people who were meant to check the design met building regulations. Building control was a department within the local council, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. It represents the last opportunity to spot the errors of a design team and stop the unsafe design being built.

RBKC’s legal representative read from a long list of Building Control’s failures.

  • “Building Control did not have a formal procedure for tracking the progress of applications for building control approval.
    • There was no requirement for it to have such a procedure, but the Council accepts that building control should have had one, and that had one been in place it would have reduced the likelihood of aspects of the application or the building control approval process being overlooked.
  • Building Control failed to issue a decision notice following receipt of the full plan’s application.
  • Building Control failed to ask for comprehensive details of the cladding system including the crown.
  • The last Exova fire safety strategy received by Building Control was Issue 3 dated November 2013. Building Control failed to request an up to date version of this document.
  • Building Control failed to identify that the insulation materials used in the cladding system were not of limited combustibility and therefore did not satisfy the requirements of Approved Document B.
  • Building Control failed to recognise that insufficient or no cavity barriers to seal the cavities and openings in the walls, including around the windows, had been indicated on the plans submitted to it.
  • Building Control issued a completion certificate on the 7th of July 2016. It should not have done so.
  • The council apologises unreservedly for these failings.”

RKBC also pointed out that the same cladding material used on Grenfell has been found on hundreds of buildings across the country. They argue this last line of defence has not just failed in their borough.

“This is not just a local problem this is a national problem and it will require national solutions.”

Martin Stanley
Editor – Understanding Regulation
and – The Grenfell Tower Fire

Civil Service Reform – Reinvigorate, not Reinvent

Here is an extract from a 2009 speech by Australian PM Kevin Rudd.  (Emphasis added)

Note the commitment to the strengths of the Australian Public Service, modelled on the Westminster Tradition, coupled with a determination to improve upon that model.

The full text is here.


The Government I lead came to office pledging to reinvigorate the Westminster tradition of a merit-based, independent public service committed to the highest-quality policy making.

We chose the word reinvigorate carefully.

We did not say “reinvent”, because the APS is a strong, professional public service that has served successive governments very well.

The professionalism of the public service has been evident since the first day after the 2007 election, when I received the first handover briefings from Dr Peter Shergold and other senior departmental secretaries.  The quality of that briefing, and the work of public servants to ensure a seamless transition to government in the following weeks and months, was testimony not only to the competence of the public service but to the value it placed on continuity.

And I note that my predecessor, Mr Howard, made the same point when delivering the Garran Oration in 1997, and I quote:

“That power can be transferred in this calm, understated way is a supreme asset.”

This is truly one of the most remarkable features of the Westminster tradition, and it is one we should not merely take it for granted.

Its success is in part the result of the sweeping reforms to the public service a century and a half ago, in another era and in another place – through the Northcote-Trevelyan report in Britain in 1854.  That report not only created the modern British civil service but laid the foundations of the ethos of the APS almost half a century later.

At the time, Britain was undergoing major economic changes in the wake of industrialisation.  The Empire was expanding, people were on the move and Europe was alive with revolutionary foment.  And the British civil service was riven with patronage, incompetence and corruption.

The recommendations of the Northcote-Trevelyan report – a response to crisis in its time – helped create a civil service that was independent, impartial, recruited by competitive examination and promoted on merit.

In time, its impact stretched to the Australian colonies, where both Victoria and Queensland sought to limit political patronage by introducing competitive entry exams into their public services.  And it profoundly shaped the culture of the APS after its formation in 1901.

But Australia never simply copied the British model.

The APS never recreated the class structure in the way the British civil service did, with Sir Humphrey’s Oxbridge-educated administrator class unfailingly at the top.

Instead, some of Australia’s leading public servants have been the children of builders, boot makers, railway station masters and refugees, or they left school at 15 to be telegraph messengers and bank clerks.

What counted was not their modest beginnings but their fitness for the job.

Take Sir Roland Wilson, our longest serving Treasury Secretary and the son of a west coast Tasmanian builder.  Or another former Treasury chief, Sir Richard Randall, who worked for eight years as a wool classer.  Or another, Ted Evans, who worked for 10 years of his early life as a PMG linesman.  And given that his replacement, current Treasury Secretary Ken Henry, is the son of a New South Wales timber worker, it is clear that the APS principle of promoting merit over privilege is alive and well.

And there is a second lesson from history that particularly resonates today.

As I said before, the periods of most active public service reform have been periods of rapid change and even upheaval in the wider society, times when change has forced the public service to develop new structures and skills, and find talented new people.

In the 1940s, the all-out war effort, followed by the huge post-war nation-building program, created a generational change in the APS. For the first time there was an influx of brilliant outsiders to manage great wartime enterprises, to staff the departments of Treasury and Postwar Reconstruction and to establish the new foreign service.

At the time, the public service was a closed shop – the idea of outsiders joining was intensely controversial. So much so that when the economist, Roland Wilson – with doctorates from Oxford and Chicago – was recruited to the Bureau of Census and Statistics as the first government economics adviser in 1932, the staff of the Bureau went on strike!

The new public servants laid the foundations for decades of post-war prosperity and better living standards for Australians. They were among the first in the world to see and seize the opportunities of Keynesian economics and an active economic and social role for the post-war democratic state.

They managed the government’s commitment to full employment and the development of a modern social security system, to a large immigration program, to enormous infrastructure projects such as the Snowy Mountains scheme, and to the beginnings of our national university system.

In other words, they were nation-builders – with their own professional public service tradition – with a sense that the words “prosper the Commonwealth” were etched deep in their intellect, their imagination and their sense of duty to the nation.


Martin Stanley

Editor  Understanding Government

%d bloggers like this: