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Parliamentary Commission into Civil Service needed now

6 September 2013

The Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) has concluded a year-long inquiry into the future of the Civil Service with a brutal report

Rather uniquely, it contains only one recommendation: that Parliament should establish a Joint Committee of both Houses to sit as a Commission on the future of the Civil Service. It should be constituted within the next few months and report before the end of the Parliament with a comprehensive change programme for Whitehall with a timetable to be implemented over the lifetime of the next Parliament.

The report proposes a remit for the Commission and an early debate in Parliament to get it established.

Problems in Whitehall

The Report considers the increased tensions between ministers and officials which have become widely reported, and places the problems in Whitehall in a wider context of a Civil Service built on the Northcote-Trevelyan settlement established in 1853 and the Haldane principles of ministerial accountability set out in 1919.  It notes how much has changed in government, society and in the UK’s place in the world over recent decades, and how the status quo in Whitehall is now openly subject to question.

The Haldane doctrine is crucial to Parliament’s ability to hold the executive to account and at the core of the relationship between ministers and officials.  The  changing world - and the increasing complexity of government departments and active Parliamentary scrutiny - means that this doctrine is long overdue for reconsideration and updating.


The conclusions are wide ranging and include the following:

  • The present government’s programme of “incremental change” in Whitehall as set out in the  Civil Service Reform Plan is “bound to fail” as it lacks strategic coherence and clear leadership from a united team of ministers and officials.
  • The Northcote-Trevelyan Civil Service has seen the nation through depression, the general strike, two world wars, the cold war and into the age of globalisation and high technology.  It remains the most effective way of supporting the democratically elected Government and future administrations in the UK, and of maintaining the stability of the UK’s largely uncodified constitution.
  • Divided leadership and confused accountabilities in Whitehall have however, led to problems including:
  • A low level of engagement amongst civil servants in some departments and agencies, and a general lack of trust and openness, persists within the system, fuelled by a tendency to scapegoat a individual officials rather than to learn lessons from failures such as the West Coast Main Line franchise fiasco and the collapse of the Borders Agency.
  • The Civil Service exhibits the key characteristics of a failing organisation, in which most people know the system is failing, where nobody knows how to address failure, and the leadership are in denial about the scale of the challenge they face.
  • The present atmosphere promotes the filtering of honest and complete assessments to ministers and has in some parts of government become the antithesis of “truth to power”.
  • There is a persistent lack of key skills and capabilities across Whitehall and an unacceptably high level of churn of lead officials, which is incompatible with good government.

The evidence in support of the PASC’s conclusions and single recommendation is overwhelming. No independent witness suggested the government’s present programme of reforms would succeed in creating the transformational change which is required. The vast majority of witnesses support the principle of a Commission on the future of the Civil Service. (See comments below from witnesses supporting the PASC approach.)

Landmark Report

Chairman of PASC, Bernard Jenkin, comments:

“This Report may prove to be a landmark in the history of the Civil Service.  Whitehall is a Rolls Royce machine, but it is sorely in need of modernisation and repair. While there has been much successful change in the Civil Service in recent years, particularly in procurement and IT, the overriding narrative is one of recurring discord between ministers and officials. 


"We recognise ministerial frustrations but also note that resistance to change and the tendency to resist decisions is an understandable reaction of officials who feel that the leadership of departments and of Whitehall as a whole is in disagreement.  The present Reform Plan has underlined the need for much more radical change in what we expect from civil servants and their accountability. There are deeper problems in the machinery of Whitehall that can only be exposed and addressed by external scrutiny by an independent body. 

Transformative change

“The fact that the Civil Service Reform Plan itself is meeting resistance is all the evidence that you need that it is not going to deliver the transformative change which is necessary meet the challenges faced by our country.   The proposed Commission must consider what changes need to be made to address these problems and map out the new vision for the Civil Service. Its analysis must be accepted by all, to enable ministers and lead officials to inspire and lead change." 


“Failure to establish a Parliamentary Commission in this Parliament will mean that the periodic disasters and shambles, like the West Coast Main Line, the collapse of the Borders Agency will increasingly recur.  The consensus and public confidence supporting the stability of the Civil Service will continue to be eroded.  The longer such a Commission is delayed, the more urgent its need will become.  Denial is just more of what Francis Maude rightly calls ‘the bias to inertia’.   Much more radical analysis and change than are currently contemplated are not to be treated as a distraction from more pressing issues.  It is essential if governments are to govern successfully.” 

Key witnesses

Below is a list of witnesses with their key comments:

  • Professor Lord Hennessy, Whitehall historian (“no really wide look [at the Civil Service] since Fulton [in 1968]”)
  • Professor Matthew Flinders, leading academic on Whitehall (need to think “about what it is we are trying to design a Civil Service to address”.......“the benefits [of a Commission] clearly outweigh the costs for the Government of the country as a whole, not for whichever party might form the Government after 2015.”)
  • Lord Browne of Madingley, formerly of BP and the government’s lead  Non-Executive Director  (called for “a comprehensive and independent review of the Civil Service’s structures, processes and lines of accountability”... such a review is “long overdue.”)
  • Jonathan Powell, former Chief of Staff to Tony Blair (without a Commission, “we will lose the opportunities to be better governed and to get more stuff done..”)
  • Professor Lord Norton of Louth, leading constitutional academic (“over time there have been plenty of initiatives [to reform Whitehall], plans come up, but very rarely a full-scale proper review that has identified the role of the Civil Service.”)
  • Professor Andrew Kakabadse of Cranfield University, leading academic on corporate change: (“The first and most crucial step is to hold a penetrating and transparent inquiry identifying the nature and depth of disengagement and the consequences of not addressing this problem. For this reason I totally support your pursuit for a Parliamentary Commission into the workings and future of the Civil Service.”)
  • Dr Patrick Diamond, former special adviser in the Blair Government and Lecturer at Queen Mary University:  (“I think that some of [the current Government’s] reforms may work, but others are misguided. Overall, we need a much more fundamental rethink about the way these relationships [between the No 10 and the Whitehall departments] work.”)
  • Dr Andrew Blick, Lecturer in Politics and Contemporary History at King’s College, London (“Any fundamental change to Whitehall should only take place overtly and on a basis of wide consultation and preferably consensus. An appropriate vehicle for ensuring that this kind of agreement can be sought would be a parliamentary committee [...] The Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 makes Parliament, rather than the Royal Prerogative, the source of the legal basis for the Civil Service. For this reason a heightened parliamentary involvement in Whitehall is apt.”)
  • Lord O’Donnell, former Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service (“of itself [the Civil Service Reform Plan] is not going to make a dramatic difference to the effectiveness of Government [...] if you really want to improve public sector outcomes, I think there is a radical transformation necessary. It is really thinking about the very basics of what Governments need to do and how they need to do it.”)
  • Sir David Normington, the First Civil Service Commissioner (“it is essential that any “significant changes to the Civil Service are supported by as broad a consensus as possible [...] While the civil service must serve the elected government with commitment, it is not the preserve of any one government or political party. That is why significant reforms should have wide political and public support, and reflect a broad consensus about the kind of civil service we need.”)
  • British Politics Professors Martin Smith and David Richards (“There is a persuasive case for a Royal Commission that would examine the constitutional fundamentals of Whitehall and civil service reform [...] There has to be much greater clarity about why reform is necessary, where reform is most needed within the service, and what outcomes reform is intended to achieve.”)

Further information