Thoughts for an incoming Government: a ministerial “cabinet” system for Britain?

Posted on: September 12th, 2014

Would the introduction of a cabinet system on continental lines – equipping each Secretary of State with a team of political advisers which would be his or her interface with the Civil Service and would drive policy development and implementation – improve the quality of British government? There are signs that the main political parties are interested in such a system, which is used in several European states and in the European Commission. The present Government has taken a tentative step in this direction by accepting the principle of extended Ministerial offices, comprising a team of special advisers and civil servants under the Minister’s immediate direction to undertake policy development.

Commentators discussing the cabinet system tend to concentrate on its supposed advantages. It is worth also considering its disadvantages in our political context. One can see the attraction of cabinets for those who chafe at the limits on the number of special advisers and believe that Ministers need around them a bigger team of like-minded people who share their political views. But the Better Government Initiative believes that there are some strong countervailing disadvantages:

• A cabinet system confuses accountability. The responsibility for delivering what the Secretary of State wants lies with the Permanent Secretary. If the members of the cabinet instruct officials, the Permanent Secretary’s authority is undermined. That is a recipe for muddle.
• It marginalises the rest of the ministerial team in a department. High-performing departments usually have cohesive ministerial teams in which the junior ministers help the Secretary of State to drive his programme. If this task falls to members of the cabinet it is not clear what the function of the ministerial team is. Indeed, there would be less reason for having so many Ministers. This is a point which has received no attention in the media.

Our experience suggests that Ministers get the best out of their civil servants when they know and are known by them. The civil service needs to understand directly what a Minister wants and have the opportunity to discuss it with him or her. It is unhelpful, indeed damaging, if the conversation is conducted through intermediaries. There is much supporting evidence of this problem in the conduct of recent Governments.

A large team of people who play a key role in the conduct of government but who are neither elected nor selected by open competition lacks legitimacy. This is the main reason why successive Governments have accepted limits on the number of special advisers. Moreover if each Secretary of State had a cabinet composed in whole or in part of people with a party political background, this would greatly increase the “revolving doors” problem: the risk that people would use information obtained while working in government for personal gain while subsequently working in the private sector.

In our experience the most successful Ministers have been those who build a strong and open relationship with their civil servants in which the Minister is clear about what they wish to achieve, is demanding but is prepared to listen to advice even if they do not take it. The Civil Service will be keen to help such Ministers carry out their programme both because it is very aware of its constitutional duty to do just that and because it responds to clarity of purpose. Special advisers have an important role to play as members of such a team because, understanding the political objectives of their Minister, they can help the Civil Service to develop and implement policy. They can also undertake work of a party political character which is not appropriate for civil servants to do.

It is not clear to us that a cabinet system would produce better results. The experience of its use elsewhere in Europe is not that encouraging. We have written more extensively about some of these issues in our report: Civil Service Reform – Hidden Dangers? (September 2013).