On a sunny day in late June 2019 the great and the good gathered at Westminster Abbey to remember and celebrate the life of Jeremy Heywood, Secretary of the Cabinet and Head of the Civil Service. It was a remarkable gathering of leading politicians, civil servants, business figures and many others. Theresa May, David Cameron, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and John Major were all present. Across the road in the House of Commons there was frenzied activity as the Conservative leadership contest surged through various rounds and it is a testament to the distinction Heywood’s career in the public service that politicians, regardless of party view, gathered to remember his life and work. In his working life however, which was drawn to a premature conclusion by illness at the age of only 56, Heywood was no stranger to public controversy and scrutiny. He was subjected to his fair share of political criticism and journalistic suspicion.
Attacks on senior civil servants of course did not start with, and are not confined to, Jeremy Heywood. Bernard Ingham and Charles Powell both developed a very close relationship with Margaret Thatcher. The influence Horace Wislon exerted over Neville Chamberlain was the subject of much hostile comment. Winston Churchill was very dependent on Edward Bridges. Ollie Robbins is frequently subjected to much comment in his role as Theresa May’s chief Brexit negotiator. There were concerns that Maurice Hankey, the first Cabinet Secretary, was not so much improving the co-ordination of government as much as he was usurping the role of the Prime Minister. Senior civil servants spend their working life in close proximity to politicians. The British civil service still enjoys a formidable reputation for professionalism and impartiality, one hundred and sixty-five years on from the effective founding of the modern civil service with the publication of the Northcote-Trevelyan Report it is a good moment to reflect on the service’s future.
The report sought to address the perceived weaknesses in the national administrative structure and proposed specific reforms to improve the working and professionalisation of the civil service:
“For the purpose of considering applications for increase of salary, abolishing or consolidating redundant offices, supplying additional assistance where it is required, getting rid of obsolete processes, and introducing more simple and compendious modes of transacting business…establishing a proper distinction between intellectual and mechanical labour, and generally, so revising and readjusting the public establishments as to place them on the footing best calculated for the efficient discharge of their important functions according to the actual circumstances of the present time…”
Four simple but profound changes were recommended:
1. Recruitment should be open and by examination.
2. Entry would be to the whole civil service not just one department.
3. There would be a hierarchy of grades ranging from routine administrative jobs to senior poly advice roles.
4. Promotion would be on merit and not by who you knew, how long you had been there or what you could afford to pay in terms of buying advancement.
This was radical stuff and set the scene for a meritocratic opportunity for all to serve so long as you had the talent and ability to do so. It was then, as it is now, a setting of the scene for a highly professional and able group of people at the heart of government.
There is a very interesting series of interviews conducted by Peter Hennessy and Anthony Seldon for the Mile End Group which can be found on YouTube with all the Cabinet Secretaries from Robert Armstrong to Jeremy Heywood. They are fascinating to watch, particularly those who had served Margaret Thatcher. Certainly no push over by anyone’s standards Mrs Thatcher worked closely and well with her senior civil servants and the respect and admiration is reciprocated by them for her. The same cannot be said by them for other Prime Ministers they served. It is quite startling to hear them speak and well worthwhile.
Mrs Thatcher of course did much to change and reform the service from being one of administration and policy advice to being more about implementation and delivery. Her reforms were about empowering civil servants to take responsibility for the delivery of change. Years of attack and denigration however have undermined the confidence engendered by those early Thatcher reforms. The Ministerial buck-passing of the Blair years turned into open criticism of officials by senior Ministers in the Cameron coalition. The damage wrought not only to the confidence of officials but their willingness to take risk and responsibility has been significant. It is only in more recent times that the relationship between Ministers and officials at the centre has begun to improve. The stresses and strains however are apparent. A fresh sense of reform is necessary and a rigorous focus on attracting the most able is necessary.
Based on Northcote-Trevelyan’s recommendations there is a need to ensure the senior civil service is attracting the most able people available in a highly competitive work environment. We need the cleverest and most gifted people to serve in the higher civil service and there should be no qualms about the rigour employed to recruit them. Senior civil servants should be about delivering, implementing and facilitating government policy, not advocating or promoting policy. It is not clear that a social media presence is necessary or desirable for senior officials. Ministers need to return to the practice of taking responsibility for their departments and their officials and stop blaming them or passing the buck when things go wrong. MPs need to stop attacking officials and stick to holding their political masters to account.
In this country we have certain established institutions which help to provide stability and safeguard our liberties: a Parliamentary democracy, an independent judiciary, an unfettered media, Armed Forces that keep out of politics. In 1854 the Northcote-Trevelyan report laid the foundations for a professional independent civil service the safeguarding of which a hundred and sixty-five years on is more important than ever.