Confused accountability between ministers and civil servants makes government less effective. Time for a new statute

Parliament should legislate for a new statute to strengthen the civil service’s accountability, identity and purpose
A view of Westminster

By Alex Thomas

23 Mar 2022

The civil service is central to government in the UK. Civil servants advise ministers, implement government’s policies and run many of its services. But throughout its history the civil service has been missing a clear statement of its role, definition, purpose, remit, leadership, governance and accountability.

A hard-to-pin-down civil service has sometimes seemed to benefit British government, adapting itself to new administrations and changing priorities. When ministers and officials are working well together in pursuit of a common goal it might seem counter-productive to try to define the specific responsibilities of civil servants.

But in a new Institute for Government paper, we argue that confused accountability between ministers and civil servants makes government less effective. Responsibilities are blurred and more errors are made, while lessons of failure are harder to learn. Ministers are expected to oversee huge bureaucracies while civil servants fear public criticism for taking the management decisions needed to run the organisations they lead.

It also makes it hard for parliament and the media to hold government to account. That might suit some in government in the short term, but leads to worse outcomes over time. It also means – as we have seen in recent years – that the career consequences for public servants when things go wrong are less about what has happened – or not happened  – and more about presentation, power and relationships.

That in turn leads to a lack of confidence inside and outside the civil service in its identity, legitimacy and authority. If civil servants, without clear accountability structures, become fearful of mercurial ministerial or media storms, they are more likely to temper their advice, avoid risk and fall in with conventional wisdom.

In the same way, the current system disincentivises long-term workforce planning and leaves too much ambiguity over who owns and needs to manage risks and ensure the state is fit to respond to crises and emergencies.

That is why we have concluded that the time is right for precise but radical reform, in the form of a new statutory role for the civil service. A statute would give more clarity about what civil servants are responsible for, strengthen their ability to act within that sphere of responsibility and improve how officials are held to account.

More specifically, we propose legislation to:

  • reaffirm that the civil service is a permanent institution, and that civil servants must demonstrate impartiality and objectivity, while maintaining the highest standards of ethics
  • set a statutory objective for the civil service to implement government programmes and respond to events as directed by ministers
  • give the head of the civil service and permanent secretaries a responsibility to maintain the capability of the UK governments to carry out that objective, including on standards of policy making, advice on the constitution, crisis response, use of data and digital, finance, project management, recruitment and other core activities
  • create a new Board including a minister and non-executive appointees to hold top officials accountable for their performance against the statutory objective for the civil service, and how they discharge their responsibilities to maintain the capability of the government. It would have two sub-committees, one to appoint and performance manage the head of the civil service and the other to operate and manage the civil service
  • strengthen the civil service’s relationship with parliament, with the Board reporting annually on performance against its objective. Parliament would also have more opportunities to scrutinise permanent secretaries.

This model would help hold the civil service to account without undermining ministerial accountability to parliament, and give parliament a more coherent role and a closer relationship with civil servants. It would also improve policy advice and the role of civil servants in maintaining the long term capability of the state, and lead to a more legitimate and more confident civil service.

A new statutory role for the civil service would also help with the age-old problem of cross-department co-ordination. Better defining the job of the head of the civil service would give them more authority to influence the federated structure of the civil service on policy and management issues. That would include strengthening the role of the head of the civil service in setting and enforcing service benchmarks and helping to resolve cross-cutting issues and departmental arguments.

We hope to start a debate in government and parliament about how to achieve this important reform. A new statutory role for the civil service would benefit the government, parliament, the civil service itself, and most importantly, the public they serve. 

Alex Thomas is a programme director at the Institute for Government

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