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.