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More attention should be given to Minister-Civil Service relations

18 June 2018

The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee have published a report tackling the sensitive issue of Minister-Civil Service relations.

The relationship between civil servants and ministers has always been regarded as highly sensitive, so efforts to improve the Civil Service have tended to focus on how to make the Civil Service more responsive and accountable, rather than on how ministers and officials can improve their working relationship.

This report highlights the centrality of the relationship between ministers and senior civil servants for effective government. Without strong mutual trust between ministers and their officials, honest conversations do not take place. The consequence is that policy design and implementation suffer.

To address this fundamental issue, PACAC concludes:

  • More attention should be given to establishing firm foundations for the working relationship between ministers and officials. New ministers must find time to discuss their priorities and preferred ways of working with their senior officials. More support should be provided to facilitate this.
  • The need for effective planning and prioritisation has been made more acute by the extra tasks generated by the process of leaving the EU. Effective planning and prioritisation depend on the strength of the relationship between ministers and officials. Single Departmental Plans should be at the heart of discussions about priorities but they are not yet delivering the promised link between the allocation of resources and delivery of priorities.
  • An effective and resilient Civil Service requires good training and professional development, yet the gap left by the closure of the National School for Government in 2012 has not been effectively filled. The Civil Service needs its own institution, where Civil Service thinkers, educators and leaders have the space to reflect on how the Civil Service should be more mindful of itself, its challenges and its future. The institution would transmit the values, attitudes and positive behaviours vital to the future strength of the Civil Service from generation to generation. PACAC will be launching a further inquiry into this important matter.

Chair's comments

Chair of PACAC, Sir Bernard Jenkin, said:

"This inquiry breaks new ground. The 1968 Fulton Committee was banned from discussing the relationship between ministers and officials by the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. Never before has the Civil Service so openly cooperated with a Select Committee on any subject, least of all on such a sensitive matter. We have used research based on full access and private interviews with civil servants and ministers.

This unparalleled research has already facilitated a more open conversation about how to support the crucial minister-official relationship. The research points to a very strong aspiration for this to improve, on the basis of mutual respect and public service values. But when the relationship goes wrong, we have all seen how it can cause chaos in policy and implementation.

We also want to reopen the question of whether the UK needs its own National School for Government. All other comparable countries have an equivalent body. Ours was abolished in 2012 for some understandable reasons, but it was a mistake to lose, rather than to improve, this vital capability. This will be the subject of our next inquiry in this area."

Further information

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