Articles about the UK Civil Service and Regulation

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

Covid-19 – Planning for Crises

Matt Hancock’s signature at 0650 on Monday morning gave the police and health officials the power to detain and question anyone suspected of carrying the Covid-19 coronavirus.

This blog explains how Health Department, Public Health England and NHS officials will have prepared for the current crisis.

Source material includes the Understanding the Civil Service web page on Planning for Crises plus my reading of the relevant health protection legislation.  I would be very pleased to hear from anyone who can help me correct or add to this material.


Civil Servants who may need to help Ministers respond to crises should follow this advice:

 1.  Ask whether you have the necessary powers

Make sure you have the statutory powers – and discretionary powers – necessary to respond to any plausible crisis.

  • Legislation will provide strong guidance but – as an American Judge opined – “The constitution is not a suicide pact”.
  • I understand that the UK authorities did not initially have the powers necessary to resolve the run on Northern Rock.

Such powers should be subject to appropriate political oversight.

  • Internal response planning discussions, including with Ministers, should not be disclosed unless/until their existence will not cause damage.

HMG can if necessary (and with Parliamentary approval) legislate very quickly.  It also has powers, in the Civil Contingencies Act and other legislation, to act ahead of Parliamentary approval.

Internationally, the UN Security Council can act including by giving strong powers to an international authority under Chapter 7 of the UN Treaty.


The necessary legislation appears to have been in place and was triggered as soon as it appeared that someone might refuse to remain in quarantine.

  • The key legislation is in Part 2A of The Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984.
  • The Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020 were made under the above Act and signed by the Health Secretary at 0650 on Monday 10 February 2020.
  • In combination, this legislation confers very great powers on doctors, the police, local authorities and magistrates.
  • In particular it empowers a constable to use reasonable force to detain anyone whom they suspect might be infected.
  • And the Secretary of State or a registered public health consultant may require screening and isolation of suspected carriers, and can require them to answer questions, provide documents etc.
  • Magistrates may require seizure, disinfection quarantining etc. of ‘things’ and premises.

Note, though, this UK Human Rights Blog (and pun):  Corona-vires: Has the Government exceeded its powers?

2.  Plan and Prepare for Possible Crises

Officials should practice (‘game’) responding to crises.  They should:-

  • assume that the crisis will hit when your organisation is in some ways unprepared, for reasons outside its control.
  • assume in particular that key team members and decision makers will not be available.
  • prepare public responses to foreseeable damage caused by your organisation.
  • not let lawyer-driven responses – seeking to downplay legal liability – cause large reputational damage.

No plan will survive contact with reality but if there is no plan then reality will take over with disastrous consequences.

Get your most sceptical staff to check, from time to time, that the detail of the crisis management plan is up-to-date, sensible and appropriate.

  • In the US, following Hurricane Katrina, mandatory evacuation led to all vehicles leaving New Orleans well in advance of the plan’s deadline.  Unfortunately the plan made no mention of the need to evacuate those residents who did not have vehicles within a similar timescale.

In the UK, there is some concern that the effectiveness of the response to any energy supply crisis would depend too much on the cooperation of the private sector.

3.  Plan your Communications with the Public

The senior person (ideally only one person) who takes responsibility for telling the public what is happening should aim to demonstrate calmness, confidence, trustworthiness and competence.

  • 90% of the information reaching the crisis management team will initially be wrong, so don’t go into detail.
  • The media are an important intermediary in communicating with the public in times of emergency. They need to be respected.
  • A (not otherwise well known) expert is often best, such as the Chief Veterinary or Medical Officer.
  • In general, it is probably best if the spokesperson is not a politician, given public distrust of that species, and the possibility that they will not listen to communications advice.

An example of bad communication was when – at a time of possible fuel shortages – a UK politician encouraging the public to horde petrol in jerry cans kept in garages.  This is because hording should not be encouraged in these circumstances, not everyone has a garage, and petrol is highly flammable.

4.  Plan the Management of the Crisis

One person should be given clear cross-Whitehall responsibility for leading the response to the crisis.

That person should confine him/herself to taking strategic decisions.  Tactical decision making should be left to those on the ground.

Responses should as far as possible consider unintended consequences.

