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  • July 31, 2018
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UK parliament report shows damaged minister-civil service relations

As many as half the relationships between top public servants and ministers may need repair

A report from the UK Parliament has lifted the lid on the often-dysfunctional relationship between ministers and civil servants — a problem that is rarely discussed publicly.

The study, compiled by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, is based on both public and anonymous interviews, as well as research conducted by Andrew Kakabadse, a professor of governance and leadership at England’s Henley Business School.

Kakabadse’s evidence paints a damning picture of miscommunication, mistrust and a lack of professional courtesy between ministers and civil servants. He found that while some officials make “strenuous” efforts to understand ministers’ priorities, temperament and working style, there is little reciprocation from ministers.

New ministers, he said, are often “massively underprepared” for their role, their workload and how to navigate the complex hierarchy of policymaking.

Francis Maude, a former Cabinet Office minister who gave evidence to the committee, said that civil servants are not responsive to government, and use the guise of independence and impartiality to refuse tasks deemed too political.

And the stress of Brexit is exacerbating tensions. Some ministers suspect their officials of “inhibiting or subverting negotiations, and delaying or thwarting the ministers’ ambitions”.

Failed fix

It’s estimated that as many as half the relationships between permanent secretaries and their secretaries of state are in need of repair.

Parliament previously tried to ease these tensions with the 2012 Civil Service Reform Plan. However, the plan focused on how to make civil servants work better for ministers, with little discussion of the part ministers should play in improving the relationship.

According to the select committee, these tensions are contributing to the high rate of churn in the UK civil service: many senior public servants spend less than two years in their job.

The findings are reflective of previous studies done on the strained relationships between politicians and public servants. A 2017 study in Oxford’s Journal of Public Administration, Research and Theory found that ministers are more likely to blame public servants for poor results than accept responsibility. It also found that ministers don’t give civil servants recognition or praise when policy succeeds.

This tendency to blame, rather than praise, may attribute to many civil servants’ fear of failure, which holds them back from innovation and experimentation.

All around the world

Of course, this is not a UK-specific problem.

One OECD study found that the relationship between politicians and civil servants “tends to be problematic” in most EU and OECD countries. Tensions are heightened during periods of transition and when new political advisors are introduced as superiors to long-serving civil servants.

A report by the Dutch government characterised the minister-civil servant relationship as “an arranged marriage”. It said politicians often feel that civil servants are working against them, and in turn, civil servants find politicians “volatile, inconsistent, emotional or even unreliable.”

The UK report concludes that in the future, efforts to reform the civil service have to take into account how important the relationship between ministers and civil servants is. “When [it] goes wrong, we have all seen how it can cause chaos in policy and implementation,” said Sir Bernard Jenkin, chair of the select committee.

The committee recommends that the prime minister’s office should institute mandatory facilitated check-ins between ministers and permanent secretaries, during which they discuss their priorities and preferred ways of working. The Cabinet Office would ensure these take place, and provide advice, support and coaching from a third-party facilitator.

It also recommends that the UK set up a school for civil servants, to fill the void left by the closure of the former National School for Government in 2012. It would provide training and professional development, and pass on the values of the UK civil service. — Jennifer Guay

(Picture Credit: Unsplash/Eva Dang)

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