Reform of the Civil Service is not a new issue. The issue of whether the Civil Service is overstaffed goes back to the 1980’s to the era of Margaret Thatcher. She believed that the Civil Service had become bloated and was not functioning as it should be – hence her reforms.
It also led to claims that with a truncated Civil Service, Thatcher would have been able to extend her authority further into the hierarchy of the Civil Service as with fewer posts at a higher level, those there would be desperate to please the Prime Minister so that they would keep their position. If this is true, then it would be an example of the Executive extending its influence into the body that carries out government legislation. In the 1980’s it was a general belief that the government passed legislation and the Civil Service mandarins interpreted how that legislation would be put into being. If that legislation failed, then they would not be held responsible – as it was government legislation and not theirs.
Thatcher was not the first Prime Minister to seek to reform the Civil Service. Harold Wilson had tried in the 1960’s. He introduced a Civil Service Department that had the brief to manage the Civil Service. Thatcher abolished it.
The real changes came with Thatcher. She viewed the Civil Service as
Ø Badly managed
In response to this, Thatcher introduced an Efficiency Unit led by Lord Rayner. In 1982, the Financial Management Initiative was introduced. Improving efficiency was seen as being the key to an improved Civil Service.
Combined with greater efficiency was the belief that the Civil Service was overstaffed. By 1997, the number of Civil Servants had fallen from 732,000 in 1979 to 500,000 in 1997, the year the Conservatives left office. Such a decrease represented nearly 33% of the Civil Service as it stood in 1979. Current Labour plans, were announced in the March 2004 Budget.
The most important time for change in the Civil Service occurred after 1988 with the so-called “Next Steps” reforms. These reforms were issued after the publication of a report by Sir Robin Ibbs. He identified a number of major issues that he felt should be addressed:
Ø The service lacked innovation
Ø It was too large to be efficient with too many jobs duplication and some departments overlapping what others did.
Ø The service was not providing a quality service for the country – both the advice it gave and its policy implementation were poor
The reforms that came as a result of Ibbs were as follows:
Ø The dual roles of providing advice and implementing government policies were split. The Civil Service continued with its role of giving the government advice but the delivery of policy was transferred to newly created executive agencies – which became known as ‘Next Step’ agencies. Though they are staffed by civil servants, they are headed by specially appointed chief executives who are responsible for the day-to-day running of the agencies. Each agency is given a specific brief so there should be no overlap between different agencies. The criteria for a chief executive keeping his/her position is based on whether that agency is deemed to be doing its job. Clearly this is an incentive for an agency to succeed. It also ensures that if the criteria for success is that government legislation is implemented to the government’s satisfaction, then the agency itself, via the chief executive, will ensure that government legislation is carried out to the government’s satisfaction.
Ø Does this then allow for the government to ensure that its policies are implemented without fail? Is this an extension of the Executive in British Politics? Or is it simply an extension of representative democracy in that the people put the government into power and the people expect government policies to be introduced as opposed to interpreted by the Civil Service and introduced to the Civil Service’s satisfaction?
By 1998, 75% of all civil servants worked for 100+ Next Step agencies or Civil Service departments run on Next Step lines.
Some agencies have been privatised, such as the HMSO. The general trend was that privatised agencies were more efficient than non-privatised ones. Probably the best example has been seen at the DVLA where waiting times for driving licences has fallen. However, where problems have occurred they have been very public and the media has been keen to ensure that the public is aware of their failings. When this has occurred, there have been political repercussions.
The most famous failings have been seen in the Prison Service, the Passport Agency and the Child Support Agency. The latter has attracted very severe public and media criticism and has had political ramifications. When agencies have failed, ministerial control over them is usually extended – thus increasing executive control even further.
In 1991, the Major government decided to open to tender the work done by both government departments and Next Step agencies. This allowed private companies to compete for what were deemed to be Civil Service contracts. The whole emphasis was on efficiency and effectiveness and offering the people the best for the money on offer. In 1992, the Public Finance Initiative (PFI) was introduced to bring the private sector into large public sector capital spending projects. Under the current Blair government, PFI’s have become PPP’s (Public-Private Partnerships) and have been used in hospital and education contracts. The logic is that the end result will be the best for the public at large. Critics see such entities as the PPP’s as an extension of executive power in that those companies that get a contract will do their utmost to please the people who sign a contract – the government. The financial sums involved are vast (the government is the largest spender of capital in the UK) and few private companies would want to ‘bite the hand that feeds it’.
What of those at the very top of the Civil Service? The television programmes “Yes Minister” and “Yes Prime Minister” would give the impression that it was the mandarins in the Civil Service who decided on policy implementation as opposed to the Prime Minister. But is this true in 2006?
In 1996, the top 1% of those in the Civil Service were given a new category – senior civil servants – and placed on personal contracts with flexible salaries. It would seem untenable that those in such positions would do anything that endangered their exulted position in the Civil Service. By doing this, has the government made the mandarins in the Civil Service nothing more than political poodles, doing what the government bids and nothing more?
In 1999, the government produced a White Paper entitled “Modernising Government”. In this document, the government identified seven areas that it wanted to reform in the Civil Service:
Ø More openness in the Civil Service
Ø Greater efficiency ands effective policy delivery
Ø Better business planning
Ø More women and ethnic minorities in senior civil service positions
Ø Flexible pay and fast-track promotions to attract the best into the service
Ø More extensive use of IT
Ø Better co-ordination of public services and policy-making.
So how did these affect the government’s approach?
“Service First” was created which led to a ‘People’s Panel’ of 5,000 citizens which gathered public feedback about the state of public services. This led to ‘Best Value’ being introduced. This system theoretically identifies the best value supplier of a service for a department. Logically, services would be bought from that supplier. However, this does not have to be the case if the department concerned can convince the Treasury and the Cabinet Office that compulsory competitive tendering is not pertinent for them at that particular moment in time.
Labour has also used benchmarking which is a system for identifying the best practice for others to follow. PPP’s have replaced PFI’s, but the use of private funding for public services, especially in hospitals and schools, has been controversial within the party itself.
In an effort to coordinate what the Civil Service does, Downing Street has taken a greater role in policy co-ordination and monitoring the implementation of policies. Blair established ‘task forces’. These have the task to bring together government departments and advisors. Units that were charged with policy planning were set up within the Cabinet Office.
Devolution has also impacted the Civil Service. Prior to devolution, the Civil Service worked for a united entity. Now parts of the Civil Service have been hived off to work specifically for Scotland and Wales. These new bodies were given new guidelines as to their responsibilities in a series of concordats. Therefore, after devolution, one main Civil Service existed as of old (except it had no input into Wales and Scotland) and two new mini versions existed working specifically for the devolved parliament/assembly of Scotland and Wales.
Where is the Civil Service now?
Is it leaner and fitter for its role as some would suggest? Is it no longer bloated and steeped in traditionalism? With the move to modernisation, some have argued that the traditional neutrality of the Civil Service has been compromised in that the service is more in the hands of politicians now or that its traditional role of advising has been compromised by ‘special advisors’ brought in from the outside. The chief executives of Next Step agencies can either be seen as a major move away from the historic traditions of those at the top of the Civil Service (public school, Oxbridge, white and male etc) or placing political appointments at the head of government departments. If the latter is true, how politically free is the Civil Service in 2006, and, therefore, how politically neutral can it be?