UK’s shift to top-down politics and a more subservient civil service risks mistakes over Brexit

Jeremy Richardson explains how the British policy-making style has been steadily shifting away from governance and towards government, and why Brexit should usher in a return to the former

Former prime minister Margaret Thatcher presided over a shift towards more top-down government. Credit: PA

By Jeremy Richardson

28 Feb 2018

Britain has, for several decades, been steadily shifting towards government, the so-called ‘Westminster Model’ that reflects a hierarchical policy style, and away from governance, a more collaborative and consensual model.

The arrival of the Thatcher government in 1979 presaged a clear shift in policy style from governance to government. The emphasis on austerity had implications for the UK policy style as a whole. For example, there were growing demands for higher public expenditure that were not met, thus changing the relationship between government and groups. In practice a considerable amount of policy change emanated from the austerity turn. Policy change came from the political level, top down, not emerging from interest groups and civil servants, bottom-up.

Relationships between ministers and civil servants

There have also been important changes within government departments, namely a change in the balance of power between senior civil servants on the one hand, and ministers and their personal partisan staff (ministerial advisers) on the other. The trend to increase the amount of external advice has produced a situation where many ministers (and their external advisers, both official and informal) arrive in office with a more ideational policy portfolio in that they have their own strong priorities on what policy change is needed. There has been a shift from civil servants warning ministers and keeping them out of trouble, reflecting the traditional risk aversion normally attributed to the British civil service, towards ‘carriers’ of ministerial ideas, willing to try to implement policies even when lacking broad policy community support.

The changing relationship between ministers and civil servants has important effects on policy style because civil servants are now less able to strike a consensus with interest groups, as the civil servants often arrive at the table to decisions already made, rather than to engage in a process of mutual learning and exchange in order to generate policy solutions. The zone for negotiation is often much smaller than hitherto, and this fundamentally changes the nature of the interaction between civil servants and groups, and hence the policy style itself.

However, the fact that the more hierarchical or impositional policy style has made possible a lot of policy change does not mean that it has actually increased the policy system’s capacity to solve policy problems effectively. There are big risks inherent in the new policy style under which consultation is much more constrained.

Government without governance is a difficult and risky business

If the Westminster model is now rather more in place, radical policy change should be easy to achieve. A clear party policy line and a parliamentary majority should ensure that all will run smoothly, through to successful policy implementation, textbook style. In practice, the real world is more intractable. Pressman and Wildavsky’s classic work on policy implementation had as its subtitle, ‘How high hopes in Washington were dashed in Oakland California’. Their central message was that there was more policy failure than success in the US. The more centralised British state might hope to fare better than a federal system.

"My worry is that there have been some re-enforcing trends at work in Britain over the past 30 years that have shifted the central focus of the policy process from better policies towards more overtly political ones"

But I am cautious in accepting this view, not least because the pace of policy change in Britain, especially that driven by ‘the centre’ is quite frenetic. For example, David Halpern (head of the Behavioural Insights Team) describes life behind the shiny black door of No 10 as akin to a hospital Accident & Emergency Department. He comments that “in such a world, there’s often not the time, nor the patience, for the answer to be ‘more research needed’”. There is more than a hint here of a ‘pop-up’ style of policymaking where chaps (mostly!) with seemingly clever policy ideas get to implement them without the need to consider the views of, or seek the support of, the affected interests.

Of course, excessive group power can lead to reform deficits. However, effective interest group involvement in both problem definition and policy formulation does have an inherent logic. Groups have been historically integrated into public policymaking for good practical reasons. Their participation in the policy process contributes essential knowledge which policymakers lack, and it generally raises policy effectiveness providing it is properly managed and balanced.

My worry is that there have been some re-enforcing trends at work in Britain over the past 30 years that have shifted the central focus of the policy process from better policies towards more overtly political ones. The austerity and reform turns; the strengthening of the centre in relation to policy departments; the increased role of political advisers in initiating policy change; a drift towards a more subservient civil service; and an apparent increasing number of cases where interest groups are marginalised, can have a cumulative adverse effect on the quality of policy-making. ‘Strong government’ has a nice ring to it, but it is high risk too.

Postscript on Brexit

Brexit is a case in point as it is certainly the most complex policy problem facing Britain in the post-war period. At the core of the policy problem is the urgent need to negotiate favourable trade deals with many states. Both government and interest groups have a strong incentive to get things right in trade negotiations and, therefore, to collaborate very closely. Moreover, trade negotiation expertise in government is in short supply and so at least some groups can expect high levels of integration in policymaking.

In contrast, many groups, such as environmental and women’s groups will find it difficult to exert influence under a hard Brexit where the UK moves to a de-regulated economy. More generally, Brexit will certainly repatriate government/interest group relations from Brussels. The reduction in group influence at the national level has often been more than compensated by a shift in the locus of policymaking from London to the Brussels ‘policy-making state‘ as UK groups across virtually all policy sectors have exploited an alternative venue. In that sense, the trends that I have described have been moderated for interest groups. Sans Bruxelles, one can expect groups to become more active at the national level.

Moreover, it would be foolish for government to marginalise groups and to pursue a top-down style of policy-making when faced with the truly huge task of deciding what to do about the massive amount of EU legislation that will remain in place on day one of Brexit, albeit as British law. Interest groups, above all, know best which EU laws are working well, which are not, and which are no longer needed. Thus, Brexit should usher in a return to governance.

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