Measures that might be seem attractive so as to ensure public safety/security do not necessarily have priority over consequences including damage to human rights …

…  nor do they always trump economic damage.

  • The US emergency response to security threats required all borders to be closed.  This severely damaged companies operating supply chains over the Canadian border.


Most of the above points were made at a 2019 Centre for the Analysis of Risk and Regulation (LSE) seminar about crisis-handling and emergencies.  Seminar participants made the following points by way of background to the discussion:

There was quite a strong feeling that we are living through a difficult and dangerous period:-

  • There is undeclared asymmetric warfare. In other words, the strategies and/or o tactics of the respective combatants are significantly different from each other).
  • Cyber warfare is particularly problematic in what is becoming a post-factual age.
  • There are disturbing domestic political developments in many countries, fuelled in part by distrust of elites and governments.
  • International bodies are relatively weak.
  • We in the UK are neglecting and under-resourcing our public health, justice etc. systems.

Further Reading

More detailed advice on handling risks to health and safety, including communications advice, may be found here.

Martin Stanley  –  Editor:
Understanding Government
Understanding the UK Civil Service
Understanding Policy Making
Understanding Regulation 

Twitter:-  @ukcivilservant

Internet Harms – Regulator or Censor?

The December 2019 Queen’s Speech promised ‘legislation to improve internet safety’ building on the Internet Harms White Paper published earlier in 2019.  Carnegie UK almost simultaneously published a draft Online Harm Reduction Bill and explanatory notes which may in many respects be quite similar to the government’s eventual proposals.  And Lord McNally will next week introduce a short paving Bill which would, if enacted, require Ofcom to prepare for the introduction of a statutory duty of care.

So legislation is looking increasingly likely, accompanied by a lively debate about what harms are to be caught by the legislation, and how it is to be enforced.  My own view is that there should be a dedicated regulator, rather than ask Ofcom to take on yet more demanding duties.  But the broad approach – duty of care regulation, not censorship – seems to be becoming clear.

As it happens, Cambridge’s Bennett Institute for Public Policy has recently published an article written by me which drew heavily on the work of the Carnegie UK Trust and on conversations with Lorna Woods, Professor of Internet Law at the University of Essex.  I reproduce it below, with some additional material, in order to encourage wider understanding of the issues and of Carnegie’s proposals.

I will report further key developments via my @ukcivilservant Twitter feed and on the Understanding Regulation website – specifically the Online Safety & Harm web page.


Hate speech, harassment, false accusations and baseless conspiracies cause huge harm.  But free speech is a vitally important right in any democracy.

How should this tension be resolved when addressing the challenges presented by big social media platforms? The key is to recognise that the harm is amplified or otherwise by its context.  An otherwise provocative argument, or a powerful but distressing image, can do huge harm if taken out of context  and amplified by thoughtless algorithms or cruel attention seeking.

It would be quite wrong – and probably totally impractical – for a regulator to act as a censor and be required to decide whether particular items should be posted on social media platforms.

Instead, the regulator should be tasked with ensuring that the platforms’ services and processes are, so far as reasonably practical, structured and designed so as to reduce the risk of harm to users.

Platforms may, for instance, be expected to ask themselves:

  • Have we considered the risks associated with the service we provide?
  • Are we aware of the ways users are engaging with our systems?
  • Are we responding appropriately and proportionately to the unintended (and sometimes intended) consequences arising out of the use of our systems?
  • Are we following best practice when deploying tools etc. intended to reduce harm?

Platforms should not be forbidden from making available material that some would find objectionable  – as long as it is published in such a way as to reduce the damage to those who might be harmed.

It should be for the platforms – not the regulator – to decide how best to minimise the harms that might result from their services, and to demonstrate that they have done so.  They have the necessary technical knowledge and resources, and they are best placed to understand the needs and vulnerabilities of their users[1].  They also need to decide how best to fund their services, including through clicks/advertising, whilst minimising resultant harms.  And a number of tools and approaches might be brought to bear, including:

  • Adjusting the impact of recommender algorithms, targeted advertising and clickbait
  • ‘Age gates’ – even if imperfect
  • Transparency, including about complaints and the platform’s responses to those complaints
  • Giving users access to blocking tools
  • Giving users access to correction tools
  • Aggressive content moderation[2]

So how might it work in practice?  There are at least five separate sets of issues.

