Prime minister urged to make a statement in support of civil servants to combat low morale
Inquiry finds relationship between senior officials and ministers has been further fractured by Brexit debate
Theresa May called on to credit the 'unwavering loyalty' of civil servants. Credit: Scott Heppell/PA
Theresa May should make a statement in support of civil servants following public criticism from ministers that has damaged morale, a report has argued.
Civil servants are feeling undervalued and sad at being “an easy target” and being unable to defend themselves against attacks from politicians and the media, the report by Andrew Kakabadse, professor of governance and leadership at Henley Business School, found.
Kakabadse also argued civil servants are being unfairly blamed for failures in policy creation that are actually down to poor political leadership, and called for a stronger focus within government on building “chemistry” between ministers and senior officials.
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His report, Is Government Fit for Purpose? The Kakabadse Report, is based on confidential interviews with more than 80 civil servants, ministers and others, and was submitted yesterday to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee’s civil service effectiveness inquiry.
Kakabadse was a special advisor to the predecessor committee’s inquiry on the work of the civil service, where he first raised concerns about the “fractured” relationship between permanent secretaries and ministers.
The report's recommendations include that “the prime minister make a statement supporting civil servants, their contribution and their unwavering loyalty to deliver on the government’s agenda”.
Kakabadse argued this is necessary because there is an absence of positive feedback for civil servants, many of whom he said are also not receiving praise, adequate appraisal or being pushed for promotion.
He added that views that officials “delay, block or thwart the minister” are now only “intermittently expressed” and that the negativity “has not significantly impacted on the robustness and resilience of civil servants”. But he noted that “morale has been affected”.
The report tracked back to Lord Francis Maude, minister for the Cabinet Office and paymaster general between 2010 and 2015, whose “public criticism of the civil service encouraged unwarranted negative comment from certain junior and senior politicians”.
But Kakabadse’s report suggested that the relationship between ministers and senior officials remained patchy and this had an impact on morale throughout a department, with one unnamed permanent secretary quoted as saying “it was very low in the Francis Maude days, but it’s pretty low now”.
They continued: “I think a number of things are making it worse at the moment… The default is that we’re to blame for everything. We’re to blame for Brexit being difficult; if we say Brexit’s difficult, we’re blamed for being remoaners.”
Kakabadse confirmed that during his research he found no civil servants who were attempting to frustrate or disrupt the Brexit negotiations due to “their supposed anti-Brexit/pro-European sentiments”.
Another permanent secretary is quoted in the report: “There is a definite morale problem. Some of it comes actually not just from pay; it comes from feeling undervalued. The messages around what it means to be a civil servant, the importance to the economy, that civil servants are problem solvers, crisis resolvers, purveyors of critical infrastructure. You don’t hear government ministers saying that enough.”
Among the recommendations made by Kakabadse to improve the relationship between secretaries of state and senior officials, he called on the Civil Service Leadership Academy to prioritise “off-the-job training and development in dyadic and team relationships”.
Kakabadse said: “The central finding of this inquiry is that the ‘chemistry’ between the secretary of state and permanent secretary crucially determines the effectiveness of policy delivery.
“The pressure of the role predominantly forces ministers, despite their best efforts, to focus on a broad range of misaligned interests, resulting in 20% of the policy process effort being centred on creation, while 80% is devoted to delivery.
“Despite this, ministers are still seen by many civil servants, other secretaries of state and private sector suppliers as concentrating too much on policy creation and not fully appreciating the reality and importance of policy delivery.
“This is an issue of neglected governance, partly reflecting the legacy and expected role of special political advisers and departmental boards.”
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