In the final part of our special series on the Civil Service, Francesca Gains and Dave Richards sum up the debate and assess the future of the service during a period of great change.
The most striking theme to emerge from the Policy@Manchester series of Civil Service ‘stocking-taking’ blogs by Martin Stanley and Colin Talbot is the number of on-going and unresolved tensions that currently litter the British bureaucratic landscape. Longstanding and highly salient issues include: the extent to which the neutral and permanent character of the senior civil service is undermined by political appointees; whether the generalist tradition should be replaced by more professional/specialist/outside expertise; whether managerialism has eroded the public service ethos as a guiding principle of service; how the notion of ministerial responsibility can accommodate a greater emphasis on bureaucratic accountability; and whether the Haldane notion of the indivisibility of the political and administrative elite is tenable in circumstances where greater transparency of decision making is required.
The hallmark of such debates is the extent to which they reveal an all too familiar clash between cavaliers and roundheads, of those seeking to preserve the core tenets of the profession, first established by Northcote-Trevelyan in the mid-nineteenth century and those wishing to challenge it, bringing Whitehall in their eyes kicking and screaming into the present century.
Many of these debates have of course been on a slow-burner for a number of decades. Depicting them as a tussle between continuity and change is an accurate one. As is the view that more often than not continuity rather than change has won out the day. But, the salient question that arises from this informed collection of six blogs is whether overtime incremental change in the way Whitehall works, fundamentally challenges the widely accepted and taken for granted rules of the game. Put another way, have the key characteristics underpinning the Westminster model – most notably that of [collective and individual] ministerial accountability, of Whitehall’s permanence, neutrality and anonymity – been stretched beyond the point of credibility?
In talking about the Westminster model, as with all models, we of course have to allow somewhat for a gap between theory and practice. The Westminster model is best understood as a legitimising mythology for a particular system of government, rather than an accurate depiction of the empirical reality of the relationship between minsters and civil servants. But the success of the model was its ability to command a degree of credence in the narrative of governing it offered. This ensured the sustainability of these ideas throughout the course of much of the last century. Yet, the incremental waves of reform, the start point for which is often seen as Fulton in ‘68 and which have proceeded with some rapidity at the behest of Francis Maude during the course of this current Administration, renders any surplus left in the Westminster model’s credibility account close to falling into the red.
We see an irony underpinning this story of continuity and change, and of the wider battle between reformers and those wishing to preserve the status quo. Given this is a debate that has ostensibly been played out within the beltway of the political class itself, it is this group alone that has effectively determined the parameters round which the duelling has taken place. What is revealing is the degree to which neither side has been prepared, for different reasons, to ask the most pressing of questions: overtime, has the Westminster model’s flight from reality led it beyond a point of no return in terms of its role as a legitimising mythology for the practices of British government?
As Whitehall watchers, we would contend that the [whiggish] tradition of simply seeking to graft reform onto the existing model, what Peter Hennessey would more prosaically refer to as ‘muddling through’ by way of his wider ‘good chaps theory of government’, can no longer be seen as an acceptable approach to ‘doing’ public administration in twenty-first century Britain.
Events though may see an end to this pattern. The devolutionary genie is well out of the bottle. Post Scottish referendum demands for devolution of power and responsibility have a seemingly unstoppable force. Although not fundamentally challenging the idea of the pre-eminence of the Westminster Parliament or the dominance of the UK Chancellors grip on public finances, the Scottish settlement and developments/around funding for ‘core cities’ elsewhere, provide a fundamental disjuncture between the tenets underpinning the Westminster model and the governing reality. And crucially these debates have allowed voices to be heard beyond the ‘London beltway’.
Two forthcoming reforms will be of key importance in determining whether there is a sense of crossing a Rubicon when thinking about the way Whitehall works. The introduction of Senior Responsible Owners (SROs) for major projects as Martin Stanley points out will make SRO civil servants directly accountable and change the Osmotherly rules. Whether this reform works well or goes badly (as in the past with attempts to make Next Steps Agency Chief work to a framework document), either way it will draw attention to the myth of ministerial responsibly.
A second key factor to play a crucial role in the near future is the increased fragmentation of the Civil Service into four separate entities, each, in all likelihood, with different reform trajectories. We have always had one distinctly separate Civil Service in Northern Ireland – the NICS – which is a remnant of the old Irish colonial Civil Service. But it looks increasingly likely that the Welsh and especially the Scottish Civil Services will become completely separate entities from Whitehall – indeed the Scottish Civil Service more or less already is in all but name.
Drawing these series of blogs together then, we can argue with reasonable evidence to support the case, that the 1989, post-Next Steps Robin Butler mantra of Whitehall being ‘unified, but not uniform’ is on the cusp of being consigned to history. The newly evolving institutional arrangements will see different bureaucracies working to different political leaders, with different sets of loyalties, and crucially different lines of accountability. The hard to resist conclusion this draws us towards is that such dynamics will render an intolerable strain on the ideal of a Whitehall governing elite operating under the cover of the Westminster model. But then again, the British way has always been to muddle through…!