1 Platforms are already prohibited from carrying obviously illegal content – adverts for drugs and the like. So no great change is needed here, although the regulator would need to be assured that the platform had taken steps to reduce illegal content as far as reasonably possible.

2 – Platforms would become responsible, so far as possible, for restricting access to particularly dangerous or sensitive content. This might include:

  • Inflammatory and false material of the sort that inflamed the violence against the Rohingyas in Myanmar
  • Live streaming of crimes such as terrorist activity
  • Breaches of user privacy, such as allowing access to genetic or financial data or other information people want to remain private, and
  • Scams, such as adverts for dangerously unregulated financial and other services, and such as rip-off websites that pretend to be official government sites but then overcharge for a service that could otherwise be accessed for free or more cheaply.

3 – There would be then be a number of areas where discussion would be permitted amongst those interested in the subject, but proselytising and evangelising might be prohibited.  Such specified areas might include blasphemy targeted at those with certain religious faiths, or anti-abortion material targeted at newly pregnant women, or anti-vax messaging[3] – but such areas would need to be defined by politicians, not the regulator, aiming to balance freedom of speech against:

  • individuals’ right to choose not to hear certain messages, and
  • society’s need to safeguard public or individuals’ health and safety.

The web would therefore retain dark and interesting corners for those interested in going into them, but platforms would be responsible for ensuring that such material was seen only by those who wished to see it.

4 – Platforms would need to consider the extent to which their services were accessed by vulnerable users and children, and take any necessary steps to ensure that those users were not easily able to access material that would be harmful to them – or indeed driven towards such material via the site’s algorithms.  Popular public services such as Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram would in particular need to ensure that they offer a safe public place for families. Instagram has already made some steps in this direction by prohibiting graphic images of self-harm.  And Pinterest has added a way to reach a suicide prevention helpline in just one tap from a search or a Pinner’s board.

5 – Political Campaigns:- It has become all too clear that the misuse of social media can do great harm during election campaigns. Social media manipulation campaigns have taken place in 70 countries, up from 28 countries in 2017. Facebook and Twitter have attributed foreign influence operations to seven countries (China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela) who have used these platforms to influence global audiences[4].

But a requirement that platforms should ban all political messaging could also do great harm.  Where does politics end and campaigning begin – for action to combat climate change for instance?  Disinformation (‘fake news’) is hardly a new phenomenon in politics and elsewhere[5]. What has changed in recent years has been the drastically increased levels of untrue or twisted information online which is directly accessible to billions of users[6].

Twitter has decided not to carry paid-for political advertising and Google has made a similar announcement.[7]  But such transparent and clearly owned communication is not the main problem. Indeed, shouldn’t a democracy welcome such campaigning in all available media?  It would also seem dangerous to expect sites to censor polite debates about climate change, for instance, or abortion – as long they as they use facts which were verifiable.

But there are problems with micro-targeting.  It is surely important that we know, in a political debate, what is being told to someone else as well as being able to rely on the information with which we are provided.

This in turn leads to a separate concern that platforms can currently be paid to tell absolute lies – that a politician has done or said something that they have not, for instance.   This seems wrong – but who is to judge the boundary during a fast-moving and highly charged political battle?  Some use the word ‘lie’ to describe everything someone might gently take issue with. One commentator noted that:

“If I look down the barrel of a camera and say “A year has 380 days in it,” I am clearly lying, because everyone knows it doesn’t. If the Prime Minister in an interview says “We have the lowest Corporation Tax rate in Europe,” is that a lie, a mistake, an error or an error by omission? The truth is that there are four countries in Europe with a lower Corporation Tax rate than the UK. If the Prime Minister didn’t know that, he probably ought to have. He might have meant to say “among comparable countries in Europe”. He might have meant to say “one of the lowest rates…” To say with 100% certainty that he deliberately intended to tell an untruth is difficult to sustain.

In a similar vein, Adam Price, the Plaid Cymru leader wants to introduce a law to make it a criminal offence for a politician to lie. Is he really suggesting that a politician should be sent to prison, or fined, if he or she makes a campaign promise which a court finds that they couldn’t possibly have delivered on? It’s preposterous. Enough people are put off going into politics already, without a silly measure like this.”

