What do civil servants actually do? — Part Three: policy versus administration

Sir Humphrey Appleby : Yes, yes, yes, I do see that there is a real dilemma here. In that, while it has been government policy to regard policy as a responsibility of Ministers and administration as a responsibility of Officials, the questions of administrative policy can cause confusion between the policy of administration and the administration of policy, especially when responsibility for the administration of the policy of administration conflicts, or overlaps with, responsibility for the policy of the administration of policy.

In his inimitable way, in the Yes Minister quotation above Sir Humphrey sets out a complex explanation of a common governance issue: if something goes wrong, how do you decide if it is because of the policy or its implementation? In other words, do you blame the Minister or the civil servant? This plays out further a rule I discussed in my previous blog in this series (on political impartiality): Officials advise, Ministers decide… but officials then carry out the decision.

There are countless examples of how people come to different conclusions on culpability and praise — look at recent policies around Brexit, probation reform, NHS reform, exam delivery, pandemic responses, etc. — and of course these link back to a key doctrine of Government in the UK: Ministerial Accountability.

The principle of Ministerial Accountability is another of those simple ideas that rarely plays out as the theory suggests it ought. The idea is that, because Ministers are the one making final decisions and because they are the ones who get the praise when things go well (either in the press or at the ballot box), they should also be the ones who take responsibility if things go wrong. This means first and foremost explaining to Parliament, but also taking the rap in the press and ultimately resigning in the most egregious cases of failure.

There are plenty of people who will opine on the justification for Ministerial Accountability and whether it is an eroding principle in modern political life (see this paper by the Institute of Government for example). So I won’t comment on that here. But I think it is useful to set out some of the issues that make a seemingly simple principle hard to follow consistently in practice.

Political accountability versus administrative accountability

In the Yes Minister quotation above, Sir Humphrey is experiencing one of the more gruelling duties of a senior civil servant (one that thankfully I have never had to endure) — appearing before the Public Accounts Committee (the PAC). The PAC is the Common’s committee charged with providing oversight of Government spending, and as such often asks both politicians and senior officials to account for their decisions. Sir Humphrey, appearing as Permanent Secretary of the (fictional) Department for Administrative Affairs would be formally responsible for all Departmental spending. He is, as all Permanent Secretaries are, the Accounting Officer and therefore charged with signing off Departmental accounts. If there is any irregularity in spending, the Permanent Secretary will be expected to take responsibility for it and would be expected to resign in extreme cases of incompetence by his or her officials. But if money has been spent badly or even if fraud has been committed because of a Ministerial decision, then it would be the Minister who is expected to take responsibility.

The challenge is that most cases are not clear cut. There are times in my career where I have provided advice to Ministers in which I have highlighted financial and delivery risks to a potential policy decision. I have then set out how, if Ministers nonetheless take the decision, I might try to mitigate but not necessarily remove these risks. I advise, Ministers decide… and then I have had the responsibility of implementing. Sometimes my suggested mitigations have worked well and the policy delivers as intended. Other times the challenges of implementing have won out, most often as underspends on budgets (spending less than the policy intended and Treasury have allocated) because targets could not be reached. An honest assessment must suggest that there are times when Ministers made bad calls and also times where I failed to deliver as well as could be imagined. So how would the PAC decide what had gone wrong, and who should take the blame?

Unintended consequences

There are two unintended but common issues with the scenario described above which can inhibit effective governing:

a) civil servants can be overly cautious in advice to Ministers, playing up delivery risks and playing down the likely chances of success of any policy, especially if it is innovative. This is often a defensive measure, guarding against a future in which the policy fails. It is, after all, more comfortable for a civil servant to be able to point to a submission and say, “I told you so” than admit that any key risks were not considered. Such an approach can be frustrating to Ministers and can lead to excessive cynicism and defensiveness in civil servants; and,

b) if something does go wrong, the confusion over who is ultimately responsible can provide a convenient smokescreen for Ministers and civil servants alike. To be clear, I have never seen an occasion where this has been a deliberate tactic, but nonetheless it takes considerable determination to get into the messy details of a failed policy with real candour.

And of course what we really fail to acknowledge is the massive complexity of governing in the modern world and the inability in practice of any Minister or civil servant to take full account of all the likely consequences of any policy decision or implementation.

Take, for example, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), which employs just under 100,000 people ranging from those working closely with Ministers on designing policy through to those running job centres and dealing with members of the public looking for support, as well as a number of Executive Agencies which have their own governance structures and are run at arms length. There is no way that the Secretary of State of that Department could be responsible for every decision made, every action taken. And similarly, there is no way an individual civil servant could possible understand all the possible implications of a local decision on implementation.

So in practice the focus tends to be on those errors of judgement — on policy or implementation — that are deemed most egregious or where blame is easy to apportion. I cannot see that there is a way to clearly define these cases, and the truth is that the personalities involved and the wider political context will play a significant part in whether a Minister resigns or an official moves on. Put frankly, the emerging truth seems to be that chutzpah is the crucial factor.

In the final blog in this series I will look at the engagement between the civil service and the outside world in terms of policy development.

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Gareth Conyard

Gareth Conyard

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