Plus ça change: Ministers and Civil Servants

Under the energetic direction of the Cabinet Office Minister, Francis Maude, the current government is embarking on significant reform of the civil service. This may then be an appropriate moment to reflect on the experiences of previous Ministers in dealing with the civil service. Ministerial memoirs, of which there are many, are littered with, at times remarkably similar, accounts of Ministerial encounters and frustrations with the civil service machine.

The first extract below comes from the diaries of the Labour MP, Richard Crossman. Crossman held a number of Ministerial posts under Harold Wilson in the 1960s and his  diaries were in a number of respects an inspiration for the fictional Yes Minister. In this extract he describes the effect of being cocoon in his office by a civil service which seeks to insulate Ministers from everything beyond their own department.

Already I realise the tremendous effort it requires not to be taken over by the Civil Service. My Minister’s room is like a padded cell… there is a constant preoccupation to ensure that the Minister does what is correct… At first I felt like someone in a padded cell, but I must now modify this. In fact I feel like somebody floating on the most comfortable support. The whole Department is there to support the Minister. Into his in-tray come hour by hour notes with suggestions as to what he should do. Everything is done to sustain him in the line which officials think he should take. But if one is very careful and conscious one is aware that this supporting soft framework of recommendations is the result of a great deal of secret discussion between the civil servants below. There is a constant debate as to how the Minister should be advised or, shall we say, directed and pushed and cajoled into the line required by the Ministry. There is a tremendous esprit de corps in the Ministry and the whole hierarchy is determined to preserve its own policy. Each Ministry has its own departmental policy, and this policy goes on while Ministers come and go. And in this world, though the civil servants have a respect for the Minister, they have a much stronger loyalty to the Ministry. Were the Minister to challenge and direct the Ministry policy there would be no formal tension at first, only quiet resistance – but a great deal of it. I am therefore always on the look-out to see how far my own ideas are getting across, how far they are merely tolerated by the Ministry, and how far the Ministry policies are being imposed on mine.  R. Crossman (1975), The Diaries of  Cabinet Minister, vol.1 pp.21-2, 31.

Crossman’s comments were reflected forty years later in the memoirs of Jack Straw in recording his own experience as Home Secretary in the Blair government:

The Home Secretary’s office was a rectangular room, covering the whole of one floor, with windows on three sides, and nothing to recommend it apart from the view. It had no desk; just a large oval table at the end furthest from the door. The Home Secretary’s chair was the only one with arms. The ministerial lift gave separate access into the room, which had its own private bathroom. Everything had been designed so that the Home Secretary could avoid all unnecessary contact with mere mortals… Alone in my huge room, I came to something in the briefs which needed clarification. I walked into the Private Office. All fifteen staff stood up. I assumed that this was simply an initial courtesy. Twenty minutes later, I popped into the Private Office for a second time, and they all stood up again. I appreciated the gesture, as I told them, but I also said that they’d never get any work done if they continued like this; and the practice was abandoned forthwith. Jack Straw (2012), Last Man Standing, London: Macmillan,

Jack Straw is an incredibly patient and polite individual, but it is clear that others have found the whole experience somewhat more frustrating. For example, another Labour Home Secretary, David Blunkett, recorded in his diaries his anger at discovering that the Permanent Secretary had redrafted one of his briefs.

Week beginning Monday 18 June:… I nearly blew my top. It was a very close-run thing as to whether I flipped altogether. John Gieve, my Permanent Secretary, took a hand in rewriting my original version of the aims and objectives document in such a way that reflected how the senior civil service seek to interfere if the Secretary of State is prepared to let them – but I soon dealt with that. David Blunkett (2000), The Blunkett Tapes: My Life in the Bear Pit,London: Bloomsbury, p.275.

Blunkett also expresses his frustration at his civil servants inability to grasp political realities when drafting responses to parliamentary questions.

In answering parliamentary questions… it is absolutely vital that the whole of the story is outlined, rather than just the specific question itself answered. Very often a clever question asks for a very limited amount of information, information that is then re-presented by our opponents to demonstrate whatever point they are trying to make. It would be quite wrong not to answer the question, but to answer it more fully makes a great deal more sense politically. This is where the politics of the real world clash with the apolitical stance of the civil service, who often think that doing more than simply going through the motions is somehow to be politicised. David Blunkett (2000), The Blunkett Tapes: My Life in the Bear Pit, London: Bloomsbury, p.223.

While Blunkett’s frustration stemmed from civil servants sticking rather rigidly to established ways of operating, others have suggested a certain level of incompetence within the civil service. One of the best political diarists of recent years was Chris Mullin, who held a number of junior Ministerial posts in the 1990s, and there is more than a little Yes Minister in the following extract.

