The policy-making process

Definition of policy:

Policy can be defined as a set of ideas and/or proposals for action, leading to a government decision.

Policy making models:

There are a variety of models which seek to demonstrate how policies are devised.

The first three models are concerned with political relationships inside the executive:

· conventional model - this is the traditional constitutional model in which decisions are taken by ministers; civil servants advise and implement. The convention of individual ministerial responsibility is based on this model.

· party government model - political parties are the main vehicle for policy making; for example, parties have their own policy units, while party conferences also a policy making role.

· Whitehall model - also sometimes called the technocratic model; this suggests that civil servants are the main originators of policy ideas as they are permanent and experienced in their field, unlike ministers who are only relatively briefly in their posts.

The next three models seek to explain in whose interests policy decisions are taken:

· ruling class model - the Marxist approach, which argues that ultimately, most policy decisions are taken to serve the interests of the economically dominant group in society - i.e. the biggest and financial companies and individuals.

· pluralist model - according to this model, power is dispersed to a number of groups throughout society, e.g. business, unions, the church, the law, the education elite, etc. Decisions are reached by competition/negotiation between these groups, with the government acting as arbiter.

· corporatist model - according to this model, the most powerful interest groups become closely involved with government decision making, in effect becoming part of the decision making process themselves: e.g. business, unions and government in the 70s.

The final two models are explanations of the actual process of decision and policy making:

· rational decision making - decisions are made after a logical process of thinking everything through, looking at all the options and making a conscious, logical decision.

· incrementalism - decisions are made by "muddling through", adding to what already exists, adapting to existing situations.

Policy initiation

Policy ideas and proposals can arise from a variety of sources. These include, in roughly increasing order of importance:

· the general public - they can influence decision making by lobbying, signing petitions, etc. For example, the tightening of gun laws can be seen as being a response to widespread public concern after the Dunblane massacre.

· cause groups - pressure group campaigns can raise issues which eventually reach the statute books; e.g. Greenpeace and others raised environmental issues.

· the media - press campaigns can set the political agenda and influence the public and politicians - for example over Europe, and some law and order issues. Editors, media owners and others can have a direct line of contact with decision makers.

· academics - some academics are the originators of influential theories: e.g. Keynes (economic interventionism), Friedman (monetarism). Others can be used as advisors to ministers (e.g. the Treasury team of "wise men").

· political parties - these have a policy making role through party conferences, policy forums, etc (especially the Labour Party).

· parliamentary parties - MPs and party committees in parliament have significant potential influence.

· select committees - their reports and recommendations can be taken up by ministers.

· "think tanks" - such as the Centre for Policy Studies, the Adam Smith Institute, Demos, the Institute for Public Policy Research have all been influential in determining party policies.

· ministers - individual ministers may have their own particular policy ideas and preferences.

· civil servants - departmental views may be evident, regardless of changes of minister or government - for example, there is a well-known “Treasury view” of economic policy, regardless of the party in power.

· Prime Minister - some PMs are very determined and influential in policy making, e.g. Thatcher (privatisation, poll tax, etc), Blair (constitutional change, “modernisation” policies, etc); others take a less prominent position, e.g. Major (Citizen's Charter).

Policy formulation

Once policy ideas have been developed, they go through a process of preparation by civil servants and ministers; then through the legislative process in Parliament.

· the bureaucratic process - policies are formulated, first by going through departmental committees; then through the Cabinet Office; then by being drafted by Parliamentary Counsel.

· the legislative process - there are a series of readings and stages in both the Commons and the Lords; bills are subject to amendment by the Opposition and/or backbench revolts by majority party MPs. But significant change is rare, especially when there are large government majorities.

Policy implementation

Once legislated for, policy should, in theory, be put into practice fully. However, this does not always occur:

· policy may be based on inadequate information and therefore not work effectively.

· advice may have been ignored.

· circumstances may have changed.

· other agencies may resist the implementation of the policy, either openly or covertly (e.g. local government).

Introduction to the civil service

The Civil Service consists of all those people who work directly for the government. It consists of a wide range of occupations, from clerical assistants to engineers to prison officers. There are currently about 500,000 civil servants in Britain. Most discussion, however, is focused on the senior civil service, the relatively small number of people who advise ministers on policy and head the major government departments, located in Whitehall.

Origins and ethos

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the civil service was noted for corruption, nepotism and incompetence. In 1854 the Northcote-Trevelyan Report was published, recommending that the civil service should become strictly meritocratic - i.e. appointing people purely on the basis of merit. Entrance examinations to the higher civil service were instituted, which only highly able people were able to pass. The skills required were largely abstract intellectual skills rather than expertise in any particular vocational specialism.

