The UK Civil Service has long liked to think of itself as the Rolls-Royce of public administrations. Over the course of its history, it has navigated extensive political and economic change – notably during the growth of the British Empire and the post-War years – rather adeptly, with periodic reforms professionalising its workforce. Yet scrutiny on the Service, aided in part by Britain’s ideological shift to neoliberalism and market competition in the 1980s, has risen. A consistent reduction in the size of its core workforce has fuelled accusations that it is splutteringly ill-equipped to deal with political headwinds, notably those ushered in by Brexit. Some also point to a lack of constitutional clarity – what exactly should the contemporary Service be doing?
Finding solutions to these issues, although constitutionally hazy, would ordinarily fall under the purview of the cabinet secretary, whose role is to ensure that governmental priorities – as set by the elected government of the day – are consistently applied across the civil service. Indeed, as the head of the Cabinet Office, itself adjacent to Number 10, the role of the incumbent is to be the “coordinating brain” of the state. As far as contemporary accounts go, the best holders of the office should strive to combine competence – managing crises, advising prime ministers, coordinating departments – with apparent aloofness; they needn’t be in the headlines or drawing attention to the Service itself.
Yet as the current incumbent, Simon Case, has found, achieving this is no easy task. Since his appointment by Boris Johnson in September 2020, he has been the subject of vast press interest and, by extension, political controversy. Much of this is linked to the government’s handling of the Coronavirus pandemic, which is being methodically reviewed by the UK Covid-19 Inquiry. As hearings continue, a slew of WhatsApp messages shows Case to be annoyed and unusually frank about Johnson, calling him ‘mad’. Yet, the current inquiry threatens to further relitigate the ‘Partygate’ controversy, which eventually paved the way to the defenestration of Johnson as prime minister. Case, who was in post during the scandal, was thought to be too closely implicated with the allegations to accurately assess what had happened; the subsequent report fell instead to Sue Gray, another senior civil servant.
These developments, then, pose serious questions about the functioning and leadership structure within the Service. Indeed, as a seminal parliamentary report outlined, the Cabinet Secretary ought to be conscious of the need to uphold ‘cabinet collectivity’, or in other words, ensure that high standards are persistently followed. Whether or not one thinks Simon Case has fulfilled this is a matter of personal judgement; indeed, the current prime minister, Rishi Sunak, has refused to relieve him of his duties. Should Labour win the next election, the case for Case would be significantly weaker.
What it does suggest, however, is a deeper issue with the Civil Service writ large – the need for fundamental reform. One of the hilarities of British politics is just how much politicians -both red and blue, grey, and young – agree that Whitehall is in need of drastic change. Yet, as beleaguered public sector leaders point out, discussion around reform is too often used as a political football. The assertion that politicians often avoid talking substantively about the Service has a strong element of truth to it, with voters caring more about economic issues than the constitutional make-up of the British state.
While recent events may reflect a bleak reality – namely that the Civil Service is no longer the well-oiled machine that it was once – the dual fallout from Brexit and the pandemic has prompted the government to explore ways it can reform itself, even if it scarcely admits it out loud.
Lord Maude, himself a former minister under David Cameron, was commissioned to review the governance of the Service in the summer of 2022. Its recommendations are due imminently, but leaks suggest that he will identify a broad lack of leadership within the organisation. This could, if the eventual recommendations are enacted, see a more explicit definition of the role and responsibilities of Cabinet Secretary, thereby increasing accountability – at least in theory.
Whether or not anything does change will depend on the politics around the recommended reforms and, crucially, on the eventual publication of the Covid-19 Inquiry. Yet, as Maude himself suggests, Civil Service reform isn’t controversial per se– it just needs to be met with requisite political commitment.
Image: Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street via Flickr