According to Dominic Raab, who has just resigned from the Cabinet in response to findings of bullying, his civil servants have been guilty of “systematic leaking of skewed and fabricated claims” against him and all but two of the eight formal complaints of bullying against him were rejected. With other Conservative Ministers recently having also faced bullying charges, clearly something isn’t working in the relationship between Conservatives and the civil service.

The immediate tough choice for the Prime Minister is what to do with the six claims that were apparently unsubstantiated. Anonymous civil servants should not be able to take a free shot that could end a Minister’s career without facing some consequences.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that people who want to work in the public sector are likely to be more pro-public sector than average. This might make them seem more left wing, especially to those of different persuasion.

Although arguably the Blair government politicised government, for example by appointing one career politician (Ed Balls) as Head of the Government’s Economic Service and another (Keir Starmer) as the Director of Public Prosecutions, the problem is much more intrinsic than simply recent abuse of government patronage. The public sector and the left have been historically intertwined. 

But whereas in the past this has been just one fact amongst many with which Tory politicians have to deal, the level of suspicion between the Tory government and the public sector is now such that it is seriously damaging the government’s ability to run things. 

There have been countless revelations of recent civil service failures from their inability to manage illegal migrants to the massive delays over the issue of passports and driving licences. The government’s own statistics show a collapse in productivity in the public sector post-Covid which has resulted in large tax increases. Major projects like HS2 have shown nightmare cost overruns. Public sector contractors who operate in Continental Europe and the UK complain against bureaucracy that can multiply the costs of projects in the UK by five times or more.

All this is in addition to officials who persistently (unlike many of us in the private sector) failed to forecast and prepare for rising inflation and who seemed unaware of the impact of shortages until they had been around for nearly a year. And a Sage committee that was disbanded for giving bad advice from flawed models during lockdown (this again cost lives). While the government’s own civil service head of ethics was fined for an illegal lockdown party on the eve of the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral where she brought along her own karaoke machine. In an indication of where her sympathies lie, she has now signed up to work for the Labour party officially.

Some tension is inevitable between civil servants, who see themselves as guarantors that conventions are upheld, and ministers, who might be keen to make things happen quickly. And the tension is exacerbated by faults on both sides. 

But it ought to be possible to make both ministers and their civil servants more effective without scrapping the public service ethos.

Since the Northcote Trevelyan reforms, the UK civil service has been largely uncorrupted (at least in the sense of taking direct bribes) and has had an ethos of trying to run the country effectively, though this now seems to be breaking down.

The pre Northcote Trevelyan civil service (prior to 1854)was lambasted on the second page of the report with the following description: 

“Admission into the civil service is indeed eagerly sought after; but it is for the unambitious, or indolent or incapable, that it is chiefly desired. Those whose ambitions do not warrant an expectation that they will succeed in the open professions where they must face the competition of their contemporaries, and those whom indolence of temperament or physical infirmaries unfit for active exertions, are placed in the civil service, where they can obtain an honourable livelihood with little labour and at no risk; where their success depends on their simply avoiding any flagrant misconduct; and attending to moderate regularity to routine duties; and in which they are secured against the ordinary consequences of old age or failing health by an arrangement which provides them with a means of supporting themselves after they have become incapacitated”.

The report concluded that the civil service needed “core values of integrity, propriety, objectivity and appointment on merit, able to transfer its loyalty and expertise from one elected government to the next”. 

These values have merit and this article tries to find a way of making it possible to combine these values with working for right wing governments.

If it is not possible to reform the relationship between the government and the public sector and especially that with the civil service, there is a genuine risk that civil servants might be replaced by political appointees. It might seem attractive to a Tory minister, when faced with what appears to be obstruction, simply to get rid of the top of the civil service and replace it with politicians. But this would lose years of knowledge. The system only works (in a ramshackle way) in the US because of the importance of state and local governments where apprentice politicians/civil servants can cut their teeth. In the UK’s largely unitary system, placing those with no administrative experience in charge of departments would make maladministration endemic.

There is a better way, which, though it may mean that right of centre governments can’t get away with everything that they want, will have many fewer damaging side effects.

My suspicion is that the root of the difference between the right and the civil service is the gap between those who learn from books and those who learn from experience. Civil servants (and indeed many academics and journalists) learn most of what they know from books. Only slowly and in a limited way do they learn from experience. They miss those things that are obvious to any salesman or accountant about making sales happen and the books look good. They miss many of the tricks about managing expectations that are critical to managing employees. 

