Saturday, July 21, 2007

Politicise Whitehall! (part 1)

Apologies for the light posting here .

I’ve walked myself into an obligation to write a post advocating a politicisation of the civil service, so here it is. As Gordon Brown is responding to the conclusion of the cash-for-honours enquiry hinting at political funding reform, now is probably a good time for this anyway.

Before I start, for clarification, I’d only support a politicisation of senior elements of the civil service – the higher end of the ‘policy’ food-chain. I’m not sure there’d be any sense in sacking all of the teachers whenever there’s a change in government (though I suppose it would be a bit of a laugh).

So here goes. To make it digestible, it will probably have to be written over a number of episodes. Here’s the first.

‘Depoliticisation’is a significant (though clearly not the only) factor explaining political centralisation in the UK. When we say 'depoliticised', what we really mean is that we tolerate a small amount of properly-funded political input into government that can be largely monopolised by the Prime Minister's office. Currently, individual ministers owe their positions - almost entirely - to the patronage of the Prime Minister.

Few PMs are entirely unchallenged, of course (see Blair / Brown / Cook, the 1960s triangle of Wilson / Brown / Callaghan, or Thatcher / Lawson / Heseltine in the 1980s for examples), but for the most part, a minister arrives at their department almost unarmed. They have little scope for appointing people around them, and one of their earliest meetings is with their permanent staff.

Much of what has passed for a depoliticised civil service in recent years has – in fact – been a strong highly politicised PM’s office commanding a string of ministers who only have a small personal team around them and few real resources of their own to call upon. And what personal team they do have is often more responsive to No10 than it will ever be to the minister concerned.

Certainly, after 1997, the wise minister appointed reliably Blairite special advisers. And this is – I would argue – the forgotten element in the decline of Cabinet government. An open-minded PM with a Cabinet full of under-resourced minister may, objectively, be more unconsultative than a real ballbreaker of a PM in other circumstances.

In summary, I’m arguing that individual ministers should be able to bring in a fairly largish team, rather than arriving with one or two confidantes (both of whom know that long careers are based upon hedged bets, and all bets are laid-off with the PM).

So, what would this look like?

Firstly, political parties currently raise a lot of money privately and spend it all on campaigning. What policies they do develop are done so on-the-hoof and largely to serve short-term electoral ends. It cheapens public life and diminshes trust in politics. I’ve argued, in the past, that high-spend campaigning is increasingly a fools errand, and with a public who have a smaller appetite for individual donations, the pressure to constantly raise money is needlessly undermining trust and creating problems.

I believe that political parties can survive as campaigning outfits on smallish personal donations. The problem comes with the policy-formation role. This is where I’d argue for state funding.

It is time that these roles were uncoupled. A state-funded policy directorate within political parties could be configured as a number of competing ‘campuses’ loosely grouped around differing political positions and itinerant senior players. These campuses exist already in a much less consistent form. They would probably never have a formal location, and they are likely to be fairly porous (in the great venn-diagram of wonkery, there are meeting points between all of the main parties, never mind within them). This is a solution that would not involve much reconfiguration of political culture in this country.

Crucially, these campuses would – if managed properly - have funding and purpose. MPs would be able to fund them from increased allowances (the point at which state funding should be applied). They would draw in more ambitious participants, the Chinese wall between academics and political wonks could start to disappear, and you would have a more politically aware set of researchers.

Ones who understand that a conversational engagement with the public is an important part of the policy-formation process.

I’m conscious that I’ve not yet given enough reasons to scrap the existing settlement, but I will return to this in due course. I will argue that a politicised civil service will not only be more efficient, but also it will have the unique appeal of allowing British voters - perhaps for the first time - to choose who should run the country (as opposed to who should be given a ringside seat to watch the country being run).

2 comments:

Shuggy said...

"In summary, I’m arguing that individual ministers should be able to bring in a fairly largish team, rather than arriving with one or two confidantes (both of whom know that long careers are based upon hedged bets, and all bets are laid-off with the PM)."

In short, you're not really in favour of the politicisation of the civil service but only the top layer? I'm afraid I don't understand this article at all. If politicisation is good for the top layers of civil service, by what principle is it excluded further down? Other than the fact that it would be a recipe for a banana republic.

‘Depoliticisation’is a significant (though clearly not the only) factor explaining political centralisation in the UK

It's not a significant factor - it isn't even a factor at all. It's function of the Prime Ministerial prerogative. The supposed independence of the civil service, eroded under Blair at least as much as under Thatcher, is an institution bulwark against centralisation. How about a 'politicized' top-layer of the armed forces, maybe the police, not to mention the secret services? You want to extend this principle further than it's gone already?

Paulie said...

Shuggy,

I note that your comment was posted at 1am on a Sunday morning. The sun being well over the yardarm may explain why you didn't fully understand the argument? It's a fairly straightforward one.

"If politicisation is good for the top layers of civil service, by what principle is it excluded further down? Other than the fact that it would be a recipe for a banana republic."

Yep. That is my argument for not extending politicisation beyond policy roles. Civil servants help to form policies, and then implement them. In many countries (France and the US are the classic examples) these two roles are split and policy appointments are made by incoming governments. It works there, and could work here. I would have thought it would be an attractive antidote to the British fetish for generalists as well (code: there are lots of groupthinky Oxbridge tosspots who would get fired toot sweet - surely a compelling argument for almost anything?).

"[Centralisation] is a function of the Prime Ministerial prerogative. The supposed independence of the civil service, eroded under Blair at least as much as under Thatcher, is an institution bulwark against centralisation."

You could argue that. But then both Thatcher and Blair wanted to win elections and then effect change. If you're arguing that the civil service provide a status quo, - a small-c-conservatism - and this is a good thing, then we'd be onto different turf. I don't think that PMs who beleive that they are under pressure to bring about change will continue to accept a government machine that drags weed. My suggestion is that government can be very energetic, but not controlled by one office - surely an improvement in every way?

"How about a 'politicized' top-layer of the armed forces, maybe the police, not to mention the secret services? You want to extend this principle further than it's gone already?"

We're back to the Banana Republic argument. And I'd completely concede here. I have no plans to give each political party an army, though sometimes, I think that a tank my be needed to get the Lib-Dems to use an ounce of the common sense that they were born with for the first time in their lives.

I just want the normal administrative departments to be run by a competent and confident political team that is not entirely beholden to the Prime Minister's office. That's all.

Why can't you give me what I want Shuggy?