FDA chief Dave Penman: Lessons from Trump’s America

The US is giving us an ongoing education in the importance of an impartial civil service, argues the FDA union's general secretary 

By Dave Penman

16 Feb 2017

It feels like 2017 has somehow been missed off the calendar and we’re simply living in an extended 2016. Every time I check the news headlines, another event or comment seems to outdo the previous day’s unbelievable events.

One Mr Donald J is of course the source of much of this. So whilst there’s the morbid car-crash fascination in watching these events unfold, it does tell us something about the weaknesses of the US system of government and strengths of ours. 

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As the rolling news was reporting the changes to immigration policy that had been implemented over the previous evening, one commentator made – for me – an interesting point. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the policy, it was clearly unimplementable. It was full of flaws and contradictions, a stump speech turned into policy in less than 140 characters. It was, he said, the product of an “immature administration”.

That term immaturity of course could apply in many ways to the POTUS, who tweeted about “a lot of bad dudes out there”, but in fact was talking about the lack of experience at senior levels of the administration. Around 4,000 of the most senior roles change with a new president, around a quarter will require confirmation hearings. So transition takes quite some time and a lot of non-partisan experience is lost with each new administration.

Who knows whether experienced, wiser, more independent heads could have influenced the presidential executive order that did or did not “ban” groups depending on which alternative facts you believe. But it would have been an important check and balance in the system. Easier next time perhaps to caution a hasty implementation of an ill thought-out policy when you had predicted the chaos from an earlier disaster.

There will of course be some analogies with the UK. Every government, whether it’s new or not, has its knee-jerk moment, when wise counsel should have been listened to. I remember fondly Tony Blair’s announcement on “yobs” being frog-marched to cash points to pay on-the-spot fines. Our system builds in not only institutional memory to assist new ministers and governments, but an independence of thought from being a permanent, politically neutral civil service.

The hostile and partisan nature of debate in current US politics has little in common with ours, except more recently around the referendums of the past three years. Accusations of political bias from many of the participants in those debates have been whipped up by all sides. From the £350m NHS claim on the bus, to marches on the BBC in Scotland accusing it of bias, the nature and tone of the debate is beginning to resemble what we’re witnessing in the US.

It’s worrying therefore that on the most partisan political issue we’ve seen in a generation – Brexit – the Civil Service Commission has just relaxed the rules on the requirement for civil servants to be appointed through open and fair selection.

Before the sages at the commission angrily denounce me, there are checks, balances and – critically – visibility in what they are proposing. Business cases will need to be made before a bulk exception can be granted and there will be reporting on who is appointed through this process. Also, regardless of the method of appointment, they will be civil servants bound by the code like any other.

But, I keep asking myself, why is it necessary in the first place? Departments have known since the 23 June of that annus horribilis that there will be a need for greater capacity and different capability. New and sometimes unique experience and skills will inevitably be required and, in some cases, this will be for a finite period of time. 

The requirement for open and fair selection is a cornerstone of our permanent, politically neutral service. Civil servants are recruited for what they can do, not what they believe, and the proof is success in an open and fair competition. It doesn’t have to be asserted or implied. They are the best candidate because they won.

What is there to be afraid of? If someone truly has a unique skill or experience, then they’ll be successful in any competition that requires that skill or experience. Recruitment exercises can be conducted quickly, it needn’t take an age. All of these issues can be addressed and still retain appointment on merit. 

I spent a day last month trailing around TV and radio studios in the wake of politicians who were calling for the appointment of a more enthusiastic Brexiteer to replace the UK’s former ambassador to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers. They clearly represented a view shared by some in government, from whom there was a deafening silence.

So yes, it’s better we have a system that demands a case be made and records the outcome of these appointments, but it’s worrying that this relaxation of the rules is even required in the first place.

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