As a result, the higher civil service came to be dominated by a narrow elite of Oxbridge graduates, often with a classical education, who were “generalists” skilled in administration but not necessarily with any specialist knowledge. They emphasised the importance of permanence, neutrality and anonymity as key values for civil servants. This tradition continued for the second half of the 19th century and much of the 20th.

In the second half of the 20th century, this tradition began to be questioned: after the Second World War, the role of government expanded significantly and this exposed some of the weaknesses of the generalist system. The Labour government of Harold Wilson set up the Fulton Committee, to consider how the civil service could be modernised. The Fulton Report (1969) recommended the recruitment of more specialists and experts, improved training and more accountable management.

A number of changes followed the Fulton Report - for example, the Civil Service College was established to improve training - but many of the traditions of the civil service were difficult to remove. It is only in the 1980s and 90s that significant changes in the civil service have become evident.

Permanence of civil servants

In Britain, the civil service is a permanent institution, which does not change with governments. Civil servants are expected to be willing and able to serve governments of whatever political complexion. The civil service is intended to provide expertise and continuity between governments and ministers. On average, a minister is likely to be in post only for a little over two years and is therefore unlikely to be able to develop the breadth of understanding of departmental issues that a civil servant will have.

This contrasts with the United States, where all the senior civil service posts are political appointments and change with each Presidential administration.

The advantages of a permanent civil service include:

· the development of knowledge and expertise on departmental issues

· the development of knowledge and expertise on the workings of the governmental machine

· the ability to give practical and unbiased advice to ministers

· continuity between ministers and between governments

· it reduces the likelihood of wide policy swings from one government to another

· it minimises the risks of unrealistic or unwise policies being implemented.

The disadvantages of a permanent civil service include:

· it is inherently conservative and resistant to change

· it is resistant to new management practices - for example, the Fulton reforms were never fully implemented

· “departmental” views develop which may cut across the views of elected politicians

· there is a lack of accountability, as there is no direct accountability to Parliament.

In recent years the concept of permanence in the civil service has been undermined by a number of different developments:

· there is an increasing trend for the appointment of political advisers and assistants to ministers - for example, Alistair Campbell and David Miliband in the Prime Minister’s office, Charlie Whelan and Ed Balls in the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s office - these posts are, by definition, temporary

· senior civil service posts (including Permanent Secretaries) are now advertised nationally and some posts have been filled from outside the civil service

· agencies are free to recruit their chief executives and other senior posts from outside of the civil service, and about a quarter of such posts have been filled with non-civil servants

· market testing has meant that some posts which were previously in the civil service are now filled on a contract basis by outside contractors

· there is an increasing use of short term contracts.

The benefits of these changes are that they bring in fresh ideas, undermine bureaucracy and complacency and increase the pressure for good performance.

On the other hand, they can be seen as undermining the traditions of continuity and public service.

As a result of these changes, the single, unified and permanent civil service no longer exists in its original form, although many elements of permanence do remain.

Neutrality of civil servants

The concept of permanence in the civil service requires that civil servants are able to serve governments of any party with the same degree of commitment. Therefore a corollary of permanence is political neutrality:

· their advice is expected to be non-partisan

· they do not undertake work which is of benefit to one party

· senior civil servants are restricted from taking part in party politics even outside of their professional roles.

Whilst neutrality is an ideal state, in practice absolute neutrality is difficult or even impossible to achieve:

· civil servants work in a highly political environment and to be able to do their job effectively they must be aware of the political effects of their advice

· being restricted from party political activity does not prevent civil servants from having political views

· their educational and social background is likely to colour their attitudes

· the institutional ethos of the civil service, and its permanence, leads to the creation of established policy preferences and a “conservative” attitude towards undue change in any direction.

As with the undermining of the concept of permanence, the concept of neutrality has been weakened significantly in recent years and there has been a process of politicisation taking place:

· Mrs Thatcher’s preferences for “one of us” appointments can be seen as undermining neutrality

· the guidelines for civil servants produced by Sir Robert Armstrong (Cabinet Secretary) in 1985 state that civil servants are obliged to act in the interests of the government and that there is no alternative “public interest”, as claimed by Clive Ponting

· on a number of occasions, the last Conservative government attempted to use civil servants to draft political speeches, criticise opposition policies, etc

· it has been argued that the civil service was politicised simply because of the fact of the length of time in office of the Conservative government - any civil servant who wanted promotion would be likely to give the advice ministers wanted to hear, not necessarily impartial advice

· civil servants helped conceal the actions of ministers in the “arms to Iraq” case

· the increasing use of political advisers, albeit on temporary contracts, clearly is contrary to the idea of neutrality.

Although this increasing use of political advisers has been criticised (most recently by the Conservatives) as a way of paying party officials with taxpayers’ money, it can be argued that it is more open and honest than pressurising permanent and neutral civil servants to act in a political manner.

