Fixing our civil service

The Institute for Government’s latest report recommends major changes to how government is organised—such as replacing 10 Downing Street and the Cabinet Office with a new department

March 12, 2024
Image: / Alamy
Image: / Alamy

The approach to a general election is a good time to look at the institutions of the state and ask how they could be improved. In its new report, the Institute for Government’s Commission on the Centre of Government has recommended major changes to the organisation of government—including replacing 10 Downing Street and the Cabinet Office with a new Department of the Prime Minister. The Commission has also proposed reforms to the leadership and management of the civil service, including a new Department for the Civil Service.

This matters to all of us. The country needs a strong civil service—to support the elected government in developing and implementing policy and legislation, maintain the security of the state and deliver public services. That requires bright, skilled, well-motivated people. It requires strong leadership. It requires constructive, trusting relationships between officials and government ministers. Most important, the civil service needs to know what it is doing and what it is for.

It hasn’t looked like that in recent years. The civil service has variously been described as a bloated, woke, workshy, dysfunctional, remainer blob. Some of the harshest criticisms have come from serving or former ministers. This does not make for a healthy, attractive or productive organisation. It does not help the government—any government—or the country.

I don’t believe the detractors paint an accurate picture. As a civil servant for over 30 years, my experience was overwhelmingly of capable people, focused on serving the government and the public, striving for the highest standards. For all the “Remainer” rhetoric, I saw first-hand how civil servants, however they voted in the EU referendum, immediately turned their efforts to implementing ministers’ shifting policy on Brexit and ultimately achieving the outcome that Boris Johnson wanted and welcomed, at least at the time.

But it is clear that a reset is needed: to clarify the role of the civil service, strengthen the relationship with ministers and restore a sense of pride and purpose. How are decisions made about the size of the civil service, where it is located or whether officials can work at home? Where does accountability lie when government projects go wrong? What if a department doesn’t have enough resources to implement a ministerial decision? Can ministers block civil service appointments? Does the civil service have responsibilities (for example for national security or the constitution) which transcend the interests of the government of the day? Can ministers tell civil servants to break international law?

The recommendations of the Commission on the Centre of Government would help achieve such a reset, provide answers to some of those questions and give some clarity about what the civil service is (and isn’t) responsible for.  

With greater clarity will come greater accountability. The most senior civil servants should be accountable to parliament and the public—not for the substance of government policy, but for the quality of civil service advice, the implementation of government programmes, the provision of the services for which they are the responsible and compliance with basic standards of conduct.

The Commission is right to recommend that these changes be put in statute. Even in our largely uncodified constitution it is perhaps surprising that—beyond the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 and the civil service code—there are few settled rules around the operation of such a core aspect of the state. Too much has been left to the “good chaps” theory—where everyone was expected to understand intuitively what were the accepted standards of conduct, and could be trusted to abide by them. In practice, we have seen that the lack of clear, enforceable rules means ultimately nothing can be done to stop those in power acting like bad chaps. Under the proposed legislation, the civil service would remain under the direction of ministers, but subject to clear rules and parameters set by parliament. And the prime minister and the head of the civil service would be empowered to make changes and improvements happen.

Whatever the outcome of the forthcoming election, a new government will have the opportunity to show it cares about standards in public life and the quality of our governance, and to restore faith in our institutions. A new statutory model for the civil service would be an important part of that. The separate Governance Project—chaired by Dominic Grieve and of which I am a member—recently proposed a range of reforms in that area, including measures to strengthen the Ministerial Code and improve the process for appointments to the House of Lords. We also recommended legislation to clarify the role of the civil service, as well as a Royal Commission to look at its wider constitutional role. The IfG’s Commission on the Centre of Government makes a timely and valuable contribution to this debate.