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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As much at home writing editorials as being the subject of them, Cam has won awards, including the Canon Media Award for his work on the Len Brown/Bevan Chuang story. When he’s not creating the news, he tends to be in it, with protagonists using the courts, media and social media to deliver financial as well as death threats.

They say that news is something that someone, somewhere, wants kept quiet. Cam Slater doesn’t do quiet and, as a result, he is a polarising, controversial but highly effective journalist who takes no prisoners.

He is fearless in his pursuit of a story.

Love him or loathe him, you can’t ignore him.

To read Cam’s previous articles click on his name in blue.