Politicisation and The Civil Service

by ukcivilservant

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