Opinion: The UK civil service may be the world’s best, but even a Rolls Royce needs a competent driver

Written by Calum Miller on 25 April 2019 in Opinion
Opinion

At a time when Brexit is revealing a lot about UK governance, a new report has found the British civil service is the worldwide leader. Calum Miller of the Blavatnik School of Government, which published the report, explains the ranking

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Brexit has illuminated much about the governance of the UK. Who knew that all it took was a government whip to shout “tomorrow” for a vote on a motion to be delayed well beyond tomorrow? Had we considered that a minister could urge MPs to vote for the government position and then promptly vote against himself? And, most fundamentally, how can a parliamentary system of representative democracy organised around political parties respond to the result of an exercise in direct democracy that cuts across party alignments?

A brief glance at the disobliging headlines in the UK and across the world suggests a country in meltdown, incapable of governing itself.

Many will therefore react with amazement that, in the second edition of the International Civil Service Effectiveness Index (InCiSE), published today, the UK civil service is highest ranked of 38 countries, up from fourth in 2017. If our civil service is the best in the world, how can it all be going so badly?


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The most important point to make is that the civil service is not the government. The Northcote-Trevelyan Report of 1854 argued for a civil service appointed on merit not patronage. Though its implementation took some time, that report established that those who administer the state should be selected independently of those who govern it.

In short, the civil service can only serve the government of the day. Civil servants accept that, while they did not choose the government, they owe each one the same commitment to deliver impartial, honest, objective service with integrity. The civil service can do much to support ministers but it cannot – and should not – set the direction of the government.

All well and good, but there will remain those who understand this distinction and nevertheless believe that the UK civil service is not the Rolls Royce it was once claimed to be. Take the Department for Transport. For all the unkind epithets attached to Chris Grayling as secretary of state, weren’t his civil servants part of the process that led to the award of contracts for ‘no deal’ ferry services to a no ferry company to land at a no access port?

These objections are reasonable. Roles may be separated between ministers and civil servants within the executive but the separation is not always visible to those outside. When something goes badly wrong, it is hard to determine who carries the responsibility. Did the minister go against civil service advice? Was the advice flawed? Was the decision sound but the implementation faulty? And, if so, was that solely the fault of the civil servants or did an aspect of the minister’s decision impede effective delivery?

Let’s therefore be clear on what this remarkable result for the UK civil service really tells us. The InCiSE Index has been created to provide a picture of the relative effectiveness of central civil services, drawing on data gathered by a number of other organisations. By publishing comparative data on the performance of these civil services across 12 domains, it allows ministers, journalists and the public to see not only how their civil service ranks absolutely but also in which areas it is relatively strong, or weak.

The 12 domains divide into eight that focus on what a civil service does and four on how it does those things. So, for example, thinking about the activities of central civil services, the UK ranks top on regulation but less highly on digital services. Whereas, thinking about the attributes of a civil service, the UK is the third ranked on openness but only 14th on inclusiveness.

This shows that the UK civil service is not faultless. Like every country covered in the Index, it has the opportunity to learn and improve from the strengths and innovations in other countries. These leaders are diverse: 23 of the 38 countries in the Index rank in the top five for one or more domain. As the UK looks to improve, Estonia leads the way on digital services, while Canada is out in front on inclusiveness.

But – at a time when we are learning much about the governance of the UK – it is striking to consider that the impartial UK civil servants who serve each government are doing a relatively world-class job.

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Calum Miller
About the author

Calum Miller is associate dean and chief operating officer at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University, which published the International Civil Service Effectiveness Index (InCiSE)

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