One possibility might be for the regulator at least to require digital companies to stop accepting advertisements which spread disinformation and also make sure that this content is downgraded by their algorithms. It could also require a wider network of fact-checkers to be employed by the platforms, and require them to allow independent researchers access to private company data of past disinformation attempts in order to understand how they beat company’s algorithms.

More generally ….

Some platforms, though not all, will need to implement an age/ID verification service if they are to allow responsible adults access to their services, whilst denying access to certain services to particularly vulnerable users.  This service should be entirely independent of the platforms, and act as an agent of their users.

Nothing in this approach creates a tortious duty – i.e. a duty that can lead to those who have been harmed claiming damages in court.

Could the platforms not be trusted to self-regulate, perhaps under pressure from advertisers?  It would appear not.  The tech platforms have made more than 125 announcements describing how, through self-regulation, they will solve the manipulation of their platforms by bad actors but there is as yet no clear sign that the algorithmic changes made by platforms have significantly altered digital marketing strategies[8].

The regulator should be responsible for deciding whether platforms are taking reasonable and proportionate steps to reduce harm to its users.  Legislators might provide the regulator with a range of enforcement mechanisms, which might include licensing, enforcement orders, fines, directors’ liability, and directors’ disqualification.

The most important point though is that regulation is feasible and practical. There is no need to be resigned to the harms evident on social media platforms, nor to go to the other extreme and insist on the unpalatable step of requiring censorship. Neither is acceptable in a democracy, and neither is inevitable as long as regulatory measures like those suggested here are implemented.


Martin Stanley
Editor – the Understanding Government and Understanding Regulation websites.
January 2020


[1] (See for instance Facebook’s impact assessment of their presence in Myanmar.)

[2] Facebook, for instance, ensures that some links and words immediately trigger an algorithm that prevents the item from being posted, but most moderation takes place only after problematic content is reported by users.  This is often far too late.

[3] The National Audit Office has reported that there are several potential causes for the decline in uptake of pre-school vaccinations, but there is only limited evidence of any major impact on vaccination uptake rates from anti-vaccination messages.  So limiting ant-vax messaguing may be an over-reaction.

[4] The Global Disinformation Order,  Samantha Bradshaw and Philip N. Howard

[5] Oliver Cromwell was greatly influenced by untrue stories that the 1641 Irish Rising had been accompanied by a general massacre of English men women and children, some dying out of starvation and exposure as they tried to make their way half naked towards the English-help enclaves such as Dublin.  This encouraged his harsh treatment of the Irish some years later, for which he is well remembered to the present day.

[6] European Parliament elections: The Disinformation Challenge, Dimitar Lilkov

[7] Facebook’s policy seems to be that they prohibit commercial advertisements that contain lies certified as such by authorised fact-checkers.  But they don’t apply this policy to political adverts.

[8] The market of disinformation, Stacie Hoffmann, Emily Taylor & Samantha Bradshaw October 2019

Preparing for a New Government & Meeting New Ministers

I prepared these notes when briefing colleagues before a previous General Election.  I hope they may be of some interest  – and of some use – in 2019.

It is an exciting time … and an opportunity to make a big difference by helping a new set of Minsters settle in, and start achieving their objectives.  Enjoy the challenge!

What do you want to achieve in the first few days?

  • A good relationship with new Ministers
    • Mutual respect
    • You need to be seen as non-political but committed to achieving their objectives
    • Understand individual Ministers’ characters, styles, needs
    • They will be a mixture of excited, knackered, terrified, suspicious.
  • Get to understand Ministers’ long term aims
  • Well-briefed, knowledgeable Ministers
  • Ministers who [are beginning to] understand how to work within government, and in particular with civil servants
    • Particularly important in smaller departments in view of need to ‘punch above weight’ in influencing other departments’ policies.
    • Need to avoid ‘departmentalitis’

Personal chemistry very important.

  • First impressions very important
  • Transactional analysis
    • Aim for mutual respect if Minsters signal they want to work effectively with officials
  • Initial Ministerial meetings need to be with impressive staff. Do not field inexperienced, nervous or loquacious colleagues.

Passion is good – but it needs to be directed towards implementing new policies. It is important not to appear negative when new Ministers suggest change, and important to avoid appearing to be committed to predecessors’ policies.

