Current Public Administration Magazine (July - 2015) - Civil Servants Blocking Government Policy ‘Unacceptable’

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Civil Services

Civil Servants Blocking Government Policy ‘Unacceptable’

It is “unacceptable” for top civil servants to veto government policies or fail to fully implement them, a senior UK minister has warned.

Francis Maude said there have been cases where top mandarins have blocked initiatives agreed by ministers.

In a speech in London, he said the civil service was too often “risk averse” and “focused on process”.

Unions reacted angrily, saying the comments could “severely” damage trust between ministers and civil servants.

Government plans to reform the civil service, including putting 10% of staff on annual probation, have caused controversy.

Mr Maude has asked a leading think tank to look at how top civil servants are appointed in other countries, such as New Zealand and Australia, and what their responsibilities are as part of a review of UK customs and practices.

The government wants a more streamlined civil service focused on delivering its major changes in education, health and welfare as well as implementing spending cuts.

‘Sterling work’

The civil service is smaller now than at any time since 1945 but ministers want changes to the culture of the organisation and a wider “can-do” attitude.

In New Zealand, officials have a contractual responsibility to their ministers to deliver policies once they have been agreed.

Speaking to the Institute for Government, the Cabinet Office minister said the civil service has “great strengths” but accountability to ministers needs to be “sharpened”.

“Once a minister has made up his or her mind and given a decision, the constitutional role of the civil service is explicitly clear, it is to implement that decision,” he said.

“Ministers from this government, and in previous ones, have too often found that decisions they have made do not then get implemented.

“There are cases where permanent secretaries have blocked agreed government policy from going ahead or advised other officials not to implement ministerial decisions - that is unacceptable.

“Such exceptional cases undermine the sterling work of the majority of civil servants.”

Culture change

He suggested many officials were crying out for changes to how they work.

“The demand for change is not just coming from ministers,” he added. “It comes from civil servants themselves.

“Many have told us of their daily frustrations with a culture that can be overly bureaucratic, risk averse, hierarchical and too focused on process not outcomes.”

Mr Maude is expected to give details of plans which could allow ministers greater discretion over the appointment of top officials and changes to how their performance is rated.

The annual objectives that top civil servants work towards will be published for the first time.

‘Loss of trust’

Union officials said that if ministers had concerns about the actions of their civil servants, there were “established” procedures for dealing with them.

“By making accusations against permanent secretaries who are unable to defend themselves publicly, Francis Maude risks a severe loss of trust between the most senior civil servants and ministers,” said Dave Penman, from the First Division Association.

“If civil servants have serious concerns about policy initiatives, they have a responsibility to raise those concerns with ministers - that is the role of an impartial civil service. Too often ministers seek to scapegoat senior civil servants for the failure of policy.

“By publicly berating permanent secretaries in this way, the government risks damaging the key relationships between ministers and their most senior officials.”

There has been a large turnover in senior mandarins since the coalition came to power in May 2010, with changes at a host of departments.

The top officials at the Home Office and the Department for Energy and Climate Change recently become the latest to announce they are stepping down.

Government adviser Lord Browne - who leads a team of non-executive directors from the City and industry brought in to improve the way Whitehall is run - has said the attrition in top officials has been “problematic”. Plans to make it easier to sack under-performing staff members were “not an attack on civil servants”, Francis Maude has told MPs.

Many of the ideas in the wider package of reforms were backed by civil servants themselves, he added.

The bottom 10% of staff face being fired after a year if they fail to improve and ministers will be given the power to choose who runs departments.

The PCS union said reversing job cuts was the best way to boost performance.

In a statement to MPs Cabinet Office minister Mr Maude said civil servants had told the government they found Whitehall to be “overly bureaucratic, hierarchical and focused on process rather than outcomes”.

He said he wanted to see the civil service operate more like a business, with a tougher appraisal system, increased accountability and a more entrepreneurial culture.

‘Smaller, pacier’

The planned changes come against a backdrop of deep cuts and job losses across Whitehall - and are likely to be resisted by civil service unions.

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS union, said: “I don’t accept there’s that under-performance.

“People work in incredibly stressful conditions. And, there’s already procedures in every government department to give support to those people who may need some extra help with development.”

He said Mr Maude should increase the number of civil servants if he wanted them to perform better.

But Mr Maude said the cuts had exposed weaknesses in the way the civil service was being run, and the reforms were vital to creating a slimmed down service fit for the 21st Century.

He told MPs: “The civil service of the future will be smaller, pacier, flatter, more digital, more accountable for effective implementation, more capable with better data and management information, more unified, consistent and corporate. It must also be more satisfying to work for.”

He said he wanted to slash the “eight layers” of management he said existed in many government departments, to “empower” frontline staff to make more decisions without referring up the hierarchy.

“This is not an attack on civil servants. Neither have civil servants been rigidly resistant to change,” the minister told MPs.

However, former head of the civil service Lord Butler accused Mr Maude of setting out “a litany of criticisms” of the service.

He said proposals to improve the performance of civil servants were always “both necessary and welcome” but added “the Civil Service should not be reviled and unattributably dumped on when ministers’ policies run into difficulties”.

‘Arbitrary’ target

Mr Maude defended plans to place the worst performing 10% of staff on a year’s probation, which Labour MP Nia Griffith said would promote a “dog-eat-dog” culture and transform the civil service into something resembling a “ghastly” reality TV show.

The minister admitted the 10% figure was “by its very nature relatively arbitrary” but evidence showed “you don’t get the focus on poor performance” without setting such a target.

“It isn’t fair to the rest of the civil servants, who work hard and are dedicated, to see the reputation of the civil service pulled down by those who are constantly under-performing,” he told MPs.

As well as looking at those at the bottom, the new appraisal system will identify the top 25% of civil servants so that good performance can be rewarded.

Mr Maude said he wanted to make the civil service operate more like a business and encourage greater “cross-fertilisation” between Whitehall and industry.

“It has often been tried. Far too rarely has it worked, but we are going to have another go,” said the Cabinet Office minister.

Senior civil servants will be expected to be more accountable before parliament for their actions and the projects they manage.

Each department will carry out a full review of the terms and conditions of its staff to identify what additional perks civil servants receive which are not in line with other “good, modern” employers.


In a change which could prove controversial, ministers will no longer be restricted to the civil service as their only source of policy advice.

They will be able to commission policy research from outside Whitehall, for example from businesses, charities and think tanks. A central fund will be created to pilot this new system.

Mr Maude said this was a “modest” proposal which would be thoroughly tested before being fully implemented.

He also attempted to calm fears that giving ministers a “stronger role” in the recruitment of permanent secretaries - the top civil servant in each department - would not undermine their impartiality - seen as a key hallmark of the British system of government, in contrast to America where top bureaucrats are political appointees.

The Government would consult the Civil Service Commission on how that could be done, he told MPs.

But Labour warned that it could lead to “a rise in cronyism and of the dangerous politicisation of the civil service”.

Shadow Cabinet Office minister Jon Trickett said the Civil Service Reform White Paper “would do little to correct the chaos which exists in many Whitehall departments”.

He added: “The point of reform is, after all, to make things better than they were before.”

(Source- BBC News)

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