‘How do we restore trust in a post-Johnson administration?’. Such was the intriguing title of one of the events I attended at Conservative Party Conference this week.
The answers, provided by a panel that included the boss of the senior civil service union and a couple of transparency NGO types, said much about the state of our administrative state.
The discussion was hosted by the Institute for Government, the bureaucrats’ thinktank that seeks to advance education in the ‘arts and science’ of public administration. It seemed almost touching in its ambition to make sense of the relationship between ministers and Sir Humphries, just when the political masters were fighting like cats in a bag elsewhere on the conference fringe.
Still, the guest speaker, Sir Jeremy Wright MP, was on hand to provide a bit of intellectual ballast amid all the platitudes either about our maligned ‘Rolls Royce civil service’ or the need to have transparency so naked it would cancel the ability of truth to speak candidly to power for ever more.
Wright, a former Attorney General who now serves on the Committee on Standards in Public Life, tore into the current arrangements for the Prime Minister’s ethics advisor with lawyerly zeal. He noted that the advisor could not initiate investigations into ethical misconduct, nor make a determination the ministerial code had been broken, nor impose sanctions. These restrictions had chewed up two advisors under Boris Johnson, with the post currently unfilled and no firm commitment from Liz Truss to fill it. The first two of those three impediments needed changing to restore trust, he said, to make this reputation-shredder of a job attractive to anyone other than a sinecure chaser.
He did however, add an important caveat on the issue of imposing sanctions, namely that unelected civil servants should not decide the punishment for elected politicians. Trust in a post-Johnson administration is impaired by serial scandals and a sense that the rules simply didn’t apply to people in power. A reboot is needed. Rectitude, accuracy and high moral standards, Wright said must be restored, while all around us in Birmingham raged a ministerial masterclass in the precise opposite.
Dave Penman, the leader of the First Division Association (FDA), pointed to the distasteful practice of ministers thanking officials in private and then ‘monstering’ them on social media. I declare an interest – I’m a recovered Home Office mandarin and a former FDA member.
So it was interesting comparing the rhetoric of a civil service constantly and unfairly traduced by ministers with my ‘lived experience’ of ministerial decisions being frustrated by an officer class not in ideological sync with their political masters. People who believe, as Mr Penman seems, to that the civil service is constitutionally unable to oppose ministers are usually naïve or deluded. He seems neither. Obstruction of politicians’ orders certainly happens, with all the dark arts of administrative obfuscation deployed. I saw it, ministers know it, union bosses are marinaded in it. Trust goes both ways in maintaining an effective state machine.
We heard a lot about political accountability too. It’s clear that particularly in the case of misconduct by ministers towards civil servants in a very unequal power relationship there needs to be reform of a complaints process that is opaque and loaded against the complainant. This was illustrated very well by Sir Jeremy: what if there is a substantiated complaint by a civil servant against a minister whom the Prime Minister simply does not want to get rid of? Dave Penman suggested an external and independent regulator would solve the problem, but that runs the same problem of unelected officials holding sway over the fate of elected representatives. That can’t happen outside a courtroom.
Jeremy Wright raised another challenge to administrative supremacy that I have personal experience of – the appointment of very senior officials as a ‘managed’ fait accompli when a civil service board choses a short list of appointable candidates.
What if, say, a Secretary of State wants an entirely different candidate? In practice this is almost impossible because there is no one regulating the civil service panel itself, meaning senior mandarins are liable to simply choose candidates made in their own image. Woe betide the minister that prefers a disruptor or truly external candidate to shake things up in their department. The system is set up for this not to happen. In other words it is inherently untrustworthy, especially if the performance of recent internally appointed permanent secretaries is anything to go by.
The crucial point is this: we need reform to enable trust between political and administrative class to operate in an environment which is getting more not less febrile, and where we have an administration on life support almost before it has taken a breath. The behaviour of the Johnson administration severely damaged that trust – this is an inescapable and inexcusable fact. But ministers need to know that they have the backing and energy of their civil servants to impose their democratic mandate however unpalatable and outlandish that might seem.
Speaking from the cheap seats, Baroness Stowell, another former Cabinet minister and former civil servant to boot, made an observation which must have come from painful experience. There is, she said, a ‘mindset’ problem with officials that lies well beyond the traditional interpretation of ‘civil servants advise and ministers decide’. For the avoidance of doubt, this mindset transcends the political divide. The former Labour minister Margaret Hodge is famous for her description of senior officials who undermined her when in office – ‘they protect their own. I call it a freemasonry. They look after their own and really they protect themselves from outsiders.’
I’ve worked alongside some brilliant civil servants and some you wouldn’t put in charge of a toaster. Trust is not simply a matter of high standards from ministers who can, in any case, be evicted from power in an election. Indeed, the accountability of politicians to voters is in stark contrast to the difficulty of budging an incompetent bean counter, except upwards.
This dichotomy was pretty clear in the even I attended. Not much was said about senior offiicials displaying humility and self-insight, let alone sharing any blame for a breakdown in trust. Accountability was read into the evidence as an article of faith, rather than something constantly missing in action in departments where incompetence has no source and no consequence. If this government ever gets off the blocks, that sort of insouciance might yet have career-altering consequences. It needs to.
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