Tag Archives: whitehall

My ongoing love of consistency

How does one get hold of civil servants? I mean, if you don’t have an ongoing relationship on a particular issue, do you start at the top and work your way down, ring reception and ask for the policy area in question, or what?

I work in a relatively narrow field, and my Whitehall contacts are pretty decent, but I was pondering the statement from Eric Pickles last year when he said “Local activism and localism don’t need lobbyists. If local politicians want to change the way government operates, their council should send a letter or pick up the phone”. I’m assuming he doesn’t literally intend that we should all phone him, constantly, so getting through to the right staff would be useful.

That means finding the right person, even assuming that they are willing and able to have a discussion. It’s fine writing a letter to the relevant Minister, or sending over the Leader to have a ‘private chat’, but that’s only properly useful if you can get to the bottom of the issue first, I think, unless it’s something really obvious on which the Government are merely being wilfully obtuse (ask me for a list).

There used to be a publication called the Civil Service Yearbook. I won’t pretend it was the greatest publication in the world, but it was certainly a start. If you met someone but mislaid their card, you could probably track them down. If you had been told a name but no details, you could probably track them down. If you knew the policy area you were interested in, you… get the idea.

Anyway, and I can’t in fairness blame Eric Pickles for this given the date, the Civil Service Year Book ceased publication last year, and is no longer available in print or online. Querying this, I was told that this was because all the information is going to be given away for free (hurrah) so we no longer need to pay for it.

So where is it? Since then, all I’ve been able to find is the site of “Departmental Organograms”, which, well, they’re fantastic if you’re a journalist or noseypoke who wants to know how much people are paid, how many staff they have, or what silly job titles have been made up. If, on the other hand, you want to know the names of staff below Director level, or the phone numbers or e-mail addresses on which you can contact them, you can pretty much get stuffed.

I raised this with a friend in Whitehall today (hence the rant) who tells me that orders have been sent from on high to reduce the number of Government websites, and the amount of information contained on them. Openness and transparency, isn’t it wonderful.

Oh, and yes, we’re fairly rubbish at this in local government as well, I appreciate that, but (in theory at least) Councillors are easier to get hold of (and, crucially) more likely to be able to ask the right officers to look into a resident’s problem than MPs – who aren’t in the same direct relationship with civil servants, who in any case don’t have the same closeness between strategy and operations which still characterises quite a lot of local government work, even in the era of mass outsourcing.

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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!