The civil service is ripe for disruption – and Brexit could well be the catalyst

James Frayne
Westminister Street Signs
The civil service's lack of Brexit expertise could force ministers into wholesale reform of the system (Source: Getty)

We are approaching a serious crisis in the relationship between ministers, advisers and civil servants. While governments have often grumbled about the quality of the civil service, there are signs political discontent is growing.

Why? The stakes are higher. The challenges posed by Brexit dwarf anything we have seen before. And so the relationship between ministers and advisers on one side, and civil servants on the other, is coming under huge strain.

The discontent that has emerged in public recently – about civil servants’ supposed collective lack of enthusiasm for Brexit – is a red herring. As middle class Londoners, it is doubtful many voted for Leave.

But having briefly been among their number, I know they are genuinely neutral in their approach to work and will get on with the job in hand. Ministers and advisers recognise this and will be losing little sleep over whether civil servants will be throwing sand into the machine.

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Much more serious is the concern politicians have about the knowledge and skills that exist within departments. The “theoretical” period – which produced an excellent speech by Theresa May, followed by a fairly thin document by the Department for Exiting the EU – is almost over. The government is now about to begin formal negotiations on the nature of our exit and new relationship with the EU.

It is in that context that we should read Sir Oliver Letwin’s recent letter to the House of Commons Public Administration Committee. Letwin was at the heart of government implementation for six years. His comments reflect the frustrations felt by many other senior politicians and advisers under the Cameron administration.

He had three main criticisms. First, too many civil servants are promoted for generic “management” skills rather than expertise and technical ability. This means the people closest to the minister often do not know very much. Second, the best civil servants get moved around departments constantly. This destroys the idea of a permanent, expert bureaucracy. It means political advisers in, for example, the No 10 policy unit tend to know far more about a topic than the civil servants they are working with.

Third, there remains a complete lack of ability to design systems because “policy”, “technical advice” and “operations” are separated. As anyone who has run a complex business knows, this is nonsense. This is compounded in government by the need, for the first time in decades, to undertake complex trade negotiations when their counterparts will have large numbers of experts on their side. This makes temperatures run high.

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What, then, might be the result? It is well known that if Boris Johnson and Michael Gove had entered Downing Street after the referendum, civil service reform would have been high on their agenda. The Prime Minister is a more cautious politician and will be wary of the difficulty of ripping up a system while trying to stay on top of Brexit and domestic policy. It will also be difficult to re-engineer the civil service in the middle of negotiations.

Difficult, but not impossible. So far, the Prime Minister has managed Brexit well. But the reality of dealing with the EU member states – their internal disagreements about exit bills, the risk of the UK as a tax haven, and the need to maintain cordial relationships – guarantees major upsets.

At the same time, the civil service is being forced to inject large numbers of outside consultants into the system to fill gaps in trade expertise. Those experts, combined with political dissatisfaction, could finally present an opportunity to disrupt a system which emerged out of the last great government crises – the world wars of the first half of the twentieth century – and which has been remarkably impervious to change.

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