In the second of three blogs Martin Stanley examines whether senior officials should be more accountable – especially to MPs – for the advice that they give to Ministers. This is the fourth post in our series on the Civil Service.
How would officials react to greater public scrutiny? Most of them, I suspect, would have no problem in principle. Those who have been Agency Chief Executives, or have led Non-Ministerial Government Departments, have generally enjoyed the experience, and have been glad to account for their decisions and performance both in Parliament and via the media. But working in a mainstream department is a bit different. Policies evolve over time, and policy compromises have to be agreed with all affected departments. It can be hard to pin down true responsibility for the compromises that result from this slow, collegiate process. Those who have worked closely with Ministers therefore point out that both Ministers and their officials need a safe space for discussion of both good and bad ideas.
They also worry that greater openness would make it even harder for Ministers to act as leaders when that is necessary. Politicians are surely under enough scrutiny already. They need to maintain a commanding presence, which means having courtiers to shield them from excessive exposure. But when does shielding morph into hypocrisy and cover up? The Establishment used to be pretty good at hiding its infidelities, homosexual activity and drunken misbehaviour. A good thing, many would say. But it may also have been pretty good at hiding police corruption, paedophilia and other nasties. Not quite the same?
And then what about the Establishment’s ability to resist policies that it regards as dangerous or illiberal, such as leaving the EU, ditching Trident, bringing back hanging or cutting immigration and overseas aid. There is already a good deal of group think (aka showing good judgment). No promotion-hungry senior civil servant is going to admit to voting for UKIP, or agreeing with the SNP, or even enjoying reading the Daily Mail. A good thing, many would say. I imagine that most readers of this blog would welcome a little foot dragging if and when Nigel Farage becomes Home Secretary in a coalition government. Is there not something to be said for initial civil service resistance to the more dramatic or far-reaching pressures for change, at least so as to give the electorate and Ministers time to think again? But it is hardly democracy in action.
The dilemma was brought home to me very sharply when I watched the PAC tearing into MoJ officials on 4 December for failing to identify all the unintended consequences and costs arising out of Ministers’ decision to lop £300m off the legal aid budget – and to do it very quickly. I’ll bet a pound to a penny that officials would much rather have dragged their feet and not implemented this policy at this speed, and I’ll bet they were acutely aware of its consequences, not least for the disadvantaged. Would we be better governed if the public had had access to those officials’ advice and concerns, which might have helped ensure that Ministers did not achieve their policy objectives?
This brings me to the real reasons why Parliamentarians have been so slow to require officials to be more open about their advice. Put shortly, Opposition politicians want to retain the ability to gain political advantage by criticising Ministers rather than unelected officials. It can be fun to tear into hapless MoJ officials, but there are no votes in it. And Ministers, for their part, are reluctant to admit that they are not solely responsible for important decisions and achievements. Every senior official is well used to Ministers claiming full public credit for a successful negotiation or initiative to which they have devoted only a tiny fraction of the time devoted by their officials. (To be fair, however, most decent Ministers are very grateful in private.)
More generally, of course, MPs want to be able to continue to write to fellow MPs (currently serving as Ministers) about all aspects of a department’s performance. Their constituents are much more impressed by ‘a letter to the Minister’ than by a letter to an official, even though they usually amount to the same thing. A small number of MPs refuse even to correspond with Agency Chief Executives, for instance about the Driver and Vehicle Licensing decisions.
Finally, picking up the point made earlier, many senior officials would not like to be publicly accountability for the effectiveness of their departments, knowing that this would open up areas of conflict with their political masters.
But there is a definite trend towards greater civil service accountability, including some interesting recent developments, which I will discuss in the final blog in this series.