I have often claimed, only part jokingly, that I have learned more economics in pubs and bars than in lecture theatres. It was in a bar in Beijing late at night where the boss of one of the big four accountancy firms explained that, in China, companies routinely understated their profits dramatically (by an amount that when I did the sums turned out to be about 2% of world GDP!) so as to limit their payouts to their private investors. What do they do with the money I asked? It all goes into the property market where they buy with cash in the names of nominee companies. This was backed up by my experience on the Marconi board when we were in discussions with Huawei. The proposed deal did not come about because Huawei claimed that their stated profits were undervalued and hence their shares were also. The level of understatement of profits in China and the misallocation of investment that follows has international macroeconomic consequences, as well as explaining the recent cycle in the Chinese property market.

I don’t think many civil servants learn much about how the world economy works in pubs!

Those of us who know both the theory and the practice often observe an extraordinary level of arrogance from those who only know the theory. Sometimes the arrogance reflects a non-gregarious background as school swots who lack social skills. But mainly it reflects their failure to meet and know others who have different experiences from themselves. There is a similar problem of mainly meeting others with similar experience in the private sector, but because social skills are so much more necessary for advancement in the commercial sector where generally you have to be able to sell your product against competition rather than simply imposing a law telling people what to do, those working in the sector make much more of an effort to get on with and understand people with different views than do those in the public sector.

The arrogance also seems to lead to an inability to cope with Ministers who clearly get angry when they think they are being deliberately obstructed. While in an ideal world Ministers should not raise their voices, civil servants of sufficient seniority to deal directly with Ministers should be grown up enough to cope with shouting matches without whinging to the press or taking legal action.

When I was dealing with the civil service trying to get the government to reverse their policy on abolishing the VAT Retail Export Scheme, which had led to the UK leading the world for shopping tourism and to Bicester village becoming the second largest tourist attraction other than the British Museum, I was shocked by the combination of arrogance and incompetence which the Treasury officials showed. Their analysis was described in the Administrative Court as “full of schoolboy errors” and a senior Treasury official told me a series of direct lies including the preposterous claim that to reverse the policy would “break the administrative code”. The real live fact of Bicester Village seemed to mean nothing to him against his models which, like those of Sage, were shown to be badly flawed.

My proposals for improving the working relationships between civil servants and right of centre governments are twofold. Both sides need training.

There should be compulsory “diversity” training for civil servants to open their minds to the views, ways of thinking and ideas of those from other than a civil service background. Rather than focussing on “diversity” training for dealing with minorities, they should first learn to deal with the huge majority of people who are not civil servants. Once they can do their day job, then is the time to ensure they can work with and understand minorities.

There should also be training for anyone who wants to be a Tory Minister or a Tory special adviser on how Whitehall works. Dominic Cummings identified part of the problem (though how anyone can think Whitehall suffers a shortage of weirdos or eccentrics, as he claimed, is bizarre) but was on some kind of an ego trip. He had no idea how to make people work with him and unnecessarily antagonised them. One could run a training course on how to be effective in Whitehall simply by describing what Cummings did and training people to do the opposite.

Whitehall has its ways of doing things. If you work with the grain it can often be surprisingly easy to achieve what you want. But if you confront the official machine, it will confront you. And it generally has the resources to fight you to a standstill.

Special advisers or SPADs are likely particularly to need to learn. These slightly wet behind the ears apprentice politicians tend to gain advancement by slavish support for their ministers leading to the aggressive and bullying behaviour satirised by Armando Iannucci in “The Thick of It”. In a world where civil servants often seem to be obstructing, for people who have not yet learned how to make things happen, resorting to bullying and shouting can be the default option. But of course that just entrenches positions.

Many civil servants have what might seem to those on the right a surprising loyalty to doing their job properly and helping whoever is in power. If you pull the correct levers they will generally do what they should do, even against their own personal policy preferences. There are some at the top who got a bit too big for their boots, particularly during the Brexit debate, and thought they could tell the politicians what to do. And some probably got a bit too chummy with their counterparts in the European Commission and didn’t realise til too late that these counterparts were deliberately trying to get revenge for Brexit by damaging Britain. But the bulk of civil servants, if you tell them clearly what you want them to do, will try their best to do it.

If you want to have a fight with the civil service, pick your ground. Make sure your position is really well prepared. Make sure the issue is important enough to be worth fighting for. And don’t fight so many battles at the same time that they interfere with each other. As Michael Heseltine, a veteran Whitehall warrior, once told my then boss Sir John Banham, a Minister who loses a battle takes a very long time to recover.

Finally, too many civil servants feel free to leak against their Ministers. There is always a tension between encouraging freedom of speech and a civil servant’s obligation to support the government of the day. And often the leaks are encouraged by the behaviour of Ministers and even more by that of SPADs. But people can’t work together if they can’t explore options without the fear of them ending up often misrepresented in the newspapers. Given the amount of surveillance we are all now under, I’m pretty sure that it would be technically possible to limit leaks.

The newspapers would be less fun, but that’s a small price to pay for better government.

This is an updated version of an article published on 5 April 2022. Douglas McWilliams has worked in and with Whitehall for 49 years. He is currently Deputy Chairman of Cebr.

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