Articles about the UK Civil Service and Regulation

This Blog

This blog contains occasional articles about the UK Civil Service, UK Regulation and associated issues.

Please click ‘Follow’ (at bottom right of this page) if you would like to be notified, by email, when new posts appear on this blog.

Mandarins v. Maude ?

I am not sure what to make of today’s FT report that three senior officals have written to the Public Accounts Committee to advise against more centralisation of purchasing decisions (IT, consultancy etc.) “The government machine is not like a holding company dominating its subsidiaries from a corporate centre.”

This was apparently followed by a letter from Ministers Francis Maude and Danny Alexander arguing exactly the opposite.

More cock-up than conspiracy, I suspect, on the part of the civil servants. But it is certainly yet another example of how the Government does not have anything like a clearly articulated “reform” strategy.

Are Senior Officials Now Serving Individual Ministers, not the Government?

A fascinating and worrying IfG Report is published today:

In [some] departments, policy development is sometimes carried out solely for one party (most often the party of the secretary of state), occasionally with explicit requests not to include the other side in discussions or on distribution lists. There is a lack of clarity in such circumstances about whether policy is being developed for the Government, or for one party. … In one case a secretary of state instructed officials not to speak to ‘the other party’s’ special advisers. In another, the secretary of state asked officials to keep junior ministers out of the loop because of concerns they would pass on sensitive information to their party leader. This can put officials, working for a minister on a particular portfolio, but acting on instructions from above, in an impossible situation.”

This looks at first like a clear breach of the Armstrong Memorandum which says that:  “The Civil Service serves the Government of the day as a whole, that is to say Her Majesty’s Ministers collectively, and the Prime Minister is the Minister for the Civil Service.”  On the other hand, the Memorandum goes on to say that “The duty of the individual civil servant is first and foremost to the Minister of the Crown who is in charge of the Department in which he or she is serving.”  And the IfG points out that  “The default approach of Whitehall is to avoid formalisation of rules, and to rely on personal relationships and individual good judgement to respond to pressures as they occur. This is a model of government based on the principle of constructive ambiguity, which may have worked in the context of a single-party government, but is under serious strain in the context of coalition, particularly as the focus shifts to the election.”

It is certainly very worrying that senior officials are being asked by some Ministers to hide their work from other Ministers.  Wouldn’t it be better if it were clear that this is not allowed?

The IfG Report can be found here.  Standard advice for civil servants in the run up to a general election is here.

Canada Post to stop delivering to city homes

The New York Times reports today that state-owned Canada Post intends to end all residential mail delivery in cities and older suburbs. “Canada Post shares many problems with postal services in the United States and elsewhere, including rapidly declining mail volumes and high wage and pension costs. ” Deliveries will instead be made to communal mail-boxes.

This contrasts with the UK government’s decision to split off the pension scheme and then privatise the liability-free postal business, thus hopefully helping extending the life of the universal postal service whilst preserving employee pay and benefits – for a while at least.

More policy making ‘on the hoof’ from Francis Maude?

Many politicians, academics, civil servants and others will be interested to read Francis Maude’s latest thoughts, as reported in Monday’s FT.  He suggests that a new requirement (that civil servants in charge of big projects should account directly to parliament) would “toughen the relationship with ministers”.   This would be a significant departure from the longstanding principle that civil servants are accountable to ministers and only ministers to parliament, but Mr Maude argues that it would give officials a greater incentive to challenge developments they believed were wrong.  According to the FT, he said: “If you have [a senior official] who knows that he or she is going to be hauled up in front of select committees and interrogated . . . then I think you’re much more likely to have what is a very healthy thing in our system which is push-back. . . There’s a great phrase ‘speaking truth unto power’ and it’s very important – it doesn’t happen enough.”  He also said that senior civil servants in charge of projects should tell ministers bluntly if they felt they were being misdirected and insist on a formal “letter of direction” to show that they had raised their objections. If they did not, they should be accountable for failings on their watch.

This is another example of far-reaching and maybe sensible change being mooted without any serious and open discussion of the context and the consequences.  The suggestion that there should be more push-back is no doubt spot-on but it needs to be weighed against the recent Civil Service World survey which concluded that “Just 9% of civil servants believe that ministers and senior managers openly encourage challenge, debate and reporting of operational problems”.  

