Whitehall’s new philosophy of well-being

Global Dashboard had its summer drinks party last night – thanks to Alex and David for hosting us, it was great fun. I particularly enjoyed talking to some of the civil servants who attended, as I’ve been thinking about bureaucracy and morality, and the question of whether it’s possible to have a ‘good society’ in a bureaucratic age. Can politics promote the good life, and if so, what is the role of the civil service in pursuit of that goal?

When the modern civil service was set up in the 19th century, via the reforms of Macaulay, Northcote and Trevelyan, it was modeled on the Chinese imperial civil service – this is why senior British civil servants are still called ‘mandarins’. The Chinese civil service was founded on Confucian philosophy, and part of that philosophy was the meritocratic idea that anyone could become a good person through the proper philosophical training: ‘By nature men are similar, by practice men are wide apart’, as Confucius put it.

So the Chinese civil service had an open exam entry system, which tested civil servants’ intelligence and aptitude in various subjects, including their knowledge of the Confucian philosophy. The imperial civil service played a central role in shaping the Confucian moral values of Chinese society. Civil servants were, in effect, the public intellectuals of Chinese society.

When it came to the British civil service, Thomas Babbington Macaulay, who set up the prototype of the modern civil service in the Raj, embraced the Chinese idea of the civil service as a meritocracy, but thought the civil service should embrace an empirical, scientific model of statecraft rather than also being guided by ancient ethical philosophy like Chinese mandarins. In an essay on Francis Bacon, he unfavourably compared the ancient Greek approach to the modern, English approach: “For Plato, the end of legislation is to make men virtuous”, he wrote, while for Bacon,  the end of legislation is “the well-being of the people”, by which Macaulay means making “imperfect men comfortable”, supplying their “vulgar wants”, improving their material circumstances.

Macaulay was deeply scornful of the way ancient philosophy focused entirely on creating inner virtue rather than trying to improve the material circumstances of society. He believed philosophy had failed in its project of creating character or virtue, while the new philosophy of science had, in a few centuries, invented such wonders as the steam-engine. He wrote: “The wise man of the Stoics would no doubt be a grander object than a steam-engine. But there are steam engines. And the wise man of the Stoics is yet to be born.”

So Macaulay thought that the aim of the civil service, and of politics in general, should be improving the well-being of the people by making life more comfortable, through science and technology. Modern statescraft should deal in facts, not airy-fairy ‘values’. And later reformers, such as Northcote and Trevelyan, agreed that the civil service should be both meritocratic in the Chinese model, and should also strive to be impartial, non-political, technocratic. This vision of the civil service abides: when Whitehall came to codify its values (this only happened last year) it enshrined the values of integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality.

But is there a contradiction here? If a civil service is impartial and non-political, does that also mean its amoral? If it is purely technocratic, then is it value-less? If a government wanted to go to war on a trumped-up cause, for example, would it be the job of the civil service to find the most efficient way of administering its masters’ will?

If the civil service aims, as Macaulay says it should, at the ‘well-being of the people’, does that not imply some moral vision of the good, or can one have a purely scientific and non-moral definition of well-being and human flourishing? (more…)

“Opening up Whitehall recruitment”, civil service style

So is the UK government opening central government job vacancies up to external applicants or not? That, after all, is what the new Coalition announced it would do just a week ago, when it said in its Programme for Government that:

We will open up Whitehall recruitment by publishing central government job vacancies online.

Sounds great, right? But then came this morning’s Treasury press notice with details of the government’s first £6bn of spending cuts – and news of a total freeze in civil service recruitment. Specifically, it says:

The civil service recruitment freeze will apply across Government departments, agencies and NDPBs. The only exceptions will be for: the graduate Fast Stream which is already underway; individual business critical appointments, all of which will require authorisation from the Secretary of State; and key frontline posts, which will require the authorisation of the appropriate Chief Executive, with monthly updates provided to the appropriate Secretary of State, Permanent Secretary or Head of Department.

