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The civil servant's puzzle

The civil servant's puzzle

Civil service neutrality is seen as a key feature of government in the United Kingdom. Civil servants are appointed on merit and are a ‘permanent’ feature of the system, serving whichever party is in government. They are not machines but people closely involved in policymaking, often enough with a far better grasp of the issues than their political masters, and thereby unlikely to have no views on the merits and demerits of policies and parties. The commitment they show to a policy can make a significant difference to its success.

Politicians and the public expect both commitment and impartiality from civil servants. This puzzles many people. How can people serve a government of one party only to serve another party the day after an election? How can they provide the commitment required for the success of a policy if they do not support it?

The notion that civil servants are incapable of being both impartial and committed may be difficult to understand, especially for those involved in party politics. Adversarial politics encourages mindsets that view the world through a partisan lens. But this is second nature to civil servants.

A Civil Service Code exists that sets out the expected standard of behaviour: integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality are its keywords. But the code does little other than codify long established practice.

The most important check on civil service bias is the knowledge that a different political master may have to be served in the future. A civil servant who became too close to one party might have difficulty serving another. That does not mean that officials fail to give the expected level of commitment to a policy or party in government. Indeed, many successful civil service careers have been built on levels of extraordinary commitment to one party in government, followed by similar levels of commitment to another. Commitment is rewarded by promotion. What is often mistaken as politicisation by partisans is merely standard levels of commitment.

As Peter Riddell, Director of the Institute for Government, put it in evidence to the Commons’ Public Administration Committee: “Even in the Thatcher era—and no one would say she did not have clear ideological views—she looked, to use this horrible phrase, for the ‘can-do’ civil servants whose political views she did not know and were not necessarily sympathetic; they were people who were committed to implementing and actively advancing, rather than being sceptical.”  This bias towards ‘activism and commitment’ is quite different from ‘politicisation’.

The issue of neutrality has a habit of arising when a party has been in power for some time and looks set to be in power well into the future or when a highly contentious matter is under debate. Questioning the neutrality of the civil service can easily arise in an overheated political atmosphere. In some ways the criticism of the civil service in this way is a compliment to officials’ commitment and professionalism. Opponents of a policy would far rather that it was undermined by a lack of commitment on the part of officials.

The independence referendum and prospective EU referendum have given rise to accusations of civil service politicisation. The independence referendum may be less problematic than the possible EU referendum but in either case, civil service neutrality should be expected. Two governments are on either side in the debate on independence so each might be thought to cancel out the other if there was bias, though the resources available to the UK Government are vastly superior to the Scottish Government. But any Scottish Government official tempted to abandon neutrality in favour of independence will have to contend with the very real likelihood of having to serve a non-SNP government in the future. That constraint does not exist in Whitehall where officials have no reason to expect that a government will come to power seeking Scottish independence.

If the Whitehall machine was to be mobilised in favour of remaining within the EU, assuming that was the UK Government’s preference after an attempt to renegotiate UK terms of membership, then it would place opponents at a serious disadvantage. But the civil service contains a range of views. There will be Euro-enthusiasts and Euro-sceptics across Whitehall. Ultimately, the prospect of the politicisation of Whitehall in the event of an EU referendum will be dependent on whether civil servants expect there to be a No vote or there is any likelihood of having to serve a Euro-sceptical Government or minister in the not too distant future. That might have seemed a remote prospect in the recent past but will be concentrating minds across Whitehall and may ensure impartiality on the issue from the civil service.

Professor James Mitchell is Co-Director of the Academy of Government, University of Edinburgh

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