Five Elephants; or, Thoughts on Civil Service Impartiality

This post began life as a thread on Twitter, but deserves its own post.

Last month the Institute for Government published a thoughtful report on the value of an impartial Civil Service. It is worth reading and contains much that I agree with. In particular, I agree that impartiality does have a high value and with the need to focus on effectiveness, which can often be the bigger issue than bais. It makes some good point about the damage caused by an increasing tendency for a small number of civil servants to leak to the press, as well as (on the other side) Truss’s sacking of Tom Scholar (though I’d note that Truss quite quickly got her comeuppance).

I’d also note that the vast majority of civil servants I worked with, both as a civil servant and as a SpAd, were committed to impartiality. The idea of an organised, anti-Government ‘blob’ is nonsense – and many accusations, such as around the delivery of Brexit, were caused more by divisions in the Cabinet and in Parliament than by civil service intransigence. Once the Government knew what it wanted, the civil service delivered it.

There are, however, some major elephants in the room that the IfG report doesn’t address. Concerns are rising about civil service impartiality – just look at the regular headlines in the Telegraph or the Daily Mail or, for some more thoughtful articles, see here here, or here, which set out some good reasons for this. When one side starts losing faith – rightly or wrongly – with an institution that is meant to be impartial, that causes real problems for that institution’s ability to continue to exist in that form. Like Caesar’s Wife, an impartial institution must be above approach. Those who care most about civil service impartiality should be in the forefront of addressing and rectifying these concerns.

In this post we’ll be exploring the five largest elephants that really do exist, and must be addressed, if the future of impartiality is to be assured.

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  1. Poor Performance

As in any large organisation, most civil servants perform well, but some do not. This often seems to be particularly the case on large scale project delivery or procurement. Certainly, when I was a SpAd, concerns about performance were more common than concerns about bias – the National Tutoring Programme is one major project in my time that has been wracked with repeated problems.

It is worth saying that neither Ministers nor SpAds are typically experienced procurement experts, IT specialists or project delivery managers – and nor should we expect them to be. It is reasonable to expect the large civil service organisation, with its many fairly highly paid people, to be able todeliver this.

There is a disconnect between Ministers being accountable for performance, but having no ability to transfer, fire or reward those responsible. It is no good to say that the best Ministers can manage under these constraints – yes, they can, but no private sector organisation would dream of tying their leaders’ hands behind their back in this way. We can see this at the heart of the Raab affair: whether or not you agree he was bullying, it appears to be undisputed that one element was that there was a senior civil servant who he did not believe was delivering on an important task, who he then reprimanded. Of course, sometimes people are informally shuffled sideways, but there is no formal way of doing this.

Ongoing poor performance and failure to deliver – particularly in politically sensitive areas – can easily drive concerns about bias or lack of impartiality. No-one, to my knowledge, has accused the DfE of deliberately thwarting the National Tutoring Programme (as that would be ridiculous), but these accusations are laid when it comes to post-Brexit regulatory reform, or elements of immigration policy. Giving Ministers the clearer ability to have people they are confident are capable would help neutralise these accusations.

I would suggest there should be a formal means whereby Ministers could raise performance concerns about officials with their Permanent Secretary, and request that the person be reassigned. Such a power would be used rarely – similar to when a Permanent Secretary requests a formal written direction – but, when used, would normally be considered and resolved swiftly. This would help to more clearly deal with performance concerns, and prevent the private or public conflation of performance issues with accusations, or perceptions, of bias or partiality.

2. Recognising certain issues are politically contentious

There is an urgent need to address the insistence by the civil service that certain matters – e.g. on gender and race – are somehow ‘non-political’. Regardless of your views on these issues, it is undeniably the case that questions around sex, gender, self-ID and women’s sports; or on race, privilege, statues, heritage and curriculum are highly politically contentious, regularly splashed on the front pages of newspapers, covered by the broadcast news and hotly debated in Parliament.

Yet in the civil service, very one-sided positions on these are fully embedded within training courses, HR policies, within ‘staff support groups’ or in statements made by senior leaders. Sometimes these directly contradict the policies or positions that have been set out by Ministers. It should be as unacceptable for a staff member to write an intranet post calling for gender self-ID, or about ‘white privilege’, as it would be for them to write a post calling for the nationalisation of the railways or the abolition of inheritance tax. Not because any of these positions are necessarily wrong – but because they are contested and political.

Similarly, email signatures and lagnards with rainbows, BLM hashtags or pronouns in signatures, or other public statements showing support for political causes badly compromise the appearance of impartiality. Black Lives Matter is a political slogan just as much as Make America Great Again – you cannot use those particular words in a signature and pretend they just mean the ordinary, literal meaning.

Here, in particular, is an example of where the DWP has just conceded a six-figure settlement to a staff member they fired for challenging this politicisation. It’s worth reading. No-one has admitted guilt, but I tend to believe an organisation doesn’t pay up more than £100k unless they think they’re bang to rights.

This is the area I feel is the most unacceptable; the one where too many senior civil servants have been wilfully blind in allowing this politicised culture to creep over the civil service – a fundamental change from the civil service I joined in 2006. Senior leaders need to speak up about it and stamp it out, making clear that such one-sided displays of allegiance are unacceptable – and get a grip on training and HR policies as well. Until this is scoured from the civil service, fundamental concerns about impartiality will remain.

3. The embedding of campaigning, activist groups in the public sector

This typically takes place through membership of diversity schemes, such as the Stonewall Diversity Scheme. This is a fundamental problem when civil servants must advise impartially on sensitive matters – such as transgender prisoners or self-ID in schools – where there are contested views in society.

It is not enough to say that these schemes are only about internal HR policies. If staff have been taught, through training, lunchtime talks and so on, a one-sided view of an issue, and if their HR policies reflect that view, and suggest that anyone challenging may be subject to disciplinary action, how can they possibly submit impartial advice that considers the issues in a fair and balanced way?

I am not saying civil servants should not engage with these groups. When the Government was considering whether or not it should introduce self-ID on gender, of course the civil servants should have spoken to Stonewall and other groups that supported it, as well as to groups that opposed it. But embedding one of these groups – Stonewall – actually inside the civil service, through a scheme that gives it privileged influence over policies and training, is clearly wrong. It is obvious, for example, that DfE’s ability to grip the issue of gender ideology in schools was badly compromised by its long-term membership of Stonewall.

This applies to all campaigning groups – on the right or on the left. Civil servants should engage, when it is appropriate, but should not be giving them privileged status.

4. Group-Think

The IFG report is right to say that group think is (mostly) a bigger concern than explicit bias. But with education polarisation increasingly the biggest divide in UK politics, this poses real challenges for an organisation that by necessity draws heavily from the highly educated. Essentially, in some areas most civil servants will have views which do not represent the nation as a whole, but only a particular slice of it.

We saw this very visibily on Brexit, where the vast majority of senior civil servants and Permanent Secretaries supported Remain. We see it on issues related to equality law – as discussed above – or in the DfE, at the time when Theresa May tried to reintroduce grammar schools. We see it when the civil service union threatens to go on strike if told to implement the Rwanda plan.

I saw several examples of this myself – again, group-think, rather than bias. One time when the Government was considering implementing a national scholarship scheme, with bursaries for students from poor backgrounds who achieved very high scores on their A-Levels, the civil servant responsible called me and told me they were having a really hard time writing the submission, because no-one in their team could understand why ministers would want to do such a thing (i.e. only giving it to high achievers from poor backgrounds, rather than to everyone from a poor background)(1).

Similarly, one time I was speaking to a dozen or so civil servants working on family policy, some of them quite senior. I asked whether any of them had read David Goodhart’s book, The Road to Somewhere. None of them had. Now this was a relatively recent best-selling book, and Goodhart is one of the leading UK writers on family in the right-of-centre space. I’m not saying I’d expect all of them would have read it, but the fact that none of them had is telling. Civil Servants do read political books, quite often, but I guess if all of your friends and colleagues are reading Tony Blair’s autobiography, or Sathnam Sanghera’s Empireland(2), rather than books written by anyone on the right, that shapes what you yourself read.

On the Free Speech Bill – an area where I think civil servants ultimately did brilliantly – the submissions that initially came up entirely reflected the views of Universities UK and the National Union of Students, two groups that – then – took the view that there was not a problem. In an early conversation with the team, it was clear that no-one had really engaged with the principal writings or beliefs on the other side, such as that of Jonathan Haidt, who was saying it was a bad idea to tell students that words were violence back in 2017. I set a reading list, gave some suggestions of stakeholders to speak to – such as academics who had been cancelled – and things rapidly improved: Ministers and I sometimes agreed with the advice that came up and sometimes didn’t, but it was balanced and reflected the arguments on both sides. It was an issue of group-think rather than bias – the team wanted to deliver – but there was a whole area of debate and thinking that was outside the ‘Overton Window’ of the civil service, until they were made aware of it.

