We want you as a new recruit

Interesting post from Hopi Sen about the staffing of the civil service, in which he argues broadly that the UK would be better governed if a larger proportion of people in the civil service had a political background and it was officially accepted that they should be in sympathy with the aims of the elected governement, rather than politically neutral. Instinctively I would say this seems to work well in the US, when an incoming President will bring in a whole new staff. Britain’s halfway house of “Ministerial Special Advisors” and semi-political appointments to QUANGOs does not seem to me to deliver what we would hope for from the interface between Politics and Administration.

I expect that there would be significant resistance to this idea from the civil service, and there are important practical problems – what would the background for these people be nowadays? Appointing the kind of people who make policy at party HQs and party-affiliated think tanks and putting them in top ranks of the civil service strikes me as a risky enterprise, and there is a further complication in the UK, since we don’t have fixed-term administrations, and the PM can change even if the party in government doesn’t, so job security could be very poor.

I was interested in how this applies to local government, where until the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 the distinction between politics and administration was a little less sharp. Even now, it seems to me more accepted in local government that the job of staff, at least at the corporate centre, is to implement the priorities of the ruling politicians, in a way that is less accepted across the civil service. 

Local Government recruits separately from the civil service. This has one advantage in that we get people who have actively chosen to apply to local government, whereas a graduate who is really interested in Children’s policy might find themselves faststreamed into the MoD. Graduate recruits in local government are rotated around a range of departments in their first two years, and can generally then find a role in the area which interests them most. Of course the vast majority of local government staff continue to arrive, as I did, by applying for a specific job, rather than through a graduate recruitment scheme – around 100 a year are recruited specifically as graduate trainees, as against around 500 to the civil service.

On the other hand, this rigid separation means that Whitehall has a lot of staff with a limited and indirect understanding of how local government operates ‘on the ground’ (and, I suppose, vice versa), and there has been much talk recently, led by the New Local Government Network, about the possible merits of a common public sector graduate recruitment scheme, perhaps also including the NHS. Instinctively I can see the case for this, although I would prefer a federation of the graduate recruitment schemes where those looking at specialising in fields where the relationship was particularly strong – say, adult social care in councils, Department of Health, and gerontology in the NHS, or transport planning in councils, and the Department of Transport, could undertake secondments as part of a longer graduate training period.

On the main issue, I think I do largely agree that there should be a larger cadre of the politically appointed, but I’m concerned that the civil service is too large for that to happen, and at risk of too much turbulence if a great chunk of organisational memory is lost three times per decade. What Hopi has perhaps missed is that the buccaneering political civil service of the 1840s was devoted to the management of trade, empire, and the conduct of war. Almost all the things we now regard as the task of ‘civil servants’ were in the Victorian age the remit of local government. State education, welfare, and healthcare weren’t created in SW1 in the first half of the 20th century, they were created in the big cities in the second half of the 19th. While Chamberlain was revolutionising Birmingham, Gladstone was restricting the alcohol supply, cutting central spending, banning picketing, and dealing with the church in Ireland. Of course, this has implications for the role of Parliament and elected Councillors, as well as their staff!

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2 responses to “We want you as a new recruit

  1. You’re right about the creative role of the Victorian cities- which is I think an argument for patronage based action.

    As you say, it was the leaders in Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and so on who set the agenda for social provision, an agenda that was delivered by a local service rooted in the values of their leaders.

    (I don’t know anything about how officers were appointed in Chamberlain’s birmingham, but I’d be willing to bet money that a political machine lay somewhere behind the expansion of the authority of the Council and the School board and the personal opportunities that would arise at the same time)

    This can have negatives, of course. Long periods of single party governance can create an unhealthy alliance of interet between staff and politician, but I’d argue that a stong council chamber and and local newspaper are the best checks aginst that.

  2. thelocalgovernmentofficer

    That seems plausible – I have a notion based on precisely no evidence I can reproduce that the Improvement Commissioners worked to a very flat management structure, fulfilling a mixed political and administrative function, and employing their staff directly – of course, their primary accountability was upward to Parliament and Government, not to the people they were ‘improving’. Perhaps we’ve come full circle on that one…

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