The civil servant is stereotypically portrayed as a middle-aged man in a pin-striped suit, walking along Whitehall, equipped with a bowler hat and a furled umbrella. The civil servant is depicted in an unflattering light, as being stuffy, arrogant and possessing a world-weary cynicism and an insensitivity to ordinary people’s feelings1. To most of the population, the civil servant was epitomised in the television programme ‘Yes Minister’, where the civil servants would pull all the strings, with the minister being the puppet to their wants and needs. The civil service has changed dramatically since this era.
This essay will look at the main defects of the civil service and asses whether these defects have been remedied; and whether the change of civil service had created any further defects. By the mid-1960s, there was growing criticism that the civil service was ‘amateurish’ and incapable of tackling the problems of the modern state. Criticism also focused on the allegedly excessive power possessed by civil servants, especially their negative capacity to obstruct ministerial policies of which they disapproved2. Some analysts spoke of a ‘crisis’ in the civil service.
Such attacks were given formal recognition in the Report of the Fulton Committee in 19683. The report identified some of the main defects of the civil service, what was recommended, and what was done to rectify the problem. The first issue refers to the generalisation of civil servants. Most civil servants were required to have a broad expertise with very little specialisation. Although the specialisation of civil servants was rejected in the late sixties, the civil service today is far more specialised with civil servants often being ‘head hunted’ for their particular skills and experience.
After 1979, under the Conservative government, the UK Civil Service underwent its most radical reforms since the Northcote-Trevelyan Report of 18544. The reforms were driven both by economic need, (the UK was still recovering from the oil price shock and the IMF intervention of 1976), and a new political agenda. The State was too large, consuming nearly half of GDP, with government services too costly and inefficient. The private sector was by definition more efficient & provided better value for money. Private sector practices and techniques could be applied directly in the public sector.
Several key reforms, including the creation of Executive Agencies under the Next Steps programme, were led by senior private sector figures seconded to the civil service. In a series of separate initiatives, successive Conservative governments led by Thatcher followed by Major, pursued a drive for increased efficiency and effectiveness. These shifted the focus of most civil servants towards delivery of services, separating policy functions which were left in Departments, from delivery functions which were mostly restructured into Executive Agencies, and challenged and dismantled the state monopoly of many services.
Utilities were privatised, with the State now acting as regulator. Support and delivery functions which used to be placed in government were put under the spotlight and tested against an eager and growing services industry in the private sector. The reform programmes were characterised by: the delivery of services the public wanted; when and where they wanted them; tighter financial discipline; competitive tendering for services; specific targets with closer monitoring of the targets; and greater personal accountability. The concept of ‘New Public Management’ began to take shape.
The impact on the Civil Service was stark. In the period from 1976 to 1999 the number of civil servants reduced by 40%, from 751,000, working in mammoth departments, with their main focus on policy advice to Ministers, to 460,000, with 78% of these working in 138 new Executive Agencies and equivalents. These Agencies were managed by ‘contract’ with their Departments and focusing on service delivery. The old uniform departmental hierarchies with 15 general grades from permanent secretary being the highest, to clerical assistant being the lowest had been abandoned.
A new Senior Civil Service was formed from the top 5 grades and career-managed from the centre. All other pay and grading was decentralised to Departments and agencies, and the central Civil Service Department had been abolished. Many services had been privatised altogether, with the example of Information Technology. Some major defects of the civil service had been rectified by these changes, especially in terms of efficiency and cost reduction. However, there were some critical weaknesses. The reforms concentrated on management issues but neglected policy advice.
The strong focus on efficiency and targets for individual organisations meant that cross-cutting policy issues were harder to tackle. These are in terms of the difficult social policy issues, such as drug abuse, homelessness, and truancy from schools, which don’t fit neatly into the functional responsibility of any one Department. Accountability was more difficult to define with the two-tier approach. The situation occurred where the executive agency could blame the department it belonged to, and the department could blame the executive agency.
Since taking power in 1997, the New Labour government has built on the previous government’s management reforms, not abandoned them. Although pleased by the smooth hand over of power after 18 years of Conservative rule, the new Labour government saw the Civil Service it had inherited as behind the times in a number of ways5. The new government’s policy for the future civil service was first set out in a policy White Paper, Modernising Government6. The paper had three aims.
Firstly, ensure policy making is more joined up and strategic. This has involved strengthening the strategic capability at the centre of government. Secondly, making public service users the focus, by matching services more closely to people’s lives. This has focussed on arranging the delivery of services in ways that make sense to the citizen, rather than being driven by the division of departmental responsibilities, and making full use of information technology advances.
And finally, delivering high quality and efficient public services. Departments now sign up to Public Service Agreements (PSAs). These 3-year, published agreements set out in detail the outcomes people can expect from departmental expenditure, and explicit performance and productivity targets for each programme. The Civil Service senior management board, led by the Cabinet Secretary, set out their own programme of reform measures.
This included stronger leadership; improved business planning; better performance management; new targets for increasing the number of women and ethnic minority staff in the Senior Civil Service; and more openness to people and ideas, with more senior posts being openly advertised, and more interchange between civil servants and other sectors. In conclusion, as our House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee put it in a recent report: “The Civil Service cannot be frozen in a mould appropriate to one particular era, but must instead constantly change and reform if it is to meet the changing demands of government….
An elegance in relation to process needs to be matched by a robust commitment to attaining effective outcomes”7. The thirty years of reform have had a radical and transforming impact on the UK Civil Service. There has been a shift in the civil service from being organisation-centred towards being citizen-centred, from being status quo oriented towards change-oriented, from being process-oriented towards results oriented, and from being monopolistic towards competitive.
UK Civil Servants today are in no doubt about the expectations on them, their own personal performance targets, and how these relate both to their departments’ and the government’s policy objectives and outcomes. They must be experts not only in the traditional skills of policy formulation and briefing, but also in managing successful implementation of those policies (project and programme management are now core competencies for the Senior Civil Service), and in working with colleagues across government, and in the non-state sectors, to achieve it.
They work with colleagues who enter (and leave) the service at all levels and they themselves will be expected to get experience of the outside world if they wish to progress. They are expected to demonstrate leadership and take risk, while at the same time upholding the traditional values of impartiality, openness and propriety.