Guest post – Ministers vs Civil Servants

Due to annual leave, sick leave and teaching prep over the last few weeks my blog has taken something of a backseat. I’ve drafted a number of posts but haven’t yet got them finished. So while I try to get my head above water again I am pleased to have another guest post from Professor Eddie Frizzell, Visiting Professor in Public Service Management at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh.


Ministers vs Civil Servants: Time for more FOI?

The West Coast Rail franchise fiasco raises again the question of accountability when things go badly wrong in public service delivery.  In central government the debate is about whether Ministers or civil servants should carry the can, and in the case of the cancelled contract with First Group Ministers were quick to blame their officials for alleged errors in the calculations.  Meanwhile, Opposition politicians are keen to ensure that Ministers do not pass the buck, while the Chair of the Westminster Public Accounts Committee (PAC), the Margaret Hodge MP, appeared to conclude before hearing any evidence that the civil service was definitely at fault. Writing in the Times on 9 October 2012, she also called for civil servants to be accountable to Parliament, and for Committees to be able to summon civil servants to explain their actions. 

Mrs Hodge has been on something of a campaign to hold individual civil servants to account ever since her appointment as Chair of the PAC in July 2010, and has previously complained about obfuscation by officials and lack of frankness in evidence given to her Committee.  However, to extend to a range of officials the longstanding Westminster convention that Permanent Secretaries, may – as Accounting Officers – be called before the PAC to account for, mainly, financial management, and to make all civil servants answerable to Parliament, would be a major constitutional change unlikely to find favour among Ministers or officials.  In the UK the position is that civil servants answer to Ministers and that Ministers are accountable to Parliament, subject to the convention noted above.

On the face of it, there could be advantages in terms of accountability, and transparency, if the net of Accounting Officers (or “Accountable Officers” as in Scotland) were widened.  It may be fair to argue that Ministers should not be expected to delve into, far less understand, the minutiae of major procurements like the rail franchise, which rely on multiple complex assumptions, calculations, and financial assessments reliant on the work of Departmental economists, legal advisers, Treasury  wonks, and well paid private sector consultants.  But, it might also be contended that Permanent Secretaries, with large, complex organisations to manage, should likewise not be expected to know every fine detail of Departmental business – though the PAC has never been sympathetic to that proposition.

There are, nevertheless, downsides. One is that individual civil servants are constitutionally indivisible from their Ministers (and vice versa, though it seems Minsters no longer see things that way) and cannot publicly disagree with their political masters.  Even Permanent Secretaries are restricted in what they can say, within the confines of their Accounting Officer responsibilities. Another downside would be the temptation for some Committee members to grandstand and pursue cheap headlines, and there is a question mark over whether enough of them have the skills and competences for forensic examination. Committee questioning of James Murdoch of News International over phone hacking by the News of the World justifies such doubt.

However, despite civil service reforms over the past 25 years, the issue of accountability remains unresolved.  The gold standard insight into how knotty the problem is remains the famous BBC interview in the 1990s by Jeremy Paxman of the then Home Secretary, Michael Howard MP, over the respective roles of the latter and of the Chief Executive of HM Prison Service in the dismissal of the Governor of Parkhurst prison.

Whatever the doubts, the Scottish Parliament has since 1999 been able to call a range of civil servants before its Committees.  As in Westminster, Accountable Officers – the Permanent Secretary, Agency and Quango chiefs and other top brass – may be required to appear before the Scottish Parliament’s own PAC (Public Audit Committee), but they and other officials may also be called to explain legislation and policies to a variety of other Committees. For the most part these are polite encounters, with sensitivity shown to what civil servants are allowed to divulge, though on occasion former Ministers serving on Committees seem to have succumbed to the temptation to settle scores with officials dating back to when they were previously in office.

Whatever the position in Scotland, blaming officials for setbacks risks becoming the norm in Westminster. Civil servants have even been blamed for what went wrong in the 2012 Budget, so the odds on being scapegoated if you are unfortunate enough to work for the Coalition seem to be shortening.  Perhaps the time has come to reconsider the sacred “no go” area in Freedom of Information (FOI) and start bringing advice to Ministers into the public domain. This is of course anathema to most senior civil servants and to the Whitehall mandarinate, whose objections are that extending FOI to advice to Ministers would undermine the trust between Ministers and officials, and constrain the latter’s willingness to “speak truth to power”.

These are important considerations, but they reflect a view of the relationship between Ministers and civil servants more in tune with the middle of the 20th Century than the second decade of the 21st. Mutual trust between Ministers and civil servants has been ebbing away in Whitehall for years, with the result that Ministers nowadays mostly prefer the enthusiastic advice of ambitious special advisers, some fresh from university political activism, to that of experienced officials.

By the same token “speaking truth to power” is regarded as obstructionism and has been withering away since the Thatcher years when not “being one of us” was distinctly career limiting. In fact, opening up advice to public view may revive the practice – and raise the game of officials and Ministers alike. If the public were to know who advised what to whom, and who decided what, there would be no hiding place for anyone – which is precisely why Ministers would not like it any more than the mandarins. But accountability would be sharpened, and that would presumably be welcomed by everyone else, including Mrs Hodge.

Eddie Frizzell

October 2012

Published by iancelliott

Senior Lecturer and Director of Education (PGT) at Northumbria University, Newcastle. Chair of the UK Joint University Council (JUC). Interested in all things public service.

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