We used to swear by the Civil Service, and now we swear at it. Ministers must still work with their civil servants, but can they understand them? Just as importantly, can civil servants understand ministers?
It seems a unique relationship, but not quite. There are analogies. at least to how the relationship between minister and mandarin show work.
We have all seen Yes Minister, and those who have been in Whitehall testify that it is more of a documentary than we would hope. (The writers had a group of inside informants and much of what happened on screen was a reflection of what was actually happening, incredibly.) The world it portrays has senior civil servants confident that they are the actual government, the permanent class who go on, while politicians come and go and are at best an annoyance. That seems to be genuine too.
Be fair to them: the civil servants are professionals who are faced with amateurs. What is a professional to do? He is the one who knows how things work, who sits where and how they will react, and what happened last time, but in come the amateurs insisting they are in charge and wanting to change things without knowing how they are set up in the first place. Any action is taken in the knowledge that in a year or a week that bumbling amateur will be out and a new man will be in with different ideas, ready to unwind all the changes.
Reshuffles are bad enough, but when there is an election it may force a thorough-going change in direction and the put-upon mandarin will be called upon to reverse all the hard work done before. In that case, there is every motivation to hold back and ensure that anything done can be reversed. That does not sit well with the political thrust to radical change. Clashes are inevitable.
John Redwood wrote recently of how he helped Margaret Thatcher to get her reforms through a reluctant Civil Service and, if I read it correctly, the biggest factor of retardation was reluctance to release any powers of the state, and consequent loss of wonted control, which is why the 1980s privatisations were so painful to do, forced to go Act by Act instead of a single Privatisation Act.
In the recent years of political chaos and serial general elections, the impermanence of political direction was a reality and the Civil Service had to carry the ship of state on an even keel with little help.
In a democracy, the Civil Service cannot be autonomous and the two sides cannot work without each other. The relationship is like that of client and accountant or client and solicitor: the professional may be tempted to think that he can work without his client, but his whole purpose is to fulfil the client’s requirements.
If an entrepreneur goes to his solicitor and asks for something impossible or illegal, the solicitor is under a threefold duty; which firstly is to advise that the proposed course as described cannot be done. Some will stop at that point thinking their duty done, but it has not been. The second limb is to analyse the client’s actual requirement, the position he or she wants to reach, and find a way to achieve it which is possible and legal. The third is to get on and do it.
The accountant or the lawyer may know the intimate detail of his own field better than the client, but the purpose of his field is to serve his client, who knows his or her own needs better that the accountant will. Just as some accountants or lawyers think they have done their bit as gatekeepers by saying ‘no’ when it comes to a limit of the possible, so may some senior civil servants, but in both cases that is wrong: the mandarin’s duty is to understand the minister’s requirement and carry it out, maybe not in the way that is requested as that might be impractical or illegal, but to fulfil the actual requirement and motivation.
The Civil Service though is a monopoly and has all the bumbling inefficiencies of a monopoly. An entrepreneur can fall out with his accountant and go to another. Therefore each practice keeps itself efficient and provides tight service to keep its clients happy. Each firm too will watch what others do and imitate best practice, so that all are steadily improved. That does not happen in Whitehall: a minister cannot just ring a rival firm of mandarins to give a better quote or which has a more specialist practice. It would be better if they could.
In the meantime, we have a dynamic relationship of political and administrative spheres, which is not working well in all ministries, through misunderstandings, timidity and reluctance.
It does take a skilled professional to read his client’s mind and interpret what is the actual end to be reached, but that is the job. It is not meant to be easy, but if you can only handle easy, Sir Humphrey, you should not be there.
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