Lack of clarity in election rules causing problems, says IfG

A lack of clarity on pre-election rules are causing officials to “do things on the sly for ministers”, according to the Institute for Government (IfG), which has this week published a report into the final year of the coalition government.

Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire/Press Association Images

By Winnie.Agbonlahor

08 May 2014

Akash Paun, IfG fellow and co-author of the report, said that 30 interviews with senior civil servants carried out for the report have shown that “a lot of people in Whitehall are crying out for clearer rules" on how to work with the two governing parties in the run-up to the next election.

In the final year of coalition, the report notes, the Tories and Liberal Democrats "will be developing different policies for their respective manifestos, and in areas of disagreement there will be no single government line for civil servants to help develop or advise on”.

Instead, it says, officials may find themselves asked by ministers to help develop policy in private for just one side of the coalition, “pulled in two directions, under pressure from competing ministers to help develop contradictory positions”.

The report makes eight recommendations for how to clarify the rules, including a call for “separate and confidential channels through which each of the coalition parties can access civil service support”.

The absence of rules often leads to policy development becoming undermined in the final year of government, the report said. One senior civil servant told the IfG that: “We don’t want to grind ourselves to a halt by our own paranoia about the purpose of helping the current government of the day with their current policies.” The situation is even more unclear for arms-length bodies, they said, as there is “nothing that really covers that”.

A further issue raised was about how the civil service should engage with opposition parties. Even though there are rules set out in the Cabinet Manual, Peter Ridell, director of the IfG, said the wording is so ambiguous that it leaves ample space for interpretation, leading to practices varying between departments.

“The rules,” he said, “are being interpreted in different ways by different permanent secretaries depending on their own self-confidence, the attitude of the incumbents and also the shadows, who are often suspicious of the civil service.”

This lack of clarity, Ridell added, comes from a “classically British ad-hoc way of making it up as you go along” and a current “reluctance to over-formalise”.

Head of the civil service, Sir Bob Kerslake, said in a Q&A session of a Public Chairs Forum event on Tuesday: “We accept there is going be some variation, but we work quite strongly together as a group of permanent secretaries at getting a consistent understanding of how we approach this issue.”

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