Sleep-walking into politicisation

Posted on: June 18th, 2013

Sir Leigh Lewis, speaking at the launch of the IPPR’s paper on the future of the civil service on 18th June, warned against the dangers of sleep-walking into politicisation of the civil service.

“Internationally there are essentially two models of bureaucracy in a democracy. At one end of the spectrum there is the UK model in which a largely permanent, non-political Civil Service supports the government of the day. At the other end is what might be termed the ‘West Wing’ model in which almost all the senior positions that matter, other than amongst the military, are held by political appointees. Clearly either can work and both have their advantages and disadvantages, and their histories.

What I am much less clear about is whether it is possible to have a half-politicised bureaucracy which is where, as I read it, the report could take us. I suspect that like being half pregnant it may not in practice be an option, and certainly not a stable one.

Clearly we have already moved to some degree towards a more politicised bureaucracy in the UK, not least with the advent of Special Advisers. But essentially we are still very close to the non-politicised model. By contrast the report’s recommendations, if implemented, would take us a lot further along that road.

In this respect I do not believe that the proposed change in the means of appointing Permanent Secretaries would be the game changer. But I do believe that the creation of what the report calls ‘Ministerial Offices composed of Ministerial Staff’ could well be. The report recommends that such offices, with no limit on their size, should comprise a mix of civil servants, political appointees and expert advisers appointed from outside the Civil Service. Crucially all would be personal appointees of the Minister with the possibility also of the Secretary of State creating a political Chief of Staff role.

The report’s authors maintain that by virtue of such Ministerial Offices including some career civil servants they would avoid becoming purely political on the French ‘cabinet’ model. With respect that seems naïve. What creates politicisation is not the wording on the employment contract – civil servant or special adviser – but the environment in which people work. In practice such offices, and those working within them, would be almost bound to become extensions of the Minister’s personality and beliefs. The real risk is that counter arguments, difficult facts and embarrassing truths would be much less likely to reach the table, as would officials willing to tell it as it is.

The report also recognises, but dismisses, the risk that such offices could become political cocoons cut off from the rest of the Department and cites the model of how the Treasury was run under Gordon Brown as showing how such a model can work effectively. By contrast many would say that it was that model, under which most very senior Treasury officials had no access whatsoever to the Chancellor, which illustrates the very real risks of the cocoon. Would the 10p tax rate episode, for example, ever have happened if there had been a wider range of views and facts round the table before that decision was taken?

In one of their boldest claims the report’s authors say that they believe that their proposed reforms, if implemented, would pose ‘no risk’ to the core traditions of the UK Civil Service. That is a big claim and I, for one, am far from convinced. The risk, it seems to me, is that, taken as a whole, these measures could both marginalise and politicise the Civil Service.

Some may, of course, say ‘excellent and about time too’. And it is absolutely true that there are arguments for moving much closer to a ‘West Wing’ form of government just as there are arguments against. But if we are going to do that surely it needs to be a conscious and clear choice, not least because there would almost certainly be no going back from it. My worry about some of the report’s proposals is that we could end up sleep walking into considerably greater politicisation and only realise that we were there after we had arrived.”