Fixing Whitehall’s broken policy machine

by ukcivilservant

I hugely enjoyed Jonathan Slater’s Policy Institute presentation, this lunchtime, of his reflections on central government policy-making. I hope this short summary does him justice. And I hope it encourages you to read his very thoughtful and entertaining paper.

Jonathan started by acknowledging that every paper on ‘civil service reform’ (from Fulton onwards) says that there is too much ‘churn’, too little accountability and too many ‘generalists’. He agrees, but sees a way of tackling these problems.

First, he notes that over-rapid movement between jobs has been a problem for decades, so the root cause is not just the need to get higher pay through promotion.

Second, he acknowledges that Ministers love ‘Whitehall warriors’ who can dig them out of holes and win battles with the Treasury. But most Ministers want other skills as well – including subject knowledge and the ability to achieve useful objectives.

In principle, therefore, there is nothing to stop the civil service leading the necessary reforms. Permanent Secretaries could decide to own the problem and ensure that Ministers were supported only by senior officials who understand their subjects, are capable of achieving real world outcomes, and are also confident working within Whitehall.

The obvious problem, Jonathan acknowledged, is that the Cabinet Secretary and his colleagues would need to acknowledge that their successors should be different types of people – and it is very hard to admit that the skills that got them to the top are no longer appropriate or sufficient.

So how do we encourage this opening up to a wider talent pool? Greater accountability would certainly help. The policy-making system needs to be opened up to Parliament and the public, for instance through the publication and discussion of option appraisals. This would play to the strengths of those who knew more, and could do more than just fight Whitehall’s wars.

Two comments from me:-

I agree that the civil service could take ownership of the necessary reforms of appointment and promotion. I don’t think Ministers would object to being supported by rather different characters in future, as long as those characters remained capable of helping Ministers navigate political and other crises.

I am less sure that Ministers (or MPs) would welcome greater civil service accountability. They should welcome it, of course, but the invisibility of civil service policy advice helps Ministers who want to take bad decisions that are popular with ‘their base’. And it is a gift to the Opposition who can score political points by blaming Ministers for every departmental failing, even when it is officials who have blundered. These arguments are explored in greater depth in Chapter 6 of my explanation of, and commentary on, the Westminster Model of Government:- Civil Servants, Ministers and Parliament.

Martin Stanley
Editor – Understanding the Civil Service