Few, if any, independent observers believe that the United Kingdom has been well governed over recent years. The causes are many and complex but relatively little attention has been paid to the contribution of the senior civil service to this decline. Useful evidence can however be found a number of independent reports (formal and informal) which have commented on the performance of the senior civil service. They make disturbing reading, not least because they highlight failings such as inadequate planning, insufficient challenge and lack of attention to warning signals. All these skills would have been regarded as the key strengths, not major weaknesses, of previous generations of senior officials. They offer a worrying portent for the future.
Here is a summary, in the order in which they were published.
The invasion of Iraq
Chilcot concluded that no-one had ensured that Cabinet Ministers were provided with proper legal advice before the invasion of Iraq, no-one had ensured that decisions were properly recorded and explained, and no-one had challenged the failure to organise adequate Cabinet discussion of the Iraq strategy.
“… the Cabinet Secretary was not as present as previous Cabinet Secretaries … would have been”.
Chilcot acknowledged that Prime Minister Blair had given the Cabinet Secretary “a very different agenda” to his predecessors, but:
“The responsibility of the Cabinet Secretary to ensure that members of Cabinet are fully engaged in ways that allow them to accept collective responsibility and to meet their departmental obligations nevertheless remains.”
The Lessons Learned Review concluded that:
“A range of warning signs from inside and outside the Home Office were simply not heeded by officials and ministers. Even when stories of members of the Windrush generation being affected by immigration control started to emerge in the media from 2017 onwards, the department was too slow to react.
[A number of] organisational factors in the Home Office … created the operating environment in which these mistakes could be made, including a culture of disbelief and carelessness when dealing with applications, made worse by the status of the Windrush generation, who were failed when they needed help most.
Officials could and should have done more to examine, consider and explain the impacts of decisions.”
Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood’s biography reveals that he did not seriously challenge David Cameron’s decision to veto any pre-referendum planning. Nor did he drive home the seriousness of ‘the Irish border question’, even though he well understood its danger. Perhaps most crucially, he and his senior colleagues (and the Cabinet itself) failed to ensure Cabinet discussion either before or after Theresa May’s speech at the Conservative Party Conference in October 2016.
Ex-Chancellor Philip Hammond told UK in a Changing Europe that:