"Enemies of the people"? It's not Whitehall's job to carry out simplistic commands without question
The recent attacks on the civil service paint it as being incapable of making Brexit work. But senior officials are increasingly alarmed that the government is forcing them into positions that make them look stupid and out of control
As they crack on with making Brexit happen, civil servants need political leaders to treat them like adults, says Andrew Greenway. Illustration for CSW by Rob Grasso
It’s fair to say the civil service has not had a quiet start to the year.
Many civil servants, past and present, spent the Christmas period reflecting on an enervating 2016. Whitehall remained solid in the face of chaos for six months. But one got the sense that it needed one more straw to break the camel’s back. That came along rather earlier than expected.
2017 began with two bank holidays devoted to the knighthoods awarded to senior officials. These enemies of the people were responsible for delivering government policies unpopular with the Daily Mail. The first working day of the year focused on the resignation of Sir Ivan Rogers, the UK’s ambassador to the EU. The following 48 hours lingered on the ensuing fallout.
Brexit challenges what the civil service values most: continuity and certainty
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Because serving civil servants could not fight back, it fell to Whitehall’s retirees to step up. They did. Three heavyweights rushed into the ring. Sir Bob Kerslake wrote to The Times. Sir Simon Fraser was freely quoted. Sir Nick Macpherson found himself acquiring a lot of new Twitter followers. None of these former chiefs in the great offices of state are loose cannons, out of touch with the Westminster bubble. All left the government less than 18 months ago. Their former colleagues will not be a distant memory.
Their response to attacks on the civil service has been one of politely expressed anger and frustration. They have offered a proxy for feelings inside government offices throughout the land. Senior officials are increasingly alarmed that the government is forcing them into positions that make them look stupid and out of control. If there’s one portrayal civil servants won’t tolerate of itself, it is this.
"Civil servants need political leaders to treat them like adults."
Machiavellian and manipulative? Fine. Being accused of inertia? Okay. Being accused of not thinking or trying hard enough? That is beyond the pale.
The civil service can only be as effective as the administration that it serves. Unfortunately, the post-referendum vision is so far defined by the kind of country Britain won’t be rather than what it will become.
The new Britain won’t be in the EU. We know that much. But that’s all civil servants have to work with. The two other promises made by the Leave campaign that vaguely resembled a policy — £350 million a week of EU funding to go to the NHS, and slashing immigration numbers — have been abandoned at speed by leading Brexiteers. Now, these represent nothing more than "a series of possibilities".
The available detail on Theresa May’s biggest economic hook, the Industrial Strategy, is pretty much "the Industrial Strategy is the Industrial Strategy". As far as I know, it does not yet have a particular colour or hardness assigned, but that is surely only weeks away.
Provided it does not pose an outright challenge to democracy, the content of a government’s policy agenda does not concern the civil service. That is what being impartial is about. But there must be some content in it. Whitehall is good at transitioning between political administrations of different parties because they tend to bring a list of policies with them. If those plans are coherent, the bureaucracy can spin into action. If they bring an empty box, the only spinning going on is around in circles.
Inadequacies in political leadership do not give the civil service the freedom to abdicate responsibility for improving itself. I complained a lot last year about the capacity of the bureaucracy to harm itself, and expect that to continue. For as long as public officials think that signing ten-year, £120 million technology contracts is a smart idea, there is a long, long way to go.
"Resignation mutterings are growing a little louder with each passing month"
But the recent attacks on the civil service are not about whether the UK bureaucracy is fit for the digital age. They are not even concerned with whether officials are doing right by the public, whatever guff about them thwarting "the will of the people" accompanies it. The crux of the briefing against Whitehall from some political figures (including a handful of cabinet ministers) hinges on their belief that officials should serve them by carrying out simplistic commands without question. This view amounts to treating civil servants like dogs or children. When they falter, they are smacked.
In the face of this, resignation mutterings are growing a little louder with each passing month. The civil service is not about to experience a mass exodus. The actuarial mathematics of pension calculations will keep a large number of the workforce steady, watching the clock and keeping an eye out for early redundancy. But it is well worth keeping a close eye on the demographics of the civil service population in the two or three years to come. The young, the mobile, the specialist, the ambitious; their reasons to stick around are thinning fast.
The civil service’s value as a national asset has always been its capacity to serve the country by objectively and truthfully giving the best advice it can to representatives of the people. Many people believe that it could do that job better. I do. But whatever your opinion about how well it performs, the bureaucracy’s basic function should not be in dispute. Civil servants need political leaders to treat them like adults. If they do so, 2017 might improve on a rather shaky start.
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