Now you might suppose that even if there’s a civil service recruitment freeze, existing civil servants will still be able to apply for new posts within their existing departments – unless of course the plan is also to suspend promotions, staff moving to overseas posts and so on. 

And indeed an official I’ve spoken today confirms that of course people will still move from one job to another within their departments.

But in that case, can someone please explain to me in what sense, exactly, the government is “opening up Whitehall recruitment”?

After the vote: how would a coalition change policymaking in Whitehall?

In a post on Friday, I looked at the potential composition of a coalition government, and which Cabinet posts might be most attractive in negotiations between the two governing parties. But what would it all mean for public administration – for how business gets done in Whitehall?

First up, there’s the point that a coalition government would seem likely to lead to longer ministerial tenures. Cabinet reshuffles are politicised at the best of times, but in a carefully hammered out coalition government, they’re likely to look like the penultimate move in a drunken game of Jenga. So in order to avoid the coalition from collapsing, we can probably assume that ministers will be left where they are unless there are really compelling reasons to move them – e.g. a resignation offence. Given the sometimes absurd rapidity with which ministers have been moved about under Blair and Brown, this prospect should cheer us all.

There’s also a subsidiary uncertainty here, of whether Nick Clegg would demand and win the right to hire and fire the Lib Dem ministers in the Cabinet (or to make ‘recommendations’ to the PM). But even if he did, I still think the point about leaving ministers where they were, except in extremis, would hold: if one member of the coalition reshuffled its team while the other didn’t, it would look weak.

Second, we have some interesting uncertainties to savour over what would happen about junior ministers. Would Cabinet ministers have to work with junior ministers from other parties – and if so, would they really enjoy the confidence of their Secretary of State? Or would we be looking at entire departments becoming party fiefdoms – raising the delicious possibility of (say) a Lib Dem Foreign Office having to work with a Conservative DFID?

On a related note, I suspect a coalition government might well lead to a sharp rise in the number of Special Advisers, as the complexity of working through party political implications of policy suddenly increases by an order of magnitude.  In a scenario of junior ministers hailing from different parties to their Secretaries of State, it wil be interesting to se whether junior ministers get their own advisers – as is already informally the case in a few departments in Whitehall.

But in particular, coalition government would clearly lead to a seismic shift in cross-Whitehall co-ordination mechanisms – above all the Cabinet Office and the private office network (the all-important web of relationships between ministers’ Principal Private Secretaries in different departments). In one sense, of course, these mechanisms are extremely well-versed on brokering agreement between departments warring over policy. It’s what they do for a living. But on the other hand, a Whitehall turf war starts to look very different when two political parties are involved – risking, at worst, the sustainability of the coalition itself.

Maybe the Cabinet Office would rise to the challenge and prove itself able to bang heads together in coalition government as in other contexts.  The problem it faces, though, is the extent to which recent years have seen the Cabinet Office evolve towards being a de facto Prime Minister’s Department. Could it still be perceived as neutral if it were regarded as answering to the PM rather than (as traditionally) to the Cabinet as a whole – and hence to one member of the coalition more than the other?

Above all, there’s the question of where inter-ministerial discussions would actually happen. Would Cabinet – and its associated subcommittees – be the where the action takes place on inter-departmental (and hence inter-party) negotiations? Or would the real work shift towards back-room deals between party leaders and party machineries?

One might expect Her Majesty’s Civil Service to take a particularly lively interest in the answer to this question, and to do everything they can to nudge the answer towards the former. Sue Cameron‘s column this week demonstrates the acuteness of civil servants’ hopes and fears for a hung parliament…

The question is whether civil servants will be allowed much of a role in any negotiations. There are hopes that in a hung parliament they would be able to claw back some of the influence that they have lost to political advisers. This would be most welcome given that policy performance in recent years has so often been so poor. I fear it is far more likely that politicos in a hung parliament will insist on their personal aides/courtiers/spin doctors being in charge of all horsetrading.

Sounds about right to me – though I’m much less of a standard-bearer for Northcote-Trevelyan than Sue is, and so view this prospect with more equanimity than she does.

[Read the rest of our After the Vote series.]