The UK civil service has come in for some stinging criticism over the past couple of years. As the Coalition government has pushed on with its programme of public sector cuts and service reform, civil servants have been subject not only to drastic job cuts but also to a number of attacks. In March 2011, David Cameron labelled the staff in Whitehall and in town halls as “enemies of enterprise”, while in October 2012, Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude described it as “unacceptable” for civil servants to block the plans of ministers.
This stereotype – of civil servants constantly seeking to thwart government policy – was portrayed eloquently and humorously in the 1980s TV comedy Yes Minister. But it also seems to have gained ground recently in what many see as a pernicious way, undermining as it does the delicate relationship between civil servants and their political masters.
Maude himself recently described the relationship between ministers and their permanent secretaries as “the most important in any department”. In December 2012, as part of its civil service reform plan, the Cabinet Office published the personal objectives for all Whitehall’s permanent secretaries – the most senior departmental staff. This would, claimed Maude, help highlight the responsibility of permanent secretaries and “ensure stronger joint leadership for departments, leading to smoother implementation of government policy and a better deal for the public”.
At the same time, the government is attempting to push through plans to give ministers the final say in the appointment of Whitehall permanent secretaries, a move that has set the government at loggerheads with the Civil Service Commission, the independent body that currently recommends who is appointed.
In its hunt for new models of public administration, the UK government is looking at how relationships between the civil service and politicians are handled around the world. In September 2012, it commissioned think tank IPPR to analyse the operation and accountability structures of civil services overseas. IPPR’s report is yet to be published; in the meantime, here’s my summary of four countries with different approaches to civil service.
The German civil service is grounded in the principle of a professional service, regarded as binding by the Weimar Constitution of 1919 and then enhanced by the constitutional law of 1949. This laid out the structure of the Federal Republic’s administration, including: the separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers; the country’s federal system of government; and self-government for local authorities.
German public services have been through extensive change over the course of the past few years, beginning in 2006 with the streamlining of the country’s federal structure and a major shift in power to the country’s states (Länder). This was followed in 2009 by a new civil service law that emphasised individual performance and more flexible staffing arrangements.
Some 4.6 million staff were employed in Germany’s public sector in 2011. There are three occupational statuses for public sector workers: Beamte, who are appointed by law and prohibited from taking strike action; Arbeiter, or blue-collar workers; and the professional staff, or Angestellte. In principle, there is no hierarchy in place, from local authority level right up to the federal government.
There is lower use of internal audit within German public services than in many other OECD countries, although Germany, as with other countries, is increasingly using private companies to deliver public services. This has resulted in more demand for accountability systems to oversee the private enterprises that deliver services (such as hospitals) on behalf of the state. Since 2007, new forms of organisation, including service centres, have been developed, along with new forms of co-operation with the private sector.
Strengths and weaknesses
Germany’s tradition of a professional civil service, based on adherence to regulations, has been a strength: Germany is known for its efficient administration. Conversely, this has made it harder for the country to move to a more results-oriented approach.
New Zealand’s civil service was initially based on the British model, set out in the Civil Service Act of 1866. In the 1980s, the country was a world leader in initiating the move towards a corporate model for government, splitting up departments into independent units. Heads of departments became chief executives, who now work under tight three- or five-year contracts with their relevant ministers.
New Zealand’s present centre-right government has published a set of high-level, cross-government goals to give civil servants greater clarity about government priorities. Its aim is also to create clusters or sectors (such as the justice sector) in which departmental chief executives can work together to overcome some of the problems created by the current system’s emphasis on separate units.
There is an emphasis on vertical accountability, with departmental chief executives directly responsible to their own ministers via individual fixed-term employment contracts. This has left the head of the New Zealand public sector – the state services commissioner – in a relatively weak position, with little direct power over chief executives.
Strengths and weaknesses
An emphasis on departmental units created tighter control over budgets and greater clarity about the objectives of departments, but the system is acknowledged to be weak in tackling cross-government problems and has resulted in a fragmented system in terms of policy-making.
Singapore’s civil service was set up by the British in 1855, and in 1951 the Public Service Commission was formally constituted. The city-state initiated a major programme of change in 1995, called Public Service for the 21st Century (PS21), with a focus on continuous learning by staff, customer service, staff wellbeing and a review of organisational structures. That programme was itself updated in 2008, in part due to concerns that civil servants were focusing on administrative targets rather than the underlying programme of innovation and reform.
Singapore’s public service employs some 130,000 officers in 16 ministries and more than 50 statutory boards. Technology is widely deployed, for instance to gather information about citizens’ financial affairs, rather than people having to fill in tax returns once a year. Civil and public servants are free to hold positions in private sector firms, and the Singapore service has shown a willingness to pay market rates to attract and retain senior staff.
Singapore’s system is hierarchical and the head of the service (at present, Peter Ong) has significant power and authority over all other civil servants.
Strengths and weaknesses
The Singapore public service is small and highly disciplined, which allows it to make rapid technological change and impose cross-government systems. Potential weaknesses come from having a system in which public servants have close ties to industry. The rigour of the system could lead to rigidity, but its senior members are keen to encourage innovative leadership, and Ong has publicly stated the need for his staff to possess empathy with those they serve.
A system of political appointments to US civil service posts was initiated by President Andrew Jackson in the mid-18th century. The Pendleton Civil Service Act of 1883 saw a move towards a merit system of employment, although political patronage survives in some federal, state and municipal appointments – for instance, major donors to presidential campaigns may be rewarded with plum overseas roles. The federal government is the largest single employer in the US, with 15 US federal executive departments and more than 1,300 independent agencies.
Most executive agencies have a single director, appointed by the US president, while independent agencies have a commission or board, appointed by the president for a fixed term of office.
US public services are more closely aligned to political change than is the case in many other countries, despite many attempts to introduce a merit system that should cover the majority of civil servants.
Strengths and weaknesses
The scores of new civil servants appointed after US elections means there is a flexibility in the US system that is sometimes missing in more rigid, meritocracy-based administrations. The downside is a potential lack of continuity or long-term planning, and greater politicisation.
- ‘David Cameron launches stinging attack on the civil service’; Jo Adetunji; guardian.co.uk; March 2011
- ‘Civil servants blocking government policy ‘unacceptable’ – Maude’; bbc.co.uk; October 2012
- ‘Government’s first use of Contestable Policy Fund’; press release; gov.uk; Sept 2012