After my brief Paul-Kelly inspired comments last week about the institutional shape-shifting implications of the US presidential election. this is a second reflection on a similar theme but from a rather different angle.
Less spectacularly, but perhaps no less significantly, these brief reflections from the London School of Economics about the changing nature of civil service-ministerial relationship in the light of the Brexit planning point similarly to some important institutional shifts.
And I would argue that in these apparently specialist, technical issues of public service design and practice lie important shifts which have as much to do with the big underlying questions of trust, legitimacy and accountability as do the deep disruptions of things like the Brexit vote and the rise of Donald Trump.
These reflections, written by Dave Richards, Professor of Public Policy at Manchester University and Martin Smith, Professor of Politics at the University of York (my alma mater, as it happens!), conclude that the minister-civil servant relationship reshaping implies a deeper structural reform to elements of the Westminster model itself.
The piece asks whether the architecture and ‘operating model’ of the Westminster model is up to the tasks it now has to accommodate to successfully navigate the UK through the Brexit process.
Their largely pessimistic conclusion draws on the observation that
… forty years of reform has eroded the traditional understanding of the minister-civil servant relationship. The original tenets underpinning the relationship, established by the 1918 Haldane Report, affirmed the earlier Northcote-Trevelyan principle that the relationship should be indivisible. This was based on the convention that officials advise a minister on a subject and as such, there is no requirement for the separation of power between the political and administrative class.
The basic idea from Haldane is that Ministers and their officials are “as one” when it comes to accountability. They operate, acfording to the LSE authors, “in a symbiotic relationship whereby ministers decide after consultation with their officials whose wisdom, institutional memory and knowledge of the processes of governing helps to guide the minister.”
But a relentless program of administrative, structural and cultural reform since the 1970s has, according to the authors, introduced considerably ambivalence into the underlying model.
That ambivalence is grounded in a series of contradictory positions. Ministers praise the technical skills and expertise of their officials, for example, but criticise the absence of “appropriate” 21st century skills and capabilities.
The civil service is seen as fill of elegant policy designers but much less proficient policy implementers. This frustration often spills over into concerns that “real world” outcomes seem too hard to discern from much bureaucratic intervention and activity.
The authors argue that the traditional notion of the “trusting and unified dyad of Westminster folklore” has been replaced by “an accountability-based, principal-agent relationship between civil servants and their political masters.”
Largely driven by the Thatcher revolution, the analysis goes on to suggest that, post 1979, the relationship of trust and shared, mutual responsibility for policy became irretrievably conflict-based. Any attempt to mediate or question the government’s program was seen as either incompetence or unwillingness to “get with the program” (my words, not theirs).
All governments since then have introduced a series of changes in the minister-civil servant relationship all of which, in one way or another, have been designed to increase the power and control of Ministers over the civil service. This is the list of changes the authors provide:
- the rise in political advisors (38 in 1997, 74 in 2010, and 107 by 2015);
- the introduction of extended ministerial offices;
- an increased role for ministers in appointing Permanent Secretaries – this change raising questions over the principle of neutrality and whether senior officials seeking appointment to this level would continue to ‘speak truth unto power’ for fear of promotional non-preferment;
- changing the rules under which civil servants give evidence to Select Committees;
- the introduction of performance objectives for individual Permanent Secretaries which challenges the Westminster Model’s conception of individual ministerial accountability;
- the introduction of Departmental Business Plans – replacing Labour’s Public Service Agreements – to offer a different form of control and accountability. ‘Priorities’ and ‘transparency’ became the new lingua franca of public services as Whitehall was tasked with shifting from ‘bureaucratic accountability to democratic accountability’
A model of mutual, trust-based interdependence has been replaced by what they describe as the “binary mode of separation” underpinning a principal-agent model.
The result is that civil servants have become “overseers” of policy and democratic processes with less and less of a “power of veto” as an institutional player in their own right.
The focus, especially in a period of working through something like the post-Brexit arrangements, is on problem-solving and point interventions to ‘fix’ problems as they arise. Departmental functionalism (and the notion that specific subject-matter expertise resides in those structures) gives way to what they label “cybernetic-squad” bureaucracy. Civil servants becomes platoons of problem solvers roaming the policy landscape sorting problems out as they arise (and, presumably, as Ministers dictate) with great flexibility, agility and many of the new buzzwords of contemporary organisational ‘good practice’ performance.
Two important conclusions arise from the LSE analysis.
One is the shift in the nature of the 21st century civil servant:
In the twenty-first century, a new breed of civil servant is required with a different relationship to their political masters. Change could, for example, involve an organisational and cultural shift from a departmental-focused to a problem-focused approach which is more flexible, smaller and digitally based.
The second is that these changes reflect, and perhaps reinforce, deeper shifts in the nature of the ministerial-civil service relationship itself:
Expertise would no longer be located within a department, but to teams deployed to deal with particular projects or intractable problems. It would, however, require a very different ministerial-civil service relationship and more particularly, an overhaul of the Westminster Model.
For many, these will seem arcane questions, I imagine, of interest to a very small number of professional civil servants, politicians and public administration theorists.
But in countries like the UK and Australia, what these changes imply is a major rewrite of a central piece of the institutional architecture of our system of public governance. And those changes touch directly on questions of trust at the core of the way we design and deliver the big decisions of public policy and services.
In that sense, I would argue that these developments have as much to contribute to how we respond to the post-trust, de-centred and fracturing practices of public purpose and governance as the more spectacular events of Brexit and the advent of President-elect Trump.
If things seems to be flying apart, the big question we now confront is how to hold things together. A part of the answer to that pretty basic question is how we design these underlying, often invisible but very important systems and structures of governing from which trust and legitimacy either grow or decay.
The article is based on a longer essay which you can find here. This is the abstract:
This article argues that the principle of indivisibility in the relationship between political and administrative elites acted as a central convention of the Westminster system for much of the twentieth century. It explores how in more recent decades this principle has been challenged by the shift to a principal–agent approach. It considers the extent to which this shift diminishes the traditional Westminster model’s understanding of the minister–civil servant relationship as one based on a symbiotic interdependent partnership.
In its place has emerged a more universal command and control relationship that is seen as necessary to meet the demands of modern accountability and transparency. Such a change has fundamentally altered a long-established power-bargain between ministers and civil servants and undermined a core tenet of the Westminster model.
The article will cost you between $US6 (to rent) and $US38 (to buy as a PDF).