The resignation of the UK’s Ambassador to the European Union, Sir Ivan Rogers, in the context of continuing uncertainty about Britain’s Brexit negotiations, has prompted some timely reflections about the value and impact of the traditional notion of an impartial and professional public service capable of advising governments of different political persuasions.
It has also provided an opportunity to engage a couple of other hot topics in the discussion about civil service values and impact. One is the role and value of expertise. Another is the ability to speak truth to power in the pursuit of good policy and good government.
These questions can appear somewhat abstruse and distant from the more flamboyant debates about declining trust in government and the apparent crisis of expertise and elites in a post-truth world. But of course, they are completely related.
Unless we can rescue some of the essential qualities of the best traditions of the ciovil service’s contribution to public work – impartiality, honesty, evidence and analysis and rigour – we’ll have little chance of turning around some of the more alarming signs of an eroding base for good governance and effective decision making.
In January, a former colleague of Sir Ivan’s, John Kerr (a name with a weirdly resonant connection to Australia’s public governance debates) wrote a piece in the Financial Times that brought out some of the important lessons from this episode, Kerr was himself the UK’s EU representative in the early 1990s and worked as a permanent Under Secretary in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office from 1997 to 2002.
He notes that, during his career, he advised Ministers in both Labour and Tory governments – Peter Carrington and Denis Healey on defence, Chancellors Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson – and negotiated in the EU for prime ministers Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair.
Kerr explains that Lord Carrington “was at pains to ensure that everyone around the policymaking table, even juniors like me, had their say. I later learnt that this was as wise as it was polite.”
Similarly, Geoffrey Howe’s Budget-making “was a collegiate process, with minority views exhaustively explored”. And, he explains, the permanent representative from Brussels “had a speaking-part in Mr Major’s EU cabinet committee, precisely in order to alert his political masters to potential elephant traps.”
Kerr’s analysis continues:
Shooting the messenger because the message is unwelcome is both unfair and unwise. If Sir Ivan Rogers was forced out because he was courageous in doing his job, one can only hope, for the government’s sake and the country’s, that his successor will not be deterred from being equally honest. We cannot dictate Brexit terms: it makes sense to listen to informed advice on how particular proposals might play in 27 other capitals. To dismiss realism as defeatism, and damn dissent as disloyalty, is to court disaster.
Kerr suggests “the first rule of good policymaking is rigorous pre-launch testing. The officials who will be required to implement the policy should never learn of it from a speech, tweet or press release, or from a special adviser: they should hear it from the horse’s mouth, round the ministerial table, with objections actively solicited and practicalities explored.”
There’s a very practical reason that’s worth doing, apart from the notion that robust “pre-launch testing” might make the final result stronger and more likely to last the distance. “If one believes one was “present at the creation”, Kerr suggests, “one has an enhanced sense of ownership of the policy. Good politicians positively welcome searching in-house debate: the aim should be to ensure that no issue subsequently raised in cabinet, in parliament, or by the other parties to a negotiation, comes as a surprise.”
So, the basic rule – no nasty surprises – coupled with a designer’s instincts for prototyping and rigorous testing in, as far as possible, fairly safe “lab” like conditions, makes for better policy outcomes.
Another important rule, as Kerr explains it, is to avoid small circles.
The minister needs to hear not just from mandarins and policy wonks, but also from those with hands-on experience in each particular policy area. Keeping the circle too small leads to disasters like Mrs Thatcher’s poll tax.
Later in the piece, Kerr has this to say about the risks of small circles:
And is the circle yet wide enough? Parliament has been kept at arm’s length, and there is no sign of a green paper. While the Conservative party may not be much interested in Scotland, the consequences of ignoring the Scottish government’s plea for continuing single market membership, and its reminder that Scotland has a different attitude to immigration, could be momentous.
Kerr then goes on to reflect on some of the more practical aspects of the Brexit decision and the way in which an impartial, dissent-enabled civil service, might have helped. He is not critical of Teresa May’s need to take time to decide how to approach the Article 50 trigger process. This is one of the most complex and significant postwar decisions Britain has faced. “Preparation makes sense.”
But was it wise, he wonders, to pick a March trigger date, meaning the UK proposals play into the French presidential election? Marine Le Pen is likely to find much to admire in them, Kerr thinks. Was Foreign Office advice sought before the date was picked? Was Sir Ivan consulted?
And, more particularly, was he consulted before Mrs May promised, at the Conservative party conference in October, that the authority of EU law in this country would be ended, with no return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice?
He then concludes this part with a reflection:
…this means hard Brexit, because the EU’s founding principle is the concept of common laws interpreted by a neutral umpire. Quite apart from the doubtful negotiability of cherry-picking, if Mrs May’s words are taken literally, as they are in continental Europe, it is hard to see how we could remain in the single market or the customs union. Speeches should ideally reflect, not determine, policy.
Kerr is clear that the 19th-century Northcote-Trevelyan settlement “gave us an honest, apolitical public service, appointed solely on merit, with the duty of speaking truth to power, whatever the personal consequences. It is the envy of our American friends, now facing a year of empty desks as new political appointments are made. We denigrate it at our peril. We must make full use of it now.”
And there’s a nice story to finish.
When he was working for Nigel Lawson, the Chancellor asked him about the political views of a candidate for a post in his office. Kerr’s answer, “probably pompously” suggested that “if I knew, which I didn’t, I would certainly not tell him: all he needed to know was that she was brilliant, and would be so loyal that she would tell him whenever she thought he risked making a mistake.”
Greatly to his credit, Kerr remembers, Lawson agreed that he shouldn’t have asked in the first place.