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.