Relationships between civil servants and ministers have become increasingly antagonistic, write Professors David Richards and Martin Smith. With incoherent reforms to the policy process and confusion over where accountability lies, there is a pressing need for reform – and for someone to lead it.
The current imbroglio surrounding the Universal Credit scheme appears to be another example of what Crewe and King have recently identified as a long line of policy blunders in the UK.
The accusations being levelled at Iain Duncan Smith and his department are serious. They illustrate both problems of implementation and reoccurring questions surrounding accountability. This affair can be seen as another illustration of a deepening institutional malaise in the British political system and adds to the growing distrust felt by citizens towards the political elite.
It highlights an increasingly antagonistic relationship between ministers and senior Whitehall officials. The scale of the issue has accelerated throughout the period of the Coalition government. Various spats attest to the growing distrust between ministers and officials (for details – see the 2013 Public Administration Select Committee’s report Truth to Power).
It is a far cry from the original tenets underpinning the minister-civil servant relationship established by the 1918 Haldane Report which affirmed a principle already prescribed by Northcote-Trevelyan that the relationship between ministers and officials should be indivisible.
For Haldane, the British system of government is seen to embody a system not of formally codified rules but instead advice – determined by the constitutional principle that [prime] ministers act as advisers to the sovereign, having in turn been advised by civil servants.
This was based on the convention that officials are in a position to advise a minister on a subject [free from the threat of fear or favour] and as such, there is no requirement for the separation of power between the political and administrative class. This is the antithesis of the US ’Wilsonian model’ or many other European models of government that are premised on more pluralistic sentiments and a separation of powers. Constitutionally then, the Haldane convention does not recognise any division in the personality of ministers and their officials.
This convention became a bedrock of the Westminster model. It established the modus operandi that officials and ministers should operate in a symbiotic relationship whereby ministers decide after consultation with their officials whose wisdom, institutional memory and knowledge of the processes of governing helps to guide the minister.
The official is loyal to the minster who takes the rap when things go wrong. Whatever the problems with this approach, democratic or otherwise, it at least outlined clear lines of responsibility and accountability. Ministers were the ones held to account even if they often evaded the responsibility.
Of course, scratch below the surface and the constitutional niceties of the minister-civil servant relationship have throughout the 20th century been tested, but remained intact. That is until the 1980s, since when the Haldane model has been gradually, and largely implicitly, undermined.
This has coincided with the rise, of managerialism which has seen ministers challenge civil servants about their managerial and policy skills, led them to seek to diversify their sources of policy advice and shift officials from a policy role to a more managerial role.
In so doing, Haldane’s somewhat mythical depiction of minster-civil servant symbiosis has crumbled. The current Coalition has continued this trend, seeking out greater open policy-making, further eroding Whitehall’s monopoly on policy advice.
Yet there is no attempt to rethink how this affects accountability. Officials have increasingly been placed in a managerial role, while policy advice has been ever more politicised. This creates a major tension in government.
Officials have less responsibility in designing policy but take more blame when things go wrong because it is increasingly seen as their responsibility to manage the delivery of policies. And of course, the problem for officials is that where failure occurs, be it for example with Universal Credit, what appears to be a rational and technocratic policy change becomes politicised and hence entraps officials in highly political decision making.
Responsibility has been laid at the feet of those involved in implementing the policy and not those who designed and approved the policy. This is because there is on-going obfuscation over where responsibility and accountability lies.
And when in its report PASC recommended ‘a Commission on the future of the Civil Service’, it received short-shrift from the Government. And so here, stasis over this vexed issue has taken hold.
The problem is that reform is happening without full transparency. Politicians have a dual discourse in relation to the civil service: on one hand, Whitehall is an organisation of often outstanding and committed public servants; on the other, it can be a conservative and at times, poorly-trained body unprepared for the modern requirements of project management and with little experience of the real world.
The Coalition, rhetorically at least, is committed to what it sees as ‘open policy making’, where decisions are open to scrutiny and a whole range of groups and individuals have access to the policy process.
Yet the reality is that politicians want advice that confirms rather than challenges their world view and so are reluctant to truly embrace a transparent, open and pluralistic policy-making environment. Instead, what occurs are a whole range of different and often incoherent reforms to the policy process without any explicit discussion of the over-arching nature of the minister-civil service relationship.
Northcote-Trevelyan established the principles of the civil service in 1854, Haldane clarified them at the start of the twentieth-century and these same principles still ostensibly determine the formal role of officials today.
But the civil service today operates in different world. Ministers cling on to the Westminster model because it legitimises their power as decision makers, even as they undermine its practice. Britain’s uncodified constitution is meant to be flexible. But it is only flexible to those who have power.
For those outside, it continues to mystify the process of change and means that we can undergo reforms in the process of governing without any real transparency. We effectively need a new Haldane to fit the material reality of 21st century governing. But who is going to lead on this?
- The authors are editors [along with Colin Hay] of Institutional Crisis in Twenty-First Century Britain (Palgrave 2104).