Wednesday 3 December 2008

Civil Service impartiality

The Damian Green affair rumbles on. This is Gus O'Donnell, Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service, speaking on 2 December at the Civil Service Diversity and Equality Awards ceremony:

"All civil servants serve the Government of the day. We are politically impartial and our actions are governed by the Civil Service Code. Political impartiality means we must serve the Government, whatever its political persuasion, to the best of our ability, no matter what are own political beliefs. To quote from the Code, this means acting 'in a way which deserves and retains the confidence of Ministers, while at the same time ensuring that you will be able to establish the same relationship with those whom you may be required to serve in some future government'."

There was no official connection with the Green affair, but his decision to touch on this topic, in a context in which it looks pretty incongruous, can hardly have been a coincidence.

I find Gus O'Donnell's words disturbing. They could be read as favouring impartiality. But they could just as easily be read as favouring utter, fawning partiality, doing the bidding of ministers to the extent of protecting their reputations even when those reputations deserved to be lost, until the next election, then showing the same partiality to the new government, even though its political stance and its policies might differ radically from those of the outgoing government.

In practice, ministers' reputations are indeed looked after far too carefully by civil servants. I agree that ministers, having got themselves elected, should take policy decisions. But such decisions should be on their own heads, and for them to justify. While civil servants should advise on the options and implement the chosen policies to the best of their ability, the presentation and defence of those policies should be left entirely up to ministers and their political parties. And when leaks happen, ministers should not be shielded from the consequences of disclosure of the truth by their civil servants.

I would therefore favour a much tougher understanding of Civil Service impartiality. It should mean that civil servants will provide ministers with a limited service of advice and implementation, and nothing more. Impartiality should mean impartiality every day, not a mere readiness to change loyalty come the next election. Only then could we justifiably refer to Northcote and Trevelyan, and at one remove to Plato, with the implication that we were carrying on a proud tradition.

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