Anonymity of civil servants

The convention of ministerial responsibility requires that ministers, not civil servants, accept responsibility to Parliament for their actions and those of their departments.

The concept of civil service anonymity is linked with the concepts of permanence and neutrality:

· civil servants are likely to have to give advice to governments of different parties which may have significantly different attitudes to policy

· they need to be able to give this advice to ministers freely and without fear of any adverse public or political reactions and without fear of damage to their future careers.

In recent years, this anonymity has begun to be eroded:

· the level of media interest in government affairs tends to identify individual senior civil servants

· Select Committees, which scrutinise the activities of government departments, frequently question civil servants about the advice they give to ministers

· ministers are increasingly willing to “name and blame” civil servants rather than accept individual responsibility for the actions of their departments

· the chief executives of the increasing numbers of executive agencies are generally public figures.

Some examples of civil servants whose names have been brought into the public arena:

· the civil servant who released a private letter criticising Michael Heseltine during the Westland affair (1986) was Colette Bowe

· Bernard Ingham, Mrs Thatcher’s Press Secretary, became very well known for his “off the record” briefings

· Alistair Campbell is currently well known as the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman

· Derek Lewis, the head of Prisons Agency, was sacked by Michael Howard.

Ministers and civil servants

The formal constitutional relationship between civil servants and ministers is

· ministers take all policy decisions - and are accountable for them to Parliament and the general public

· civil servants advise ministers, provide them with options (prior to a decision being taken) and then administer policies (after a decision is taken).

This is also the view expressed by the civil service guidelines and is often repeated by ministers. However, in practice, the separation of advice and decision is not always clear cut:

· the nature of the advice is bound to influence the final decision - some options will appear (or be made to appear) more attractive than others

· the manner in which a decision is executed or administered (with or without enthusiasm, quickly or slowly, etc) can affect the quality of the decision.

Civil servants have a number of advantages over ministers in the decision making process:

· their permanence, compared to the relatively brief time ministers hold office (about two years on average)

· their expertise, as ministers are unlikely to be experts in their field

· their control of information coming into the department, which they sift before it gets to a minister’s desk

· ministers’ extensive workload, which makes them reliant on civil servants

· lack of alternative sources of advice.

The complexity of the decision making process and the overlap in the roles of civil servants and ministers has caused a debate over the political power of civil servants. There are a number of viewpoints which suggest that civil servants have, to greater or lesser degree, more control over decision making than the traditional constitutional model would imply.

Some former ministers have claimed that civil servants can effectively prevent ministers from carrying out the policies on which they were elected:

· Richard Crossman and Tony Benn have both argued that the “conservative” nature of the civil service was particularly hostile to left wing policies (i.e. the power bloc argument)

· Margaret Thatcher believed that the civil service was resistant to change, and that it wanted to protect its own privileges (the bureaucratic over-supply argument) - which is why she introduced extensive structural change in the civil service.

Other ministers (particularly Dennis Healey) have argued that effective ministers should be able to impose their views on civil servants and that good civil servants will respond to a strong and clear lead from a minister. It is only weak ministers who are “captured” by civil servants. As evidence, we can consider:

· the 1945-51 Labour government, which introduced the welfare state and widespread nationalisation, was not noticeably restricted by the civil service

· the 1979-90 Thatcher governments introduced radical policies, again without obvious civil service resistance.

It has been argued that, in fact, the experience of the Thatcher governments has restored the traditional constitutional relationship between ministers and civil servants:

· a strong government and a strong Prime Minister with a clear set of policies were able to give a clear direction to civil servants, limiting their room for manoeuvre and prevarication

· the use of political advisers has provided alternative sources of advice for ministers against which to test civil service advice

· similarly, the use of “think tanks”, such as the Adam Smith Institute (by the Conservatives) and Demos (by the Labour Party), has provided fresh sources of ideas for ministers separate from the civil service

· the organisational changes introduced during the 1980s and early 1990s (e.g. the Next Steps agencies) have reduced the power of the civil service bureaucracy and introduced better performance standards and management techniques.

Civil Service reforms

The Efficiency Unit

In 1979 the government established an Efficiency Unit, headed by Sir Derek Rayner, a management expert from the private sector (Marks and Spencer). This was intended to improve the “three Es” - economy, efficiency and effectiveness.

The Efficiency Unit was able to reduce operating costs in a number of areas and to improve management techniques. It was claimed that over £1 billion had been saved by 1986 and the efficiency reviews have continued to be part of modern civil service practice.

The Financial Management Initiative (FMI)

This was started in 1982 and was a development of the efficiency reviews. The main idea of this was to make civil service managers responsible for their own budget areas, giving them more responsibility and holding them accountable for their performance. It contrasted with the earlier system by which individual civil servants had no direct responsibility for costs, which often led to cost overruns and waste.

