The truth about civil servants

In New Zealand our ministers have office in or about the Beehive. It is very different in the UK. Their offices are actually in the headquarters of what ever ministry they are the minister of. This makes it easier for minister to feel isolated, and as a consequence become captured by the civil servants.

David Cameron’s ministers are feeling abandoned by 10 Downing Street.

This creates ill feeling. Politicians start blaming civil servants, and civil servants – more circumspect, but often more deadly – hit back.

The politicians’ line is that the Civil Service tries to stop everything and that no one can be sacked for incompetence. Bureaucrats do not know how to deliver or manage projects, and ministers are not allowed to appoint the people who are supposed to work for them.

The civil servants’ answer is “A bad workman blames his tools”. “David Cameron”, one tip-top ex-mandarin told me, “says that Yes, Minister is a documentary not a comedy. If he is right, it is partly a documentary about a weak minister”. It is not, in reality, possible, say officials, to separate policy and execution completely: things go wrong when ministers insist on implementing a policy without knowing whether it can work. This is a particularly acute problem when we are governed by a Coalition Agreement. Civil servants must warn ministers about it. Politicians have become far too frenetic: it is part of our constitutional system that their officials should make them stop and think. 

Who’s right? On the one hand, the rage of ministers is often justified. Except, perhaps, in the most brain-oriented departments such as the Treasury and the Foreign Office, lots of civil servants are not very good – look at the Ministry of Defence, or most of those trying to run large public services. Ministers tell me about correspondence units which take months to answer letters from the public and often submit drafts which are illiterate. Their special advisers fume at the way officials talk up the combined threat of European law and judicial review to block whatever they cannot be bothered to work on.

Some departments also have their own agenda. Under New Labour, in particular, departments often became evangelical rather than administrative – the Department for International Development or the Department of Energy and Climate Change, for example, became self-righteous advocates of a particular ideology rather than competent executors of policy. They also have a way of hiding things. “Officials love that irritating phrase about ‘telling truth to power’,” one minister tells me, “but actually the problem is that they so often don’t tell you things at all.”


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  • ConwayCaptain

    Yers Minister and Yes Prime Minister are not sit coms they are a documentary on how Civil Servants operate.
    Especially in the UK with the Old Boy, Old School tie network.

    • Tony

      I well remember the episode when Sir Humphrey explained to the Minister why the UK was in the EU. Basically, the UK knew that it would fail but needed to be in it just in case it succeeded. In other words, the UK needed to be in there to ensure its failure! I cannot see how this TV ‘policy’ is any different from actual UK policy.

  • David Broome

    What is worse in NZ is the self-replicating nature of the Public Service.

    I prefer the UK model because Minister’s can see and smell incompetence as opposed to being fed lines from their embedded liaison and CEO’s. The UK is cutting the public service but here we are outsourcing them to the ‘private sector’ and then hiring them back as off-balance sheet/heacount consultants.

    Ministers here are told what they want to hear and because they are clumped together want to talk that up. All the while the Ministry goes about doing what it wants meaning Yes Minister these days is a more accurate reflection of NZ.

    My solution is to break this deck chair culture (someone will go from Corrections to Housing, Housing to Fire Service, Fire Service to an SOE like NZ Post). It is a club where outsiders without ‘state sector experience’ are not welcome.

    You do this by requiring Tier Two and above managers must have spent a third of their previous ten years outside of the State Service and Crown Entities. That forces them to get out into the big bad world while bringing in a greater private sector ethos.

    This changes the entire State Service culture for the better as the distinction between private and public breaks down. At least, that is my theory!

  • StupidDiscus

    Yes Minister is fine for nostalgic losers.

    Now, The Thick of It – that’s a documentary…

    The brutal truth of the matter is that civil servants – certainly most of those in Wellington – do almost nothing. More than 90% of government expenditure is on welfare — including Natl Super, Health & Education. Even most leftertarians would be happy paying for the last 10%.

    There are only four realistic reforms you can make in NZ:
    – cancel health spending
    – cancel education spending
    – cancel super
    – cancel the remainder of welfare

    Everything else is just pissing around the edges.