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What is the real relationship between UK Ministers and Civil Servants?    

In many ways UK Ministers and civil servants are dependent on each other rather than having separate functions.

Civil servants like clear directions from Ministers as to what they should do and need their political judgement to explain whether civil service proposals are politically feasible.

They also depend on Ministers to argue the Departmental case with the Prime Minister and through the Cabinet system and defend the Department’s budget in spending reviews.

Public choice theorists have argued that Ministers and civil servants both have an interest in maximising the power and spending of the Department.

Are they impartial?

There has been a view that, rather than being impartial, civil servants have established views, so that the Department of Transport was always pro-roads and anti-public transport and the Foreign Office was always in favour of European integration.

Civil servants have been seen as a small elite, drawn from a narrow social group, that have a centrist view and hostile to either right or left wing policies.

Tony Benn as the left wing Secretary of State for Industry in the 1970s felt that civil servants constantly obstructed his policies and Conservative Cabinet Ministers in the Coalition Government also criticised the civil servants for failing to help get through their policies.

Civil Servants are permanent (mostly)

Ministers are temporary and civil servants are permanent.

Ministers often only have only a couple of years in a Ministerial post and so by the time they understand the issues they have very little time to get anything done.

Civil servants are able to develop a long term view as to what the Department should be doing.

Civil servants fill the Minister’s diary with meetings and visits, as the outward face of the Department, so that they may have little time to think about policy development.

In recent years, Permanent Secretaries and senior civil servants have been moved around when new ministers come in, sometimes their face doesn’t fit or they want their own people to follow them.

Knowledge gaps

For the delivery of many programmes, implementation is critical and so Ministers have to take an interest in whether policies are being carried out.

They need to understand the Department’s performance review systems which are meant to monitor these.

Parliamentary Select Committees are concerned with why implementation has gone wrong and have increasingly called senior civil servants before them to explain, thus breaking the doctrine of Ministerial Accountability of Parliament.

The Osmotherly Rules, originally drawn up by the civil service to protect civil servants from questioning by the new Select Committees created in 1979, have been amended to accept that civil servants can be called to account for the implementation of major projects.

Many of these, especially in relation to the IT projects many of which have gone badly wrong, are clearly beyond the technical knowledge of Ministers.