Most of us have lost something important at some point – keys, a wallet, maybe even our dignity after a particularly heavy night out. But most people don’t find themselves at the end of a Saturday night in McDonalds asking where they put their secretary of state.
Unfortunately, this is not as uncommon as you’d think for civil servants. Ministers are expected to be accompanied at all official engagements by a civil servant, but some of them find that pretty irritating and insist on "going AWOL" every now and then – leading, inevitably, to an overly stressed 20-something in the department roaming the corridors declaring “WE’VE LOST THE SECRETARY OF STATE. HAS ANYONE SEEN THE SECRETARY OF STATE?”
More seriously, many departments have recently lost some, if not all, of their ministers during the Great Resignation – leading people to wonder what that means for the effective running of government. So how much difference does it actually make? Do you need ministers to keep running public services?
The short answer is it’s complicated. There are many examples from around the world of countries functioning without politicians, notably in Belgium that managed it for a few years.
"To state the obvious, in (wo)manpower terms elected politicians don’t make any discernible difference to government departments. DfE, for example, is around 7,000 strong, with the ministerial team, spads and other policy advisers making up only around a dozen of that number"
That’s because, to state the obvious, in (wo)manpower terms elected politicians don’t make any discernible difference to government departments. The Department for Education, for example, is around 7,000 strong, with the ministerial team, spads and other policy advisers making up only around a dozen of that number. So ministers not being around is unlikely to mean a key piece of work or delivery of an important service doesn’t happen.
That being said, there are two key problems for civil servants when they don’t have Ministers.
Firstly, decisions. Civil servants are not accountable to the public (not in the traditional sense anyway) and rely on ministers to sign off decisions for that reason. Even relatively small amounts of expenditure or short public statements are nearly always signed off at ministerial level. civil servants therefore get extremely tetchy (contrary to a popular myth that civil servants love to seize power whenever they can) if they are without ministers for too long, for risk they might have to sign something off themselves. This has been a particular problem in Northern Ireland for civil servants being asked to sign off public sector pay awards in the absence of an executive.
Secondly, and relatedly, direction. Civil servants are perfectly capable of continuing to deliver something that has already been agreed upon – moving into the next phase of policy development or delivery. But the civil service is accustomed, rightly, to taking its direction from ministers. This means that any prolonged period of time without ministers risks leading to an increasing sense of aimlessness and circularity. “How can we best improve the NHS?” “What should we do to tackle crime?” “What makes the best schools great?” – these are all questions one could spend a lifetime answering and, without ministers to set priorities and an overarching vision for what reforms they want to implement, the civil service finds itself doing just that.
Does that mean civil servants just lounge around musing on great policy issues while the Ministers are away? Not quite. On top keeping everything running, any period of uncertainty around Ministerial appointments creates a whirlwind of activity for civil servants. Government departments will have people scrutinising every word of what potential PMs and secretaries of state say about a wide range of issues – so they know what to expect. And individual policy teams will be doing the same for their own area, however niche (there will be policy teams covering everything from cancer to invasive species). Their objective is that a new minister entering government is immediately met with a tailored briefing for their new role – setting out the current issues in the department, and what initial decisions might need to be taken based on the sort of reforms they have advocated previously.
So the next time you lose your wallet or keys, think about the poor civil servants scrambling around to try and find what their brand new Secretary of State once said in 2004 about their views on eradicating Japanese knotweed.
Ed Reza Schwitzer is an associate director in the education practice at Public First and a former DfE civil servant