Fighting corners

Politicians tend to blamed when policy goes wrong but while the professional standing of senior civil servants is less secure they are also less likely to thrust themselves into situations where professional norms contradict ministerial whim says David Walker
Boxing - General View of Caesars Palace with an upturned stool
Civil servants are more likely to throw in the towel when it comes to fighting their corner over policy concerns. Photograph: Action images

A great unasked question in the history of British public management is what an official should do if asked by the political chain of command to go against their professional judgement.

If you are Sir John Beddington, the chief scientist, and you believe homeopathy is intellectual junk, your response to a health minister demanding such treatments on the NHS would, first, be intense jungle warfare within Whitehall and, ultimately, a threat to quit.

You could imagine the national statistician being thrust into a similar situation where professional norms contradict ministerial whim.

For mainline administrators, things are usually less clear cut. Policies are often soft round the edges, with lots of wiggle room. The professional standing of a senior civil servant is a lot less secure than that of a scientist or statistician or, in different circumstances, a local government chief executive from a financial or legal background.

That is why, presumably, so few permanent secretaries or directors general have ever walked out. They have never had the professionalism to be, as it were, conflicted.

Say, at this moment, you were a senior figure in the Department of Health. Your experience and intelligence might be telling you that Andrew Lansley's plans for reorganisation won't work and that they may have unintended and malign consequences. That message is being reinforced by academics, analysts and consultants. What would you do?

The traditional answer from the civil service is nothing; at least, nothing once you have attempted to argue the minister out of his fixed and erroneous ideas.

That ought to mean that officials bear a large responsibility, moral and political, if policy goes pear-shaped. Yet studies of policy failure in British central government tend to blame the politicians.

One such study is due from Professor Anthony King of Essex University later this year, but he is not going to name officials – perhaps for the good reason that, ex-post, it's hard to identify whose hands were on the tiller when the ship went down.

What's is puzzling at the moment is that members of the present government do not themselves seem much to like the old rules of the game. Some seek to make a hard and fast distinction between themselves and the machine. The communities secretary, Eric Pickles, apostrophises 'Whitehall' as if it had a mind and political will of its own.

He talks about 'agents of Whitehall' disturbing the civic peace of the English regions, about 'Whitehall planning' forcing councils to make provision for travellers and Whitehall 'waging war' on motorists.

Pickles may be a special case. But it would be interesting to see the Pickles doctrine applied: it implies Whitehall officials ought to have a mind of their own. If they did, they could plead innocent if government policies go awry.

Sir Gus O'Donnell, the head of the civil service, has pushed for professional competence, including competence in policy. The capability review programme he launched five years ago aimed to boost the evidence and skills base for both policy advice and delivery.

Like all such programmes it probably could only last for a set duration but the themes it broached seemed universal and permanent, and its demise under the present government is regrettable.

But make no mistake about the subversiveness of O'Donnell's plan. If Whitehall's senior denizens were to become policy professionals, then there would be grist to Pickles' mill – but as a result we might also be a lot clearer about who is responsible for what in the formation and delivery of policy.

In health, that could save a lot of potential aggravation, let alone billions of pounds of much-needed public money.

David Walker is contributing editor to Guardian Public

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