24 January 2022

Don’t believe the stereotypes about the civil service

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The civil service is an easy target. The media and politicians paint it as an unaccountable blob, completely detached from the real world. If they aren’t deliberately frustrating the Government’s agenda with pettifogging bureaucracy, mandarins are complacently slacking off at home and refusing to get back to the office.

Although blaming civil servants for whatever happens to be the problem of the day might make for a good story (and a helpful distraction), the reality is very different. The vast majority of civil servants I came across during my time working for the Government were incredibly smart, motivated, and determined to do the best job they could to support their ministers and the country. Many of them – especially at senior levels – worked flat-out under very tight deadlines, often including evenings, weekends, and over the Christmas holiday.

As for the claims that civil servants are reluctant to return to the office, this is also largely untrue. In my own experience, ministers continued to be supported in person, including throughout the pandemic. Matters are also complicated by the fact that there is physically not enough space in Whitehall to accommodate everyone. So, unless we expect our Sir Humphreys to work in corridors or toilet cubicles, some form of home working will have to continue.

What is more, a recent study by the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University ranked the UK’s civil service as the best in the world, so it is clearly doing something right. However, no system is perfect and there is always room for improvement. For example, the UK ranks much lower in the World Bank’s ranking for government effectiveness, with inefficiency cited as a key factor. 

A major cause of this inefficiency is the layers of bureaucracy in the civil service. I often found that requesting that one or two civil servants perform a relatively simple task would become a complex and time-consuming affair, with different teams being brought in requiring sign-offs from dozens of different people. All of this invariably leads to backlogs and delays, creating extra work for civil servants and making it harder to deliver the Government’s agenda. 

Of course, this is not the fault of individual civil servants, but of procedures which somebody long ago thought were a good idea. Rather than railing at individuals, dismantling unnecessary bureaucracy and streamlining the civil service should be the Government’s priority.

There is also a danger of groupthink. Dominic Cummings was right to highlight this problem – as it’s vitally important that the people making the decisions which impact all our lives have a range of views and are able to challenge each other. 

There will no doubt be those who say that the civil service has been captured by the ‘woke’ ideology. In fact, the issue with groupthink starts at recruitment. Rather than asking candidates for a CV and a covering letter, as is the norm in the private sector, the civil service asks people to demonstrate the key ‘competencies’ for a role by answering abstract questions like, ‘When have you seen the big picture’?

This makes applying for a job in the civil service a confusing and time-consuming process, and so it attracts a certain type of person. These applications are then assessed by people who have already been through these processes, and the result is they end up hiring people with very similar ways of thinking and approaching tasks. The result is a far less diverse intake, with white British applicants far more likely to be accepted onto the prestigious ‘Fast Stream’ programme, for example, than their black African peers.

So the civil service needs to do a much better job of attracting high performing people with different sets of skills. Part of this will be reforming the application process to make it easier for those less familiar with the civil service to apply, but there are also pay levels. Of course it’s important that taxpayers’ money is spent wisely, but if we want the best people to perform these vitally important roles, we’re going to have to look at paying them more in order to tempt them away from the private sector.

Finally, we have to look at location. As part of the Government’s ‘Levelling Up’ agenda, various departments are going to have outposts in different regions of the UK. In principle this is no bad thing, but it might make attracting top talent difficult. For example, moving thousands of civil servants to a new economic campus in Darlington is a mistake. I’m sure Darlington is a lovely place, but encouraging a high-flying City worker or a super smart graduate to move there rather than accept a more lucrative job in London will be a hard sell. 

If the Government is determined to move civil servants away from London, then it would make far more sense to do so in major cities such as Leeds, Manchester, or Newcastle, while also investing in local transport so that the people living in the surrounding towns can easily work there. 

The fact is, a job in the civil service is just as demanding as working in the private sector – it should be just as rewarding too.

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Ben Ramanauskas is a Research Economist at Oxford University and a former adviser to a government minister.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.