institute-for-governmentMinisters at war with mandarins has become a familiar, and often misleading, headline since 2010. Of course, there are tensions, suspicion and mistrust—on both sides. There is a lot wrong in Whitehall. But thanks both to Francis Maude, as the key minister responsible, and to the civil service leadership, far-reaching reforms are being introduced. But they will not succeed unless Secretaries of State and Permanent Secretaries, the two partners in what Peter Hennessy has called the ‘governing marriage’ work closely together. Both are involved in both policy successes and failures. Separation, or even formal distancing, is not an option.

The main media focus has been on this relationship within departments, but as, if not more, important is the relationship between departments and the centre—that is Number 10, the Cabinet Office and Treasury. Many of the underlying problems are not primarily between politicians and civil servants but between the centre and individual departments – which remain very powerful and are only loosely co-ordinated. Resolving these tensions is the key to future reform, the balance between what Mr Maude has called ‘tight’ and ‘loose’.

Yet civil servants have become a target for the frustrations of some ministers and special advisers, both in occasional public comments and more damagingly in off-the-record briefings to journalists.  There have been complaints of obstruction, though very few have been specified, and more commonly of inertia. That has left civil servants feeling battered. Far from the caricature of the all-powerful, manipulative mandarins (largely dating from the wonderful ‘Yes, Minister/Prime Minister’ series of 30 years ago), most civil servants I know feel vulnerable and insecure. An unusually large number of Permanent Secretaries have left their posts early or suddenly since 2010. There is particular resentment at the targeting of some permanent secretaries in unattributable media stories apparently originating in ministerial offices—especially when civil servants have no means of replying.

Moreover, most of the senior and middle ranking civil servants whom I meet are as committed to reform as any minister since they recognize that change is inevitable and desirable if a much slimmer civil service – on the way to being cut by a fifth or more by the end of the parliament – is to be effective and deliver services.

Ministers – from the Labour era as well as now – have rightly been critical of the skills and performance of the Civil Service particularly in handling big infrastructure and technology projects, while a recent Institute for Government report highlighted weaknesses in the ability to handling outsourcing and commissioning of services from the private sector. Many of these faults are acknowledged by the civil service leadership and are being tackled. Mr Maude has proposed far-reaching changes such as improved and specialist training for officials involved in running major projects, commissioning and procurement. He has also introduced welcome initiatives on transparency and open data.

However, the political complaints go much further. Ministers are reluctant to take the blame for the actions or inactions of civil servants whom they don’t appoint—believing there is an imbalance between their accountability to Parliament and their powers. Hence, the pressure to strengthen the political role in appointing permanent secretaries, to expand ministerial offices  and to bring in more outsiders.

David Cameron and Mr Maude have argued that the long-standing framework for relations between ministers and civil servants, dating from the Northcote-Trevelyan report of 1854, is not threatened and should be retained, at the same time as practice and procedures are reformed. By contrast, many, especially former senior civil servants, are worried that the cumulative impact of Mr Maude’s proposals will be to personalize appointments and to undermine the independence of Permanent Secretaries, especially when Secretaries of State change so often.

At the heart of the problem is that the ministerial/civil service relationship rests on understandings, precedent and convention as much as law and is therefore inherently ambiguous. The Civil Service was only established in primary legislation in 2010 which largely put into statute existing Orders-in-council on the role of the Civil Service Commission over appointments and codes of conduct. It was silent on the respective responsibilities, and relations, between Secretaries of State and Permanent Secretaries.

The traditional view is that the Civil Service is inseparable from the government of the day, so the duty of civil servants is first and foremost to the minister in charge of their department, who is in turn accountable to Parliament.

But it is not as simple as that. Permanent secretaries are directly answerable to Parliament in their role as accounting officers- and they are frequently questioned by the Public Accounts Committee about how money is spent. Moreover, a permanent secretary can seek a written direction from a secretary of state to continue spending on a project if it does not meet the Treasury criteria of regularity, propriety, value for money and feasibility.

Senior civil servants frequently appear before select committees. Under the 30 year old Osmotherly rules Whitehall guidance on the relationship with committees, never approved by Parliament, civil servants only appear on behalf of their ministers to provide factual information rather than to explain why or who policy decisions were taken. These rules are now being reviewed at a time when Parliament has become more assertive in wanting to hold civil servants, as well as ministers, to account for their performance. The Public Accounts Committee has sought to make civil servants more personally accountable by summoning not just current Permanent Secretaries to give evidence as accounting officers but also, if necessary, their predecessors who were in post when projects were begun. The Government has agreed and also said that officials in charge of big projects can be accountable to committees.

The main lesson is that it is impossible to over-formalise relationships—to seek a neat but illusory distinction between ministers and officials, and between policy and implementation. Good policymaking means taking account of the problems of implementation at each stage. And that doesn’t mean just when a policy is being devised, but throughout. Permanent Secretaries’ objectives need to be more specific and their performance management needs to be tighter. But even in countries such as New Zealand, where permanent secretary equivalents operate under fixed term contracts, there is flexibility in practice.

Relationships with Secretaries of State are bound to remain personal. This is underlined by reluctance of Permanent Secretaries to seek formal ministerial directions, except in the run-up to general elections. None have been sought since the 2010 election despite doubts over some major programmes with the Major Projects Authority signaling problems with the implementation of 31 out of 191 projects. Permanent Secretaries do not want publicly to expose differences with their Secretaries of State which might damage their relationship, and potentially lead them to being forced out of their departments.

There is always the potential for misunderstanding when civil servants raise questions about the details of a project and this is seen by ministers and advisers as opposition: it takes two to be candid. The key to relations is therefore mutual understanding and respect—recognizing each others’ roles, and not seeking to blame, leak or undermine. Of course, further radical reform is necessary and Whitehall in 2020 is likely to look very different from now—more unified and less fragmented. Mr Maude has already been pushing for further integration of corporate functions and stronger corporate leadership in HR, IT, procurement and commercial services.

But, as we said in our response to the ‘Civil Service Reform Plan One Year On report, the Prime Minister needs to take a more visible role in promoting reform against departmental interests. The central leadership of the Civil Services also needs to be strengthened if such streamlining is to occur. None of that puts ministers versus mandarins: rather the reverse. Only by working together will Whitehall be reformed.

Peter Riddell is director of the Institute for Government and on the panel for the ConservativeHome fringe event ‘Ministers and Mandarins – how politicians and civil servants can work better together’ on Tuesday 1 October 10am. His new briefing paper on ‘ministers and mandarins’ is available from Monday here.