The problem of an independent civil service

by | Apr 26, 2008

For English policy wonks walking along Massachusetts Avenue in Washington DC, the experience is invariably bittersweet.  On one hand, they are (they must admit) slightly awed by the concentration of great engines of think tankery within a stone’s throw of where they stand: Brookings, the Carnegie Endowment, SAIS, CFR and plenty more besides.

But then their hearts sink slightly as they remember what the London think tank scene looks like.  True, there are a couple of places – like Chatham House and IISS – that have impressive HQs and large staffs.  But they’re the exception rather than the rule.  Much more the norm – particularly where think tanks focused mainly on domestic policy are concerned – is a couple of cramped rooms with dated computer equipment, fraying carpet, perhaps a slightly musty smell in the air.

How to explain the difference?  I was debating this with a British government official earlier this week, and the answer we both arrived at is Northcote-Trevelyan: the seminal report of 1854 that introduced the idea of a permanent, unified and politically neutral civil service. 

In Washington, one of the motors of political discourse is the proverbial revolving door between government and think tanks.  While there are many problems involved in having political appointments to bureaucratic posts down to Assistant Secretary level – not to mention the inefficiency of a new Administration inevitably spending its first six months with many key posts unfilled – the one great advantage of the system is its permeability: the constant throughput of fresh ideas and news from elsewhere.

We don’t have this in the UK.  When he retired in 2005, the departing Cabinet Secretary Sir Andrew Turnbull gave a thoughtful lecture in which he compared the UK civil service with other models, including the US, France and Australia.  While he recognised candidly that “the UK model is an extreme” in that “permanency goes right to the very top”, he also argued that “our system has served us well and anyone contemplating change should beware of importing bits of other systems without thinking through the implications for the system as a whole”. 

But he did admit that the Northcote-Trevelyan system came at a price – which he spelled out in detail.  Among ten specific points highlighted in the speech, one is that “For too long the civil service was a closed world, limiting its ability to attract talent and the outside world’s understanding of it”.  But, he says, this is changing:

We no longer claim a monopoly over policy advice. Indeed we welcome the fact that we are much more open to ideas from thinktanks, consultancies, governments abroad, special advisers, and frontline practitioners. In developing policy we not only consult more widely than we used to but involve outsiders to a far greater degree in the policy making process…

I think there are two problems with that claim. One is that in my experience (both outside government as a think tank nerd, and inside it as a special adviser), the civil service is nowhere near as open to external ideas as it claims – or as it thinks it is.  The lesson that the civil service has absorbed in recent years is that making external stakeholders feel ‘engaged’ is important to the presentation and delivery of government policy – as opposed to the rather different lesson that actually listening to external stakeholders will lead to better policy. 

(I still delight in the recollection of a senior civil servant shaking his head in sorrow and incomprehension as he observed – with no sense of irony – “what did [another government department] think they were doing embarking on a consultation exercise before they’d decided on the conclusions?”)

The other problem is that even if government did listen far more to the outside policy world, that would still leave the problem that the outside policy world is woefully under-resourced for the task – in no small part because of the existence of a permanent, independent civil service. 

For one thing, most of the best graduates in the UK want to work for the civil service, not for think tanks: not only because there are more opportunities each year, but also because the opportunities come with better long-term prospects. 

Funding for think-tanks, meanwhile, is also lower due to the electric fence around the civil service.  Funders – be they foundations or companies – want (quite properly) to know that their cash leads to influence over policy.  That’s not to imply that companies want to compromise think tanks’ independence, but simply to point out that if a funder is concerned only with the ideas and not the policy relevance, then they should sponsor a university and not a think tank.

Yet influence will always be limited when the bandwidth for that influence is mainly just think tank reports (which, as Richard reports, no one reads) and media stories.  If, on the other hand, there’s every prospect that the author of research could be implementing its conclusions during the next Administration, then funders will sit up a little straighter.

These, then, are some of the problems that I think we struggle with as the result of an independent civil service in the UK.  Given that it’s impractical to think about the abolition of Northcote-Trevelyan – sacred cow that it is – how can we work around some of these problems, and towards a more open stance for policymaking? 

Partly this agenda goes back to the ideas that David and I explored a year ago in our paper on Fixing the UK’s foreign policy apparatus, as well as some of the ideas about shared awareness in our Progressive Governance paper. Government needs to move towards a more fluid model: hire and second more outsiders in; second more insiders out.

Partly it’s about using social technologies to blur the boundaries between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ without getting into tortuous discussions about rewiring the organogram.  (See my post on Whitehall 2.0 earlier this week – getting officials out there on the blogosphere would be a great step forward.)

But most of all, we just need to see less structured interactions between officials and outside experts.  The dreadful two hour ‘stakeholder engagement sessions’ should be buried forever (c.f. the Vienna / Versailles problem). 

Instead, we could (deep breath, now, people) make friends with each other. Go and talk about policy in the pub, or over dinner, or walking around the pond in St James’s Park.  Build up some trust and shared awareness, and see where it leads, for goodness’ sake.  It’s not as if there’s nothing to talk about…


  • Alex Evans

    Alex Evans is founder of the Collective Psychology Project, which explores how we can use psychology to reduce political tribalism and polarisation, a senior fellow at New York University, and author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough? (Penguin, 2017). He is a former Campaign Director of the 50 million member global citizen’s movement Avaaz, special adviser to two UK Cabinet Ministers, climate expert in the UN Secretary-General’s office, and was Research Director for the Business Commission on Sustainable Development. He was part of Ethiopia’s delegation to the Paris climate summit and has consulted for Oxfam, WWF UK, the UK Cabinet Office and US State Department. Alex lives with his wife and two children in Yorkshire.

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