Our constitution, July 2012: ensure civil service impartiality

Public Service Commission to ensure civil service impartiality”

There is a story about Clare Short when she was a senior civil servant, working as Private Secretary to Mark Carlisle, who was then Education Secretary in Margaret Thatcher’s first Cabinet, that after working hard all day on Tory education policies, she would relieve the frustrations of the day by telling the Minister exactly what she thought of the Tory policies – an end-of-work break that apparently they both enjoyed.

The story does credit to both – Margaret Thatcher noted in her diary that when she had to dismiss Carlisle in her September 1981 cabinet reshuffle, he left with “courteousness and good humour” – and highlights the British civil service tradition of total political neutrality in office.

Sir Humphrey Appleby may be the most famous British civil servant in fiction. Kenny Farquharson’s sub-editor at the Scotsman headlined his article in January on the relationship between the Scotland Office civil servants and the SNP government “Keep your hands off Scotland’s Sir Humphrey”:

Previously, former Scottish Lib Dem leader Nicol Stephen – now in the Lords – has accused Housden of “pandering” to Alex Salmond. But hang on a minute. What function does a civil service have if it isn’t to pursue the objectives of the politicians it is there to serve? If a government has a policy – say, for the sake of argument, independence – should the civil servants not pursue that aim with vigour, intelligence and application? And if that government has been elected with a majority and an unimpeachable mandate, can there be any real debate about where the civil servants’ priorities must lie?

There is, if you listen carefully, a more subtle, sotto voce argument in play here. It seems to be based on the view that when it comes to the break-up of Britain, normal civil service niceties need not apply. Yes, by all means, the civil servants should show due diligence when working on alcohol pricing or transport policy, but on the constitution? Why, don’t they have any loyalty to the British state which, under a quirk of devolution, is still their ultimate paymaster?

Tony Benn once likened the civil service to “a rusty weathercock” which “moves with opinion then stays where it is until another wind moves it in another direction”. If Benn is right (and there’s a first time for everything) then there is no doubt where the political wind in Scotland is blowing from, and therefore where that weathercock should be pointing. Any reticence on the part of the civil service to fully engage with the SNP government’s mandated aims would not only be an abdication of professional responsibility, it would have the whiff of a coup. It is theirs not to reason why. They are servants of a government and, ultimately, servants of the people who elected that government.

Still, delightful though Sir Humphrey and Bernard Woolley are, the British civil servant best known on social media is the Bestest Buddy of Puffles the dragon fairy: such is the strangeness of Twitter. Puffles’ House Rules were drafted when Bestest Buddy was still in the civil service, tweeting as a baby dragon fairy in order to keep his twitter account one step removed from his job, though Rule Number One was directly inspired by his job:

Puffles does not comment on individual serving/active politicians incl MPs & ministers because the public and civil servants that Puffles buzzes around have to abide by the Civil Service Code – therefore Puffles tries to stick to that code too

The principles of the Civil Service are:

  • Integrity – putting the obligations of public service above personal interests
  • Honesty – being truthful and open
  • Objectivity – basing advice and decisions on rigorous analysis of the evidence
  • Impartiality – acting solely according to the merits of the case and serving governments of different political parties equally well

Jonathan Baume, outgoing general secretary of the FDA (formerly Association of First Division Civil Servants) said last month:

“For the FDA, the principle of civil service impartiality remains at the core of our approach to any such changes that might be implemented.”

I don’t want to get too idealistic here about civil servants, whether local, national, Holyrood or Whitehall: the trams and the tenement repair scams are looming large in the political landscape, and as was noted by a guest blogger in Better Nation last October:

While similar issues regarding public sector competence and accountability are probably more common than people realise, most such instances are of significantly less prominence than Edinburgh’s trams, and hence are probably only ever highlighted in the likes of the local press, specialist publications and with particular interest groups, not to mention the odd anorak and other obsessives.

But the point here is perhaps that the trams issue sheds some light on what might be termed the political-bureaucratic complex, which alludes to the fact that the theory of impartial and competent public servants providing expert advice to elected representatives and implementing the programme for government proffered to voters in a democratic election is slightly wide of the mark.

Whatever the flaws in the practice of civil-servantry, the principle that competent people have a tradition of public service to the democratically-elected government of the day is a sound one – certainly better than
systematic use of political appointees and consequent changes of senior management when the party changes.

That gives a continuity to administration, but – as Yes, Minister plays with – a situation where experienced civil servants may bamboozle inexperienced politicians: and it gives civil servants a certain insight into political and administrative decisions that can be extraordinarily illuminating.

For example, while pretty much everyone else I respected on Twitter was calling for the publication of the NHS Risk Register, Puffles’ Bestest Buddy, from the experience of having been a Whitehall civil servant, asked:

Is the public interest best served in maintaining the convention of confidentiality around advice to ministers, or is it, in this case best served by going against this convention given the scale of the reforms, that the register should be released?

I was also interested by Puffles’ Bestest Buddy’s thoughts on the White Paper on Civil Service Reform published last month, which he praises for the “huge amount of work and imagination” and notes that in particular

For a start, the proposals strengthen and make more accountable the role of a permanent and impartial civil service. On accountability, I have previously called for more senior civil servants to face greater levels of scrutiny for the work that they do – in particular those on six-figure salaries. This clarity I hope will make it easier for Parliament to hold the executive to account – making it clear where there is policy failure from ministers and delivery failure from officials.

Puffles himself, on Twitter, has attracted over 3600 followers precisely because he is an informative and balanced dragon fairy: this Storify commentary on an apparent breach of the Civil Service Code at the DWP Press Office over the workfare demos is an excellent example of how Puffles both illuminates and adds value to discussion – ironically, because Bestest Buddy lost his Civil Service post to cuts he is able to tweet, retweet, and Storify so usefully about events in government and civil service.

The happy state of Belgium, which continued to function normally without a government for a record-breaking 18 months while coalition negotiations continued, perhaps demonstrates the real value of a good civil service.

However achieved, we cannot afford to do without an impartial civil service.

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