And a request by an official for a formal a letter of direction from a minister has always been seen as the nuclear option, as it indicates serious disagreement between officials and their political masters over the propriety of the decision.  In therefore has to be reported in the department’s annual report and accounts, and disclosed to the Public Accounts Committee.  Do Mr Maude’s colleagues really want more of such letters?




Obamacare problems blamed on “only good news allowed” culture

FT Article today blames Obamacare implementation problems on “a coterie of insiders who have learnt that their boss does not like to hear bad news”.  Sounds similar to DWP’s problems with Universal Credit (NAO said “only good news allowed”) except that Obama cannot blame permanent officials, and so takes a harder hit himself.  UK politicians will need to weigh this in the balance before making significant CS Reform.

Devastating NAO Report followed by Far-Reaching PASC Recommendation

The NAO yesterday published a devastating report on DWP’s ‘over-ambitious’ Universal Credit program managed by a team with a’ fortress mentality’ in which ‘only good news was allowed’ (according to an NAO Director speaking on the Today Programme).  This led to the responsible Secretary of State, Ian Duncan Smith (IDS), quickly blaming the incompetence of his officials, followed in turn by unattributable briefing against DWP Permanent Secretary Robert Devereux.  It was of course quite impossible for anyone outside government to tell whether IDS’ criticisms were justified, or whether IDS had set unreasonable objectives and/or refused to deploy sufficient resources and/or imposed an unrealistic timetable – or a mixture of all four.

The NAO report certainly (‘though only implicitly) highlighted the unpredictable consequences that might flow from the Government’s 2012 Civil Service Reform Plan.  Would officials who were faced with unrealistic Ministerial demands (a) refuse to sign them off (thus damaging their relationship with their Minister), or (b) sign them off and take the risk of the project failing down the line?

Then earlier today, the Public Administration Select Committee published a very strong report with (remarkably) only one recommendation – highlighted in its summary – extracts below:

Tensions between ministers and officials have become all too evident in recent years. We recognise that many ministers feel their decisions are being deliberately blocked or frustrated, but this points to a more deeper problem in our system of government. There is a fundamental question about why ministers feel some civil servants are resistant to what they want and this question has not been considered in any systematic way. Failing organisations demonstrate common characteristics, such as a lack of openness and trust, which are very evident in some departments and agencies. In our deliberations with ministers and civil servants most recognise a prevalence of these behaviours. We remain unconvinced that the Government has developed the analysis, policies and leadership to address these problems.

The Haldane doctrine of ministerial accountability is not only crucial to Parliament’s ability to hold the executive to account. It is at the core of the relationship between ministers and officials.  ….  This Report is exceptional. We make only one recommendation: the establishment of a Parliamentary Commission into the Civil Service, in the form of a joint committee of both Houses. The independent evidence in favour of some kind of comprehensive strategic review of the nature, role and purpose of the Civil Service is overwhelming

We cannot emphasise enough the importance of this recommendation, reflected by the unanimous support of the House of Commons Liaison Committee. Such a Commission could draw on the extensive experience of government and the Civil Service in Parliament and its conclusions would enjoy cross-party consensus. The Commission should undertake this work alongside current Civil Service reforms, not as an alternative. It should focus on the strategic long-term vision for the Civil Service … The Civil Service does not exist solely to serve the Government of the day, but also future governments. It is right and proper that substantial reforms to the role of the Civil Service should be scrutinised by Parliament. Such a Parliamentary Commission could be established before the end of the year, and report before the end of the current Parliament, so that after the 2015 general election a comprehensive change programme can be implemented.

It was greatly to the credit of the FDA, the senior civil servants trade union, that it welcomed this recommendation.

Further detail is at .

Plus ça change … !

Civil Service World have looked through some 30 year old Civil Service Reform papers released today by the National Archives.  Their very readable article is here:-

IPPR Recommendations to be Implemented

The BBC is reporting that Minister Francis Maude will today announce his acceptance of several of the IPPR’s recommendations – see previous posting.  The most far-reaching change may be to the nature of Ministers’ Private Offices.   I will comment asap after the announcement.

IPPR Report

The FT reports that the IPPR report will be published today, recommending PM-appointed Permanent Secretaries, bigger Ministerial support offices (with more non-civil servants), and Permanent Secretaries to be more accountable to both the Head of the Civil Service and to Parliament.  These would be subtle but significant changes, not least for Cabinet Ministers.  This is because their Permanent Secretaries would in future be less concerned about implementing their Ministers’ risky plans, and more concerned about having to explain to their boss and Parliament when things go wrong.

%d bloggers like this: