12 propositions on civil service reform

constitution, democracy, leadership, political events, political ideas, political ideas, reform, UK politics, US politics, world politics

Author(s):  Ben Rogers, Guy Lodge
Published date:  12 Sep 2006
Source:  Transformation

Ben Rogers and Guy Lodge from think-tank ippr, make the case that the drive towards public service improvement must include reform of the civil service .

Over the last 18 months ippr has undertaken a hard look the challenges facing the Senior Civil service and how it might best be reformed to meet them. Among other research, we interviewed over 65 senior civil servants, ministers, and public, private and voluntary sector stakeholders who had worked closely with Whitehall. Our interviewees tended to agree in arguing that while the civil service has adapted and improved in many respects over the last few decades, it is weak at strategic thinking, leadership and line management, and joined-up working.  We in turn suggest that these weaknesses are traceable to or manifestations of a 'governance vacuum' at the top of Whitehall. Roles and Responsibilities are ill defined and lines of accountability confused.

The civil services governing conventions – above all the convention of ministerial responsibility – worked well enough when departments were small and civil servants were expected first and foremost to support ministers in developing policy and managing Parliamentary business. But as government has grown, and the civil service taken on greater responsibility for delivery or outcomes, so the traditional conventions need recasting. We argue, in particular, for giving the service a stronger centre, and ensuring that civil servants are made more externally accountable – especially for operational, as distinct from policy, matters.

It goes without saying that the civil service has a vital role to play in improving public services – the subject of this Transformation. We believe that too often in the past the weaknesses we have identified in Whitehall have hampered public service improvement – though civil servants have gained a greater de-facto responsibility for service delivery, these responsibilities have not always been clearly defined or performance supported or scrutinize.  We argue that giving mandarins a more formal responsibility for operations will  encourage a more professional and focused approach to public service delivery.  We also believe that will help create a less upward-looking,  more open Service, better able to work with other public agencies, civil society and the public.   


  1. The Senior Civil Service is one of the most important institutions in the United Kingdom.  No government of any colour will be able to achieve its aims without a high performing Civil Service.  This is particularly true of a government, like the present, which has made public service reform a priority.

  2. The British Civil Service is admired throughout the world. It attracts an exceptionally high calibre of entrants; it has high standards of probity; the public it serves largely trusts it.
  3. If an institution is under-performing this is usually largely because of the way it is organised and governed rather than because of any inadequacy in the people working for it.
  4. Despite its qualities, the Civil Service is under-performing in key respects. It is often ineffective in carrying out its core functions of policy design and operational delivery. Too much Whitehall activity is undermined by its inability to work effectively across departmental boundaries; by a narrow skills-base; and under-developed leadership. It lacks a strong centre able to think strategically, manage Civil Service-wide change or drive standards up. Performance is poorly managed and poor performance too often goes unchecked.
  5. These weaknesses are not new and have long been recognised. Indeed the civil service has been subject to a long succession of reforms like The Fulton Reforms, the Next Steps Reforms, and most recently the Modernising Government reforms,  intended, but frequently failing, to address them.

  6. The constitutional conventions governing the civil service and regulating its relation with ministers, Parliament and the public are now anachronistic and severely inadequate. This is particularly true of the most important of these: the convention of ministerial responsibility.  Together these conventions entail that relations between ministers and civil servants are ill defined, and their respective roles and responsibilities unclear.  As a result there is a ‘governance vacuum’ at the top of Whitehall: lines of accountability are confused and leadership is weak.
  7. Many of the Civil Service’s weaknesses are traceable to its inadequate system of governance and confused lines of accountability. The absence of a strong centre, for instance, stands in the way of joined up government.  The ambiguities in the doctrine of ministerial responsibility, enables Ministers and Civil Servants to duck and hide behind each other.  
  8. Previous reform efforts have not addressed the inadequacy in the Civil Service’s governance arrangements.  Instead of seeking to reform the way the civil service is governed, they have focused on second order problems and left its constitutional conventions, and so its basic accountability structure, in place. That is why many of the problems that they were meant to address persist.
  9. Government should reform the governance system of the Civil Service as a priority. It needs in particular, to recast the doctrine of ministerial responsibility.
  10. There are, broadly, two options for reforming the way that Whitehall is held to account. Firstly, Ministers could, as in the US, make a reality of ‘ministerial responsibility’ by appointing senior civil servants. Ministers would then be responsible to Parliament, and ultimately the electorate, for every aspect of civil service performance, the convention of ministerial responsibility could be reformulated, making politicians responsible for ‘policy’ decisions and civil servants responsible for ‘operational’ ones. Means then need to be found to ensure that both are made properly accountable to Parliament and the public for the way in which they handle their responsibilities. 

  11. It is possible to combine elements of these two options.  Nevertheless the second is generally preferable. Britain already has a strong executive, and giving it further powers to appoint and dismiss civil servants would risk strengthening it further. Introducing a clearer division of responsibilities between ministers and mandarins and improving the arrangement by which both are held to account would improve government performance.  The New Zealand Civil Service has been loosely reformed along the lines outline above, with departmental heads appointed and managed by a State Service Commissioner. Ministers are still responsible for policy, but the State Service Commissioner and departmental heads are held responsible for operationalisation. 
  12. Both ministers and civil servants stand to gain from a greater demarcation of responsibilities.  Civil servants will gain a new independence and a higher public profile.  Ministers – and ultimately the public - will get a professional, better managed, more strategic and more outward looking civil service. 

Adapted from Whitehall’s Black Box: Performance and Accountability in the Senior Civil Service by Guy Lodge and Ben Rogers (ippr) available at: www.ippr.org/publications


Our people

Guy Lodge, Associate Director for Politics and Power