Editorial: The arguments for arguing

Officials must fulfil their duty to challenge poor policies

By Matt.Ross

25 Jan 2012

This newspaper has for some time argued that after the May 2010 election, the civil service went so far out of its way in its efforts to please the new coalition ministers that in many cases it got completely lost, leaving those self-same ministers struggling through swamps of hostile media coverage as their pet policies were stabbed to death by stakeholders wielding the sharpest and most murderous of stakes.

The last cabinet secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, implicitly recognised the problem when he told Civil Service Live last year that "it’s very much in [ministers’] interest that we say ‘no’ sometimes." And to be fair, by last July we were seeing much stronger policy: the biggest U-turns – on forestry and the NHS ‘pause’ – had their roots in the coalition’s first frenetic weeks.

Now other key figures have accepted that ministers and special advisers weren’t adequately challenged on flawed ideas, leaving officials trying to implement policies that were unworkable – or at least un-sellable. The point is made most forcibly by Gus’s former communications chief Siobhan Benita, who – having just quit the civil service to stand for election as London mayor – is enjoying her newfound freedom to speak her mind (see interview). But new cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood and head of the civil service Sir Bob Kerslake also talk of the need to "help ministers to think about" delivery and for officials to offer "robust advice": their message, though diplomatically expressed, is clear (see interview).

There are various reasons for officials’ caution. Well aware that civil servants have a reputation for discreetly spiking ministerial wheezes that might upset the status quo, they were initially desperate to dispel any perception that Whitehall still houses the ‘opposition in residence’. They knew too that almost none of the new ministers had experienced life in government, that many Tories instinctively view public officials as bureaucrats who tend to resist all change, and that some thought the civil service had been politicised by Labour; civil servants were, therefore, much too quick to say ‘Yes, Minister’.

Sometimes, the civil service has tripped in its rush to meet ministers’ deadlines – most recently, by cutting feed-in tariffs before the energy department’s consultation had closed, leading to defeat in a judicial review. But more often, the problem seems to have been a reluctance to appear obstructive and an eagerness to please that have, in the end, served nobody except political journalists feeding on a good scrap.

It is often difficult, in the middle of a tense decision-making process, to raise objections or highlight problems that, frankly, nobody in the room wants to hear. But civil servants have a duty to speak up on these matters – for if they don’t, then someone will start shouting later on, and by then both ministers and officials may have much more invested in the process.

It is also awkward for civil servants to recognise past failures; both because of a natural defensiveness, and due to officials’ desire to protect ministers from criticism over their department’s errors. But enough time has passed, it seems, for civil servants to accept that many departments got things wrong in the early months of the coalition. The bigger challenge now is to recognise that some fundamentally misconceived policies still survive at the heart of the government’s work – as this week’s health select committee report suggests – and then to advise ministers to adopt a different tack before PR disasters turn into service delivery failures.

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Read the most recent articles written by Matt.Ross - Kerslake sets out ‘unfinished business’ in civil service reform

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