Should the civil service be “independent” from politicians?
Last week’s clash between former PM Theresa May and the current Minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove is perhaps one of the more public examples of political disquiet about trends for the civil service to become increasingly politically active in recent years. Although it’s often thought to be a more recent phenomenon, the concern that governments may be making political appointments to a service which is meant to be apolitical dates back at least two decades. Dominic Cummings, PM Johnson’s chief adviser, has been open about his wish to reform the civil service from its current workings and hire “unusual” people who would apparently not normally work for the service. Given that the first wave of attempted reforms have met with the resignation of the most senior civil servant Mark Sedwill, tensions between those who want change in the service and those who want to preserve its perceived current independence are becoming apparent.
WATCH: Former PM, Theresa May, delivers a broadside to the government over the 'sacking' of Sir Mark Sedwill:
Let’s take a look at the arguments on both sides for changing the way the civil service is run and debate the merits of an apolitical civil service versus one that is subject to more control by the government of the day.
The civil service should not operate independently
The civil service should, in theory, be just a service to the government of the day. The place for discussion of government policy should be Parliament, and if the implementation or effect of legislation needs to be scrutinised further then the place to challenge that is in court. Although the judiciary are not elected per se, they are intended to already be an independent policy-checking body (much like the House of Lords) and as such there is no need for further scrutiny of policy or legislation. Allowing more layers of unelected yet independent checks against an elected government may seem like a good idea on paper, but in practice the civil service ought not be able to act as a barrier to a sovereign Parliament.
Furthermore, even though Lords and judges are not elected, they can at least be held accountable by other means, such as pressure groups, media campaigns, and through the public’s ability to elect or push for a Parliament or government that can overrule the Lords or pass laws that alter how the judiciary can function. The civil service does not have this same level of public visibility or accountability, and it is more difficult for the government to work around their objections.
Allowing the civil service to continue in its present form allows for misgivings and public mistrust, as currently there are arguments that the civil service is both trying to work against governments (albeit from an anonymous author) and that the civil service’s code of political independence is still taken extremely seriously, even on divisive matters such as Brexit. Having the civil service more directly controlled by the elected government of the day would remove these doubts and give the service a more identifiable role in the UK’s body politic.
The civil service should continue to operate independently
Although it might seem in short supply in politics at times, honesty can be fairly argued to be “central to the proper functioning of a democracy”. The role of the civil service is to provide policymakers of all types (MPs, Cabinet Ministers, etc.) with impartial and informed advice, and to be honest about what policy changes and ideas are actually feasible. Elected politicians typically have to worry about the election cycle – and consequently their public image, internal party politics and current events which might distract them from the real workings of a certain policy. If a politician wins elections on the promise of policy ideas is forced to spend time away from their constituency and Parliament, then those constituents are denied their voice at the highest level of governance in Britain. Having a dedicated team with responsibility for actually drafting new legislation and consulting on it thus allows MPs to (in theory) work more directly with the public and turn over the actual workings of policy to those with long-term understanding of the issues.
This is further reinforced as policy will often outlast or be worked across different governments and ideologies. Legislation such as the Climate Change Act 2008, which sets binding emissions targets all the way out to 2050, would be much harder to pursue consistently if the civil service were overhauled totally every time a new party came into power, or a new leader decided to change the direction of a party or coalition. Allowing for intendent continuity of work on long-term policy will lead to more stable governance and prevent the UK see-sawing between various aims and ideologies as the entire legislative power base changes hands.
It’s also worth noting that an independent civil service can also work to hold the government accountable for its actions. Top civil servants such as Sir Ivan Rogers and Sir Phillip Rutnam both resigned in protest at government acts, respectively over disagreements about the timetable of Brexit negotiations and allegations that the Home Secretary had organised a campaign of bullying, intimidation and lies about him. Although these resignations are often less than ideal for the government and often represent a serious loss of political talent, they could be argued to be politically healthy as it clearly demonstrates that the civil service wish to distance themselves from the consequence of the policy, and can prevent (to some degree) the civil service being used as a scapegoat by incompetent or unpopular governments.
To conclude, the arguments about the civil service’s future role are complex: without fitting neatly into the model of executive, legislature and judiciary traditionally used to understand democratic governance and without the visibility associated with those institutions it can be easier to project your own views and biases onto it. What is certain is that the civil service is likely to come under increased pressure from a government which contains Dominic Cummings, although whether he will be able to reform it in whatever his vision is remains to be seen.