"Continual" civil service reform has weakened accountability, academics warn

MPs on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs (PACAC) committee are told that the century-old Haldane convention has been undermined by decades-long shift towards managerialism in the civil service

By Matt Foster

14 Jun 2016

Decades of reform to the civil service have "radically" changed the relationship between officials and ministers without accountability mechanisms adapting to keep pace, MPs have been warned.

The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee kicked off an inquiry into the work of the civil service earlier this year, with the group of MPs saying they would focus on four key areas.

As well as looking into the civil service's ability to "learn from success and failure", its impartiality, and its skills and capability, the committee asked for evidence on whether the structure and organisation of the civil service – still largely based on a 1918 report by Lord Haldane – remained "appropriate" for the 21st century.

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Haldane's report, drawn up against the backdrop of the First World War, called for a system of dedicated government departments, staffed by officials who were able to give elected ministers frank advice based on "enquiry, research, and reflection" – with ministers then taking the rap in parliament for the delivery of government policy.

But, in a joint submission to PACAC, two senior academics argue that a series of reform initatives – including the top-down targets pursued by New Labour and the coalition's 2012 Civil Service Reform Plan – have worked to erode this traditional system of accountability, breaking the once "indivisible" link between ministers and their officials.

Writing to the committee, Professor David Richards of Manchester University and Prof Martin Smith of York University argue that governments since 1979 have approached the civil service with a "them" and "us" mentality, seeing officials "not as facilitators, but as a constraint on the achievement of ministerial goals".

"This in turn led to a series of reforms concerned with bolstering ministerial power and a concomitant erosion of Whitehall’s veto-playing capabilities," they add.

"Reform, informed by public-choice accounts of bureaucracy, depicted the civil service in a more adversarial light. The idea that officials had a role in mediating ministerial preferences was challenged head-on. This period saw a shift in the minister-civil servant relationship from one of mutual dependence to that of a principle-agent mode."

Richards and Smith say this "almost continual programme of Whitehall reform", kicked off by the Conservatives, was then cemented by New Labour, arguing that privatisation of public services, the increased use of political special advisers and the setting up of a Downing Street Delivery Unit, contributed to "a growing mistrust between officials and ministers".

Meanwhile, the pair argue that the coalition and Conservative governments elected since 2010 have also continued those trends, including by giving ministers more say in the appointment of the most senior officials, and introducing Extended Ministerial Offices to provide ministers with more advice from outside their departments.

"The effect has been a recalibration in the relationship between ministers and civil servants in which ministers have sought to increase their power over the senior civil service through particular mechanisms of managerialism and accountability," they add.

"Such reforms are not without contradiction. On one level, ministers have berated Whitehall for its lack of skills and blamed civil servants for blocking change (a view consistent across all governments since 1997). On another level, ministers see reform occurring through officials taking more responsibility – the desire for 'delegated mission command'"

But in spite of the changes caused by repeated civil service reform shake-ups, Richards and Smith argue that governments have "avoided addressing questions on the constitutional implications" of this shift, accusing ministers of trying to "have it both ways".

"Civil servants are there to protect and support ministers (an example of bureaucratic accountability) not to serve the public (democratic accountability)," they write.

"Officials are adept at developing policy set by ministers, defend ministerial positions and generally supporting departmental lines and budgets. They are less well equipped to think about the development and delivery of policy on the ground.

"This creates a frustration for ministers who find themselves drawn to the support officials provide, but are disappointed when policies are not effectively implemented."

"Organisational and cultural shift" 

To address the disconnect, the pair argue for an "organisational and cultural shift" in the civil service, saying it should be less focused on "departmental functionalism" and more on putting expert officials in the right place to address public policy challenges.

But they acknowledge that this overhaul would amount to "a very different ministerial-civil service relationship and more particularly, an overhaul of the Westminster Model".

The pair's evidence to PACAC, which the group of MPs will consider before holding their first evidence session later this year, comes after Margaret Hodge, the outspoken former chair of parliament's Public Accounts Committee, questioned whether the a century-old approach to civil service accountability was still appropriate.

“The old convention of civil servants being accountable to ministers who are accountable to parliament is broken," she told a Strand Group event earlier this year.

“It worked when Haldane invented it after the First World War when there were only 28 civil servants in the Home Office. Today, despite the cuts, there are 28,000.”

She added: “I think until we re-establish that link […] we won’t get very far in improving the quality of services or value for money".

Meanwhile, a recent report by the National Audit Office spending watchdog – drawing on around 300 detailed studies of government projects since 2012 – flagged "major concerns about how accountability of taxpayers' money is exercised", with the incentives for senior civil servants to prioritise good stewardship of public money "weak compared with those associated with the day-to-day job of satisfying ministers".

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