Ultimately, this can be managed. If the civil service is aware that it doesn’t represent the whole nation (and in more important ways than the usual identity politics), it can deliver: after all, it did so for the Attlee government between 1945 – 1950, despite the senior civil service back then leaning strongly to the right. But it requires much more explicit acknowledgement that the civil service is increasingly drawn from a slice of society with values that do not represent the whole nation, and understanding how to serve governments whose views may not be shared..

5. The use of accusations to bring down those with opposing political views

With accusations (often leaked to media) against Falkner, Braverman, Raab and Patel, there appears to be an increasing trend of a small minority of officials seeking to directly remove or undermine leaders who pursue policies that transgress progressive orthodoxy. It does not seem to be a coincidence that these are disproportionately levelled at those seeking to enact changes in areas around rights and identity – even though it is known that other politicians have not always acted civilly around officials.

The Falkner case appears to be particularly egregious, and has been described by The Times as a ‘hit job’. Notably, the investigation into her behaviour was rapidly dropped once the disinfecting rays of daylight were shone on it, strengthening the concern that this was a nakedly political attempt to remove someone with different views. I have written here – in a thread which went viral – about an attempt I personally witnessed in the DfE to remove a senior external adviser due to their political views, which strengthens my belief that this is not an isolated incident.

This is an obvious concern in a society polarised on issues of rights and identity – where political debates are increasingly treated by some as moral absolutes. It will be increasingly the case that some people will be willing to make these sorts of accusations – particularly in a world where someone who expresses political views one disagrees with can be accused of ‘causing anxiety’ or ‘making people feeling unsafe’.

Crucially, this is a vulnerability that can be exploited by a minority of committed activists – even if 99% of civil servants remain impartial. It is a difficult one to tackle, if one wants to keep the space open for genuine accusations of wrong-doing (for example, of sexual harassment). But if the civil service is to survive as an impartial institution, this must be addressed, with severe, punitive consequences for those who seek to undermine or oust organisational leaders.

Overall, my heart would have me agree with the report that impartiality has value, and that reform is better than a whole new model. Impartiality is worth defending. But defending impartiality means there must be a more open, clear-sighted acknowledgement of the current, real, issues than the IfG – and others -currently give, with meaningful, systemic reforms designed to address them.

Those who care about preserving impartiality should be willing to take those steps to defend it.

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(1) This is actually a good example of a civil servant working with a SpAd. I was able to explain the context, and also spoke to their Director – who fortunately did understand why Ministers wanted to do it – but the initial incomprehension shows a level of group-think.

(2) These are also entirely valid books to read!

2 thoughts on “Five Elephants; or, Thoughts on Civil Service Impartiality

  1. Good points.

    “When one side starts losing faith – rightly or wrongly – with an institution that is meant to be impartial, that causes real problems for that institution’s ability to continue to exist in that form. Like Caesar’s Wife, an impartial institution must be above approach. Those who care most about civil service impartiality should be in the forefront of addressing and rectifying these concerns.”

    I think it’s getting harder for any institution to be recognised as impartial, due to an increase in “if you’re not with us, you’re against us”-ism. See the accusations levelled at the BBC of both right-wing and left-wing bias , which I think are a fairly recent phenomenon.

    (Also, is “above approach” a typo for “above reproach” or a pun that I’m missing?)

  2. Re point 2, maybe the solution is to forbid civil servants to publicly express opinions on “controversial” topics, rather than “political” topics. For many people, “political” has too many connotations of traditional economic left-right issues (and only those), like the nationalisation and tax issues you mention. But many of the big recent controversies are kind of orthogonal to those.

    Plenty of people will say that gender self-ID or whatever “shouldn’t be controversial”, but they can’t deny that it *is* controversial.

    Maybe you could even include a formal definition of “controversial”, like “at least 25% of people disagree” or something. The exact number can be tweaked (you might want to keep it fairly high if you still want civil servants to be able to publish things about vaccinations or climate change).

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