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The End of Whitehall?

Patrick Diamond is Senior Lecturer in Public Policy at Queen Mary, University of London, UK. Patrick held a number of senior posts in British central government between 2000 and 2010, and was formally Head of Policy Planning in 10 Downing Street. He was a local councillor in the London Borough of Southwark, and is Chair of the think-tank Policy Network, a member of the Advisory Board of the Social Market Foundation, and sits on the Scientific Council of the Foundation for European Progressive Studies.

He is the author of The End of Whitehall?

The popular television series, Yes, Minister, was a programme first made in the 1970s that cast senior civil servants in Britain as the cunning and wily manipulators of Ministers. A more recent satire, The Thick of It, focuses on the role of devious ‘special’ advisers and spin doctors in British government who ruthlessly sideline bureaucrats at their Ministers behest. This change in the popular representation of the system of government in Britain underlines how far the tables have turned. Once upon a time, civil service ‘mandarins’ were believed to be in charge. Now, it is Ministers and their handpicked advisers who are said to dominate the internal workings of Whitehall.  

My book on The End of Whitehall argues that the system of government in Britain and other Anglophone states is being radically reshaped. The public bureaucracy in the UK more than elsewhere has been subject to a wave of reforms amounting to a ‘permanent revolution’.  Over the last thirty years, there been a paradigmatic shift in governance and public management in the Anglophone states.1  There is evidence of growing conflict and discord. On the one hand, civil servants feel vulnerable to attack. Their influence and privileges are being diminished by politicians unperturbed when officials become the object of public vilification. The former Cabinet Secretary, Lord Butler, recently complained of, ‘an unprecedented spate of recrimination against named civil servants, made worse by the fact that much of it has been through unattributable, backstairs briefings’.2  One the other hand, Ministers are frustrated by the incompetence and perceived ‘accountability deficit’ that characterises the performance of the civil service. The appetite for fundamental reform of the Whitehall machinery on the part of the political class has grown stronger. 

It was not always this way, as Ivor Crewe and Anthony King have highlighted. In previous generations, British government was perceived as both democratic and competent, uniquely combining the qualities of ‘efficiency’ and ‘effectiveness’. The first post-war Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, boasted the British civil service was, ‘unequalled in all the world’. Yet the reputation of Britain’s public administration has become increasingly tarnished. The ‘deliberative space’ for policy-making has been denuded at the expense of good government and the public service ethos. 

The respectful relationship between politicians and civil servants was the ‘governing marriage’ that shaped the British state in the aftermath of the Second World War.3  The ‘golden age’ of the British post-war consensus rested on harmony between politicians and bureaucrats, unified by confidence in the state’s capacity to transform the economy and society.4  The heyday of the Whitehall model in the decades after the Second World War was perceived to be a ‘golden era’ for British government. Of course, in many ways it was far from ‘golden’. Professional bureaucrats saw citizens as subjects of the Crown. The gentleman in Whitehall apparently ‘knew best’. The system was highly centralising. Yet the governance paradigm that has emerged since the 1980s scarcely gives grounds for greater confidence. Fundamental constitutional principles have been betrayed. The climate of ‘hyper-innovation’ led to waves of confusing managerial reforms. The UK state is more exposed to the risk of egregious ‘policy blunders’.

These institutional changes had far-reaching consequences. Civil servants are too cowed to ‘speak truth to power’, increasingly afraid to think for themselves. The political climate is defined by the ‘greater ideological partisanship of the political parties’. There is, ‘less time and space for reflection on, and consideration of, evidence’ in policy-making.5  The danger is governments commit more ‘blunders’. ‘Policy fiascos’ occur ever more frequently. As Crewe and King point out, mistakes happen where governments fail to achieve their objectives or where policies are carried out, but there are unintended consequences: the ‘collateral damage’ does more harm than good. In subjecting the civil service to ‘permanent revolution’, Ministers have paradoxically undermined Whitehall’s policy-making and implementation capacities. Politicians are busy pushing their agenda of reform, but neglect what is required to ensure a reliable supply of well-informed public policy advice. Worst of all, Ministers undermine the space for reflection about policy-making in relation to complex economic and social problems. 

My book aims to provide an account of institutional change at a critical moment in UK politics. Whitehall is assisting Ministers in overseeing Britain’s departure from the European Union (EU). Numerous ‘wicked issues’ are rising up the agenda from the demographic pressures of ageing to the impact of climate change. The programme of fiscal austerity is having a transformative effect. Across Whitehall, there has been a drastic reduction in the workforce. Agencies have been restructured. The responsibilities of the bureaucracy have been renegotiated. Outside central government, public sector organisations are now required to deliver ‘more for less’. The size of the state has been cut back. Whitehall is fundamentally different to the governance model of fifty or one hundred years ago. Change is becoming irreversible. 

The End of Whitehall is not only about the institutional demise of the civil service, but the erosion of that idea that governments and public bureaucracies have the potential to improve society. The decline in the reputation of Whitehall and the state has consequences. Political scientists tell us that well governed societies are healthier, more prosperous, less violent, more cohesive. In his seminal treatise, The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli claimed efficient, well managed states were, ‘full of good institutions… conducive to the security of kind and the realm’. After three decades of administrative reforms, we need to better understand what has been lost from our democracy. 

1Aucoin was referring to the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. 
2https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201314/ldhansrd/text/140116-0001.htm Accessed 6th February 2018. 

3https://www.civilserviceworld.com/profile-peter-hennessy Accessed 15th December 2017.

4It is worth noting that a number of civil servants who were employed in the Attlee Government in 1945 such as Hugh Gaitskell, Douglas Jay and Harold Wilson subsequently became elected Members of Parliament and Government Ministers. 

5https://www.psa.ac.uk/insight-plus/making-better-use-evidence-government Accessed 18th January 2018. 

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