The ‘public service bargain’ that governed the relationship between ministers and civil servants since the 19th century is eroding, writes Patrick Diamond. Ministers still invariably get on with their departmental officials behind closed doors, but the structural relationship is being fundamentally altered.
Not surprisingly, the shock resignation of Sir Philip Rutnam as Permanent Secretary at the Home Office led to a flurry of speculation, not only about Priti Patel’s political future, but the state of the governing machinery. A number of important questions have been raised concerning the personal conduct of the Home Secretary, alongside the capacity of the Home Office to carry out its challenging agenda during a period of precedented flux in the immigration system following Brexit, amidst emerging threats to Britain’s security. Aside from the difficult circumstances, it is unprecedented for a Whitehall permanent secretary to resign so publicly, threatening to sue the government for wrongful dismissal while openly attacking ministers. Rutnam’s departure highlights the ongoing debate about the future of the UK civil service in an era when radical Whitehall reform is being pushed by Boris Johnson’s administration at the behest of his key strategist, Dominic Cummings. Whitehall mandarins find themselves in the unfortunate position of being the new ‘enemy within’.
It is important to restate that there is nothing especially new about ministers and civil servants having disagreements about the execution of government policy. Richard Crossman, a Cabinet Minister in the 1960s whose diaries immeasurably enriched our understanding of the workings of British Government, had a serious falling-out with his Permanent Secretary at the Department of the Environment, Dame Evelyn Sharpe. In the 1970s, Tony Benn clashed repeatedly with officials at the Department for Industry, where his efforts to pursue socialist policies were allegedly thwarted. As Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher was notoriously combative towards those civil servants who she regarded as the enemies of institutional change. On entering the Treasury in 1997, Gordon Brown axed his then Permanent Secretary, Sir Terry Burns, along with a number of senior officials. The Blair years were scarcely immune to breakdown in trust between ministers and officials.
Nonetheless, in the last decade, relations appear to have worsened significantly to the point where the ‘Public Service Bargain’ (PSB) that determined the relationship between ministers and civil servants since the mid-19th century is eroding. The concept of the PSB was first proposed in the 1970s by Bernard Schaffer, who used it to analyse the characteristics of the British permanent bureaucracy. The PSB negotiated between elected politicians and senior bureaucrats, encapsulated in the Northcote-Trevelyan settlement of 1853, meant bureaucrats ‘exchanged overt partisanship, some political rights and a public political profile in return for permanent careers, honours, and a six-hour working day’. Ministers had to accept non-partisan, merit-based appointment in return for the loyalty, obedience, and dedication of their public servants. Christopher Hood notes that the PSB was always a fiction, yet Ministers and officials often behaved as if such an implicit contract existed.
There can be little doubt that over the last thirty years, the PSB in Whitehall has been reshaped. There are more external appointees to senior civil service posts; officials are less anonymous than in the past, while there have been efforts to make civil servants directly accountable to parliamentary committees. The ‘monopoly’ over policy-making once enjoyed by senior civil servants has been undermined by the growing influence of think tanks, ad hoc advisory committees, and ubiquitous special advisers.
Yet in recent years, the PSB in Whitehall that governed the interaction between civil servants and ministers has come under direct and sustained attack. In part, the undermining of the established PSB reflects the dissatisfaction with the Whitehall status quo among the political class. Since Francis Maude was appointed minister with responsibility for civil service reform in 2010, there have been repeated efforts to restructure the permanent bureaucracy. The size of the civil service has been reduced: over the last decade, for example, numbers have fallen from 470,000 to 380,000. Ministers are encouraged to build their own policy networks, picking and choosing civil service advice and driving their own ideational portfolio. Iain Duncan-Smith’s role as Secretary of State at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) after 2010 exemplifies the point. Duncan-Smith came to office as a policy entrepreneur having developed his signature idea, Universal Credit, in opposition with the think tank, the Centre for Social Justice. DWP officials were expected to implement the policy with minimal scope for deliberation. Not surprisingly, the delivery of Universal Credit has encountered major obstacles with repeated delays and postponement of the reforms.
The breakdown of the established PSB in Whitehall raises awkward issues for both sides. For ministers, who will provide them with honest, if unwelcome advice about the feasibility of policy proposals? The capacity to speak ‘truth to power’ is not only an important check and balance in a liberal democracy. It matters if governments are to avoid succumbing to damaging policy blunders and delivery fiascos. And in crisis management, who other than civil servants have the capacity to steer and co-ordinate the machinery of government? Politicians might find it expedient to attack the status of civil servants undermining core tenets of the PSB. Nevertheless, doing so is likely to have unintended consequences, leaving ministers more exposed in a febrile political environment.
Still, the mandarin class also face dilemmas, underlined by the actions of Philip Rutnam. Quite understandably, they feel compelled to respond to criticisms of Whitehall voiced by disgruntled politicians and the hyper-partisan media. As Denis Grube highlights in Megaphone Bureaucracy, officials are increasingly exercising the ‘power of rhetorical bureaucracy’ without shedding their non-partisan status. The former Cabinet Secretary, Richard Wilson, acknowledged that civil servants are now regarded, ‘as if we [are] figures in our own right rather than servants of the government’ (p. 191). Bureaucratic leaders feel compelled to enter the arena of public debate.
Even so, civil servants are predominantly risk-averse, a reflection of the incentives officials face in their careers. Most permanent secretaries reach the higher echelons of the Whitehall hierarchy as they have acquired the reputation for getting things done efficiently in their departments, a reflection of the appetite from politicians for less cerebral debate about policy and greater focus on operational delivery. Civil servants have sought anonymity with good reason. It remains to be seen whether the new style of assertive bureaucratic leadership is remotely sustainable, and whether ministers are prepared to tolerate it. Yet commanding the loyalty of officials requires politicians to reaffirm their commitment to a permanent, merit-based bureaucracy. Breaking up the traditional PSB unquestionably carries risks. It is not clear the British political class have fully considered the implications.
Patrick Diamond is Associate Professor of Public Policy at Queen Mary, University of London.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Paddy Kumar on Unsplash.