  • Avoid “this department’s policies”
  • Beware of appearing too well connected with pressure groups – and Europeans!
  • Make sure your assertions are evidence-based – particularly when repeating assumptions of previous Ministers
  • Discontinue use of previous Minsters’ language (e.g. Tories do not like New Labour’s ‘stakeholders’)

Offer frequent briefings to staff colleagues

  • Oral briefings best
  • Emails good as long as carefully drafted – positive tone
  • Pass information around between teams – inc. to/from other departments.
  • Keep close to Private Office and SpAds

 Be mentally prepared for turmoil.

If it happens then react positively.  Do not show you are upset.  The system will support you.

Enjoy being part of exciting change.


Links to other useful advice:-

Working with Ministers
Giving Advice to Ministers
Speaking Truth to Power

Martin Stanley
Editor – Understanding Government

Change often fails miserably — Here is how to succeed

This blog was first published by .   It was written by Martin Stanley who edits the Understanding Government and Understanding Policy Making websites, and is a former UK civil servant. For more like this, see apolitical’s government innovation newsfeed. 

Change programs are like games of Jenga  —
they can quickly come crashing down

Does this sound familiar? –  Under pressure to cut costs, your top team mandates an efficiency drive which successfully reduces the number of employees by 15 or 20 percent.

Rather pleased with themselves, they turn to other problems only to find — a year or so later — that managers have found reasons to recruit, headcount has started drifting up again, and all those efficiency gains are being lost.

Or maybe your managers are worried about “silos”? Important parts of your organisation don’t talk to each other or coordinate their activities. So they implement an exciting internal communications strategy using newsletters, a Yammer network and a regular Knowledge Café featuring a communicator of the month.

Six months later, the newsletter is overdue, Yammer is mainly used to organise parties, and Knowledge Cafes are sparsely attended, and not attended at all by senior managers.

What is going on? Well, the organisation is doing what organisations always do, which is to revert to its original shape once external pressure has been removed.

The external pressure at first appears to work and the organisation appears to change, but this creates unseen internal pressures which assert themselves once the external stimulus has been removed. The answer — the only answer — is to address all the key elements of your organisation at the same time.

It sounds daunting and it requires serious planning, but it is the only way to achieve a reasonable chance of success.

What are the key elements? They can undoubtedly be described in a number of ways, but these “Six Cs” works pretty well:

  • Capacity
  • Capability
  • Communications
  • Culture
  • Compensation
  • Constitution

Let’s look at each in turn.

Capacity is straightforward:  it is the organisation’s resources, and in particular its staff numbers. It is an easy and obvious target for efficiency gains. The equally obvious problem is that the remaining staff will need to work harder or in different ways. Which leads directly to the next element:

Capability, which could also be referred to as competence.  This encompasses staff skills, training, experience and motivation.

It lies at the heart of any change program because,  obviously enough, if you don’t improve – or at least alter – the capability of your team then they are very unlikely to be capable of working effectively within a more challenging environment.

Note in particular that improvements in capability must be more than just cosmetic. A change of title plus a bit of e-learning will not cut it. There needs to be a serious training program and/or supervised further experience followed by rigorous testing.

Staff motivation can be particularly resistant to change, if only because most humans do not like being taken out of their accustomed comfort zone. There is extensive literature on how whole organisations can lose confidence when faced with the need for change, and this needs to be understood and allowed for. This in turn requires high class communication, hence the need to also focus on the next element.

Communications: This includes both communications whilst the change program is ongoing, and also new ways of communicating once the changes have been implemented.

The methods you choose to use to communicate within the change program must be specifically designed for your organisation — and indeed for individual parts and levels of your organisation. But the messages to different audiences must be consistent if they are not to be discredited, and must be capable of persuading the cynical and disaffected as well those keen on change.

And, afterwards, more open, fast-moving and less hierarchical communications styles (if that is what you need) will need to be reflected in changes in the organisation’s culture:

Culture: It can be extremely difficult to develop new internal relationships, attitudes to innovation, and attitudes to customers.

These improvements are often driven by changes in compensation/remuneration — as I outline below – and reinforced by employing more experienced and better trained staff, which speaks to the Capability element above.