Supper with Alan Milburn and Mike O’Brien. Alan regaled us with the latest NHS crisis (there is one every day): an official has been found sitting on 1,000 unanswered parliamentary questions and he was coming in at weekends to falsify the figures, making it seem as if they had been answered. He was scathing about the civil service. “Everyone thinks they are the white knights and that we are the villains whereas the truth which we all know is that many officials are useless.’… Mike talked about the chaos he discovered at the Immigration and Nationality Department when he was at the Home Office. Once on a visit to IND he opened a cupboard and found it full of unanswered mail, having just been assured there were no more outstanding letters. A hapless junior official was summoned. His explanation? ‘We put them there so that the Minister wouldn’t see them.’ Chris Mullin (2009), A View from the Foothills, Diaries,(London: Profile), pp.263-4.  

Interestingly, the reforms currently being  proposed include holding Permanent Secretaries to account for failings in their departments rather than expecting Ministers to be responsible for all errors.

While there are undoubtedly mistakes and inefficiences, the most common complaint from Ministers is about bureaucratic inertia. Perhaps the most significant frustration has been experienced by those Ministers, and Prime Ministers in particular, who have sought to introduce the most significant reform. In her memoirs, Margaret Thatcher, recounts a dinner with all Permanent Secretaries shortly after taking office in which she set out her intention to reform the civil service.

I enjoy frank and open discussion, even a clash of temperaments and ideas, but such a menu of complaints and negative attitudes as was served up that evening was enough to dull any appetite…. What lay… behind this, I felt was a desire for no change. But the idea that the civil service could be insulated from a reforming zeal that would transform Britain’s public and private institutions over the next decade was a pipe-dream. I preferred disorderly resistance to decline than comfortable accommodation to it. And I knew that the more able of the younger generation of civil servants agreed with me… It became clear to me that it was only by encouraging or appointing individuals, rather than trying to change attitudes en bloc, that progress would be made. And that was to be the method I employed. M. Thatcher (1993), The Downing Street Years, pp.48-9.

John Major, who followed Thatcher into Downing Street, found the civil service similarly resistant to change but in this case not because they wished to mould a new government into the existing way of doing things, but rather because the prospect of an imminent general election meant there was little incentive to introduce more reform.

Initial discussions both in Number 10 and with other departments, showed that there was some useful work already being done, with Ken Clarke being particularly creative. On the other hand, there was an almost audible dragging of feet in many departments, partly because of the lack of creative energy at the top, and partly because of that inevitable playing for time that occurs when an election is in sight, particularly one where the Civil Service believes that control of government is likely to change. John Major (1999), The Autobiography, London Harper Collins, p.250.

Tony Blair, a reforming PM like Thatcher, was similarly frustrated by the inertia of the civil service and the ingrained tendency towards slow incremental change.

The Civil Service had and has great strengths. It was and is impartial. It is, properly directed, a formidable machine. At times of crisis superb. Its people are intelligent, hard working and dedicated to public service. It was simply, like so much else, out of date. Faced with big challenges, it thought small thoughts. It reckoned in increments when the system required leaps and bounds. Tony Blair (2010), A Journey,London: Hutchinson, p.206.

One way in which Blair sought to deal with this, and in some respects to effectively bypass the civil service, was through the use of special political advisors, the numbers of which increased considerably under Labour after 1997. Interestingly one of the more controversial proposals being made by the current government is to allow Ministers appoint more special advisors. In a recent article in Prospect magazine, Francis Maude wrote that:

We are improving support for ministers…We need to be able to draw on people of experience and ability. These may be found beyond Whitehall or they can be career civil servants. But what they must be is personally responsible to and chosen by the minister. F. Maude (2013), ‘Fixing Whitehall’ Prospect, December 2013, p.15.

Such proposals have led to inevitable criticism in the media that the government is proposing to pack Whitehall with ‘cronies’. The government may also have some trouble persuading their existing civil servants about the value of this proposal. The final word on this goes to Richard Crossman.

 I should say that in general I have found profound resistance in the Civil Service to a Minister who brings in outside advisers and experts, and profound resistance to interference by anybody with direct access to the Minister. What they like is sole Ministerial responsibility because they are convinced that under this system the amount of outside influence exerted is minimal. Richard Crossman (1975), The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister, Volume One Minister of Housing, 1965-66, London: Jonathan Cape, p.614.

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One Response to Plus ça change: Ministers and Civil Servants

  1. Peter Rose says:

    This is a topic i address all the time on my blog, GrumblingRose.
    People like Jeremy Heywood are like a dead hand on democracy; never happier than when they are demonstrating how powerful they are by denying the rest of us access to information that should, legitimately, be in the public domain.
    Check my blog:

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