This new management system is now established practice and is part of the reason for reduced costs and more efficient management in the civil service.

The Next Steps

Despite the progress in improving management, there was more pressure for greater efficiency and this lead to changes in the entire organisation of the civil service. “Improving Management in Government: The Next Steps” was a report published in 1988 by Sir Robin Ibbs, the head of the Efficiency Unit.

This was critical of the civil service:

· it was too big and unwieldy as a single organisation, combining too many different and contrasting activities within the same structure

· it did not give enough freedom to managers

· there was not enough emphasis on achieving results and on quality of service.

It made a number of recommendations:

· the separation of the advisory role of the senior civil service in Whitehall from the executive role of implementing government policies

· the establishment of executive agencies to run each separate operational area within the civil service

· each agency to be run by chief executives who would have the freedom, within overall policy set by government, to run their agencies as separate ’businesses’

· ministers would no longer have direct responsibility for operational management, which would lie with the new chief executives.

These recommendations were accepted by the Thatcher government and have since been implemented. Arguably, they constitute the biggest change in the organisation and structure of the civil service since the Northcote-Trevelyan report.

Implementation of the Next Steps

The process of creating an agency starts with a prior options examination - i.e. there is a consideration of all other alternatives for operating the civil service function, such as privatisation, contracting out, etc.

Since 1989 the vast majority of civil service executive functions have been re-organised into agencies - there are currently more than 170 agencies in existence. Examples include:

· the Benefits Agency
· the Prisons Agency
· the Meteorological Office
· Her Majesty’s Stationery Office
· the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency
· the Ordnance Survey
· the Employment Agency.

Recruitment - The agencies are able to recruit their chief executives from outside of the civil service - from the private sector or other public sector organisations. This is seen as opening up the civil service to a wider range of experience and expertise and is a clear contrast to the earlier practice of generalist civil servants being promoted from within the service.

Targets - Each agency, in negotiation with departmental ministers, sets itself targets against which its performance can be measured. These are intended to enable the agencies to improve their performances and to demonstrate their quality of service. Some of these targets may be included in the agency’s version of the Citizens’ Charter.

Pay and conditions - All agencies with a staff of more than 2,000 are responsible for negotiating the pay and conditions of their staff. This reflects the fact that the nature of the work involved in each agency can be very different - the Prison Service compared to the Meteorological Office, for example - and the market conditions (demand and supply) for the jobs can vary widely.

This has been opposed by the trade unions, which argue that the pay and conditions of weaker groups of workers will deteriorate under these arrangements.


One of the key issues that has arisen with the introduction of agencies is that the accountability of civil servants to Parliament has allegedly been reduced.

· previously, MPs could raise problems with a department directly with the minister concerned, in person, by letter or in Parliament (Question Time)

· now MPs have to raise such issues with the chief executives of agencies, which is less open, less certain and possibly less effective.

There has also been confusion as to the exact division of responsibility between ministers and agency chief executives:

· the traditional view of responsibility was that ministers are ultimately responsible for all of the actions of their departments (i.e. individual ministerial responsibility)

· the new view is that the minister is responsible for policy decisions, the agency head is responsible for the implementation of that policy.

This is best illustrated in the case of Michael Howard, Home Secretary until 1997 and Derek Lewis, chief executive of the Prisons Agency. In 1995, there were a series of high profile escapes from British prisons and other problems (e.g. with Group 4). Initially Howard defended Lewis but, with the publication of the highly critical Learmont Report on the escapes, Howard promptly sacked Lewis.

Under the earlier understanding of individual ministerial responsibility, Howard, as minister, might have been held responsible (and resigned). However he claimed that, as minister, he was only responsible for deciding policy and that Lewis was responsible for carrying out the policy and had failed. Yet the Learmont report demonstrated that the division between policy and implementation was not at all clear and showed that Howard was very closely involved in all of Lewis’s day-to-day decisions.

Market testing

Having enforced competitive tendering in the NHS and local government, the government introduced it into its own services from 1991, where it is known as ‘market testing’. The intention was to enable private sector companies to submit financial bids to carry out activities or services provided by central government. It is expected that the result will be that services are provided more cheaply and efficiently, either by the private sector or by the civil service or agency who will have been forced to be reduce costs because of market pressure.

Examples of services now operated by the private sector as a result of market testing include private prisons and immigration and asylum seekers detention centres.

The Conservative government claimed that considerable financial savings have been made as a result of market testing, but critics would argue that quality and standards may have suffered as a result.


The civil service has clearly undergone very significant changes since 1979:

· it is no longer an organisation with a single structure
· it is more managerially efficient
· it is more financially efficient
· it is much smaller in terms of numbers
· it has clearer targets
· some services are provided by the private sector
· its accountability to Parliament has been reduced.