Indeed, this is perhaps the area where change programs most often begin to fall apart when change managers fail simultaneously to address all six elements listed in this note.

Compensation: If you are aiming to employ fewer staff then you will almost certainly have to reward the remainder rather better, even if this limits your cost savings.

The same applies if you want staff to work more independently and/or innovatively, or to demonstrate better interpersonal or customer-facing skills.

Constitution: Last, but not least, very few of any of the above elements will respond to pressure for permanent change unless accompanied by changes to organisational structures, reporting lines etc.  These sorts of changes succeed in administering severe jolts to any organisation, because they are hard to reverse and lead to both managers and staff re-evaluating their roles and responsibilities.

It can be hard to know when to introduce these organisational changes. They will feel premature and unnecessary if introduced before much else has changed. And they will be too little, too late, if the other changes have already begun to degrade.

In short …. very few change programs achieve their full objectives, and many are complete failures.  This is because it takes a lot of thought and time to plan a program which simultaneously changes all six key elements of an organisation. But the effort is well worthwhile if you are seriously focussed on success.

Martin Stanley

Follow this link for more advice on Managing Policy Teams
in the private and public sectors.

The Significance of 106 and 117

Can anyone help – especially a mathematician and/or a historian?


The Cologne City Museum has a copy of this 1638 document which consists of a table of multiples of all numbers up to 99 – plus 106, 117, 256, 318 and 365.

It is pretty obvious why 365 is included, as well as 256 (2 to the power of 8).

But why were 106, 117 and 318 (3 x 106) included?

Here is a close up of the bottom left hand corner of the tables:


Responses, Thoughts …

Alex Bellos kindly asked the same question on my behalf back in 2011.  There were some interesting responses but nothing that seemed to get near explaining why scholars in the 1600s might want to be able to calculate multiples of 106 and 117.

Richard Harries has pointed out that both 106 and 117 are the sums of two squares – 81+25 and 81+36 respectively.  And 81+49=130 in effect appears as 13.  Now … does that help?  Is there a link to simple geometry via Pythagoras’ sums of squares?  But 81+64=145, which doesn’t appear.

In case it helps, the panels around the multiplication tables feature  Astronomia,  Geometria Ingeniara,  Arithmetica,  Castrame Tatio – this picture shows preparations for a battle,  Mercatura,  and  Mensuration Alt et Profund – this picture shows the height of a building being measured.  There is no suggestion that the tables were for religious use.

Here are three photos of items along the top border of the tables, for those who read Latin and German.





Martin Stanley  &  @ukcivilservant

Editor  Understanding Government

Dangerous Cuts to Environmental & Social Protection

I have been impressed by the quality of the first research  findings of .   It is, I guess, hardly surprising that regulators’ enforcement activity has fallen over the last few years.  But the scale of the reduction is astonishing.   From 2009/10 to 2016/17, real terms funding for the environmental and social protection work of ten key national regulators fell on average by 50%.  The consequential falls in enforcement activity are summarised in this chart:

Screenshot 2019-10-08 at 17.15.57

There is much more detail in unchecked‘s first briefing paper The UK’s Enforcement Gap  but a couple of sentences stand out:-

  • The number of Local Authority food safety improvement notices fell by 50%.
    • It has subsequently been reported that 15,000 restaurants etc. would fail hygiene tests*.  The cost of consequential sickness falls on employers and the NHS.
  • Fire safety audits in England fell by 30%.
  • Environment Agency prosecutions of businesses fell by 80%.
    • The agency has no specific budget to enforce legislation introduced in 2018 to protect waterways from fertiliser and manure pollution which is one of the main reasons why more than 80% of England’s rivers fail to meet EU minimum standards**.

Against this background, it was ‘interesting’ to hear Sajid Javid recently announce a (post-)Brexit Red Tape Challenge even though Brexiteers have been noticeably coy in refusing to say what sort of regulations and enforcement might be cut further if we leave the EU.  This suggests that we will be hearing quite a lot more from unchecked over the coming months and years.

A detailed history of UK Better/Deregulation may be found here .


Martin Stanley

Editor Understanding Government, including Understanding Regulation .

* The Times 5 October 2019
**The Times 17 August 2019

The Civil Service v. Boris Johnson?

It has been suggested (28 August) that “We are reaching the point where the civil service must consider putting its stewardship of the country ahead of service to the government of the day”.

I do not recognise this concept.

Statute law and convention both require the civil service to serve the administration as it is duly constituted for the time being, whatever its political complexion.

Civil Servants’ duties etc. are summarised in The Armstrong Memorandum, the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 and the Civil Service Code.

The Armstrong Memorandum says that:

  • Civil servants are servants of the Crown. For all practical purposes the Crown in this context means and is represented by the Government of the day. … The Civil Service as such has no constitutional personality or responsibility separate from the duly constituted Government of the day.
  • The determination of policy is the responsibility of the Minister (within the convention of collective responsibility of the whole Government for the decisions and actions of every member of it). In the determination of policy the civil servant has no constitutional responsibility or role distinct from that of the Minister.

The Constitutional Reform etc. Act provides that

  • there should be a Civil Service Code which “must require civil servants … to carry out their duties for the assistance of the administration as it is duly constituted for the time being, whatever its political complexion”.

I cannot see that the above texts offer any possibility that civil servants have a duty of stewardship of the country, nor can I think of an example of such stewardship being exercised.

For completeness, the Act does also say that

  • In exercising his power to manage the civil service, the Minister for the Civil Service shall have regard to the need to ensure that civil servants who advise Ministers are aware of the constitutional significance of Parliament and of the conventions governing the relationship between Parliament and Her Majesty’s Government.

This phrase is repeated, but not expanded upon, in the Civil Service Code which, under the same Act, “forms part of the terms and conditions of service of any civil servant covered by the code.”

This formulation perhaps offers a glimmer of hope to those who would have the civil service defy the Johnson government.  But it does not persuade me.

All in all, therefore, we are in such a constitutional bind at the moment that I cannot think of any way in which any form of civil service intervention would make matters better.


  1. Former Head of the Civil Service, Bob Kerslake, suggested on the Today Programme on 29 August that the current Cabinet Secretary, Mark Sedwill, and his senior colleagues should resign. But they would need to be replaced, and it is hard to imagine that the Prime Minister would accept successors who were anything other than keen to do his bidding.
  2. And the IfG’s Catherine Haddon has noted that:- “There has been long debate about preserving their ability to serve future governments and advising on constitution and whether both constitutes some kind of ‘guardianship’ role. But that has always been about things within their purview and the proceedings of Parliament are not.”
  3. Civil servants – inc. those working in No.10 and for the Leader of the House – should have been consulted on, and will readily have given advice on, whether Ministers’ proposals were consistent with constitutional arrangements.


Martin Stanley
Editor  – Understanding Government websites … including …
Understanding the Civil Service

Civil Servants Now Free to Promote Brexit

Keen Brexiteers  have long believed that the senior civil service has been trying to scupper Brexit.  More recently, keen Remainers have become concerned that civil servants have become too willing to promote Brexit ‘propaganda’.  The key change, I suspect, is that civil servants are – in some ways – finding it much easier to work with the Johnson government that with its predecessor.  They should certainly not be criticised for promoting the new government’s Brexit policies.

Civil Servants have three quite distinct roles:

  1. First, they speak truth to power, offering private, honest, advice to Ministers before the latter make policy decisions.
  2. But then, once Ministers have made those decisions, civil servants are expected to help Ministers promote and defend their policies, even if officials advised against them.
  3. Finally, officials are responsible for delivery, implementing Ministers’ decisions on the ground and drafting the necessary legislation.

Whether ‘promoting and defending’ or ‘delivering’, officials must put their doubts (and inconvenient facts) on one side and proactively seek to deliver Ministers objectives, however controversial and unpopular the underlying policy decisions.

Prior to 24 July, it was far from clear when the UK was intended to leave the EU, nor on what terms.  The Cabinet was badly split and there was in particular zero clarity about whether ‘No Deal’ was a realistic outcome.  Officials were roundly criticised for being insufficiently wedded to the Brexit project, whereas the truth was that they were still giving advice (which undoubtedly included worries about ‘No Deal in particular) and were also reflecting the different messages coming from different Cabinet Ministers.

It is much easier now.  The government’s policy is clear.  All Ministers now say that Brexit is a good thing, and that we need to plan and prepare to leave on 31 October with or without a deal.  Civil servants are expected enthusiastically to promote those policies. The only constraints are that civil servants cannot communicate untruths, nor criticise political opponents.

Martin Stanley
Editor  Understanding Government

Dominic Cummings & the Civil Service

Dominic Cummings’ arrival in No. 10 is said to be very bad news for the civil service.  I am not so sure.

If you dig a little deeper, according to Oliver Wright:

[Dominic Cummings] at the Dept for Education inspired extraordinary loyalty, certainly among fellow believers but also from some civil servants who were as frustrated by Whitehall bureaucracy as they were. As one person in the [Education] department put it: “The caricature of Dom as the villain is wrong. He accepted argument and evidence. He wasn’t dogmatic. And a lot of senior civil servants responded to it as a breath of fresh air. When he fell out with people it was over whether things could be done differently.”  Another former colleague said that he had never worked for someone “more inspiring or oddly charismatic”.

David Allen Green commented as follows:

[Dominic Cummings’] candour and openness was striking.  …  There is none of the platitudes and evasions of the politicians of both sides on Brexit.

Looking forward, many would surely applaud Mr Cummings’ reported wish to foment a cultural revolution in Whitehall so that civil servants (and Ministers) have a more instinctive grasp of the importance of science, technology and productivity for the UK’s future.  And I suspect that a majority of civil servants would share some or all of Mr Cummings’ reported criticisms of the Whitehall machine:

  • its inability to respond quickly to errors;
  • the “slow, confused” and usually non-existent feedback;
  • the “priority movers” system that sees incompetent staff members (“dead souls”) moved into jobs elsewhere in the civil service rather than sacked; and
  • the “flexi-time” working regimes that allow key personnel missing in action when big announcements need to be planned.

It is not as though the UK has a great track record in policy making.   There have been lengthy analyses of government blunders for which politicians must take a large share of the blame.  There are very few senior politicians who are nowadays genuinely keen on prioritising sensible policy-making, nor science, technology and productivity. Indeed, it is interesting that previous Cabinet Ministers seem to have detested the obsessive Dominic Cummings and his criticisms.  David Cameron called him a career psychopath and Nick Clegg said he was loopy.  Theresa May’s views are not known, though we do know that Mr Cummings thought that her triggering of Article 50 was premature, and that her implementation of Brexit in general, and her red lines in particular, were catastrophically inept.  Few civil servants would disagree.

The Mandarinate must nevertheless surely also take much of the blame for the UK’s current woes.  It is hardly entirely their fault, but they have not shown themselves to be effective in speaking truth to power when it was most needed.

Sadly, I doubt that Mr Cummings has identified the right medicine  to cure the ills that he has identified.  He has argued, I understand, that “quitting the EU will sweep away another roadblock on the path to his vision of the UK.”  But I cannot understand that logic whether it comes to encouraging revolution in Whitehall or elsewhere.  It would be much better – if less exciting – to carry out a root and branch review of the relationship between Parliament, Ministers and the civil service – a 21st Century Haldane Report, if you like.

Short of that, so far as the civil service is concerned, I suspect that part of the answer will need to be better targeted performance management.  I was struck by this Matthew Parris anecdote, which applied just as much outside the FCO as within it:

… our outgoing ambassador remarked that, beyond all the routine work that had had to be done day-in day-out, he reckoned he had offered important advice at critical moments … on perhaps a dozen occasions.   On many of these his advice had been good, as events had shown.  A handful of times, however, subsequent events had proved him wrong.  … [he] did not suppose [anyone in the FCIO] had ever noticed, let alone recorded, the score. Nobody would have cared if he had always been wrong, and nobody but himself would have known if he had always been right. [His] progress had therefore depended on his competence in the immediately noticeable things – in everything [but whether he had given] what would later turn out to be the right advice.

This happened a good while ago, of course, but not much has changed over recent years.  We still mainly promote clubbable ‘good chaps’ (and female chaps) who are brilliant courtiers and fixers and who don’t startle any horses.  It would be difficult, but not impossible, to change the system, and it would need serious political will.  Maybe, just maybe, Dominic Cummings will provide the necessary pressure?


Martin Stanley

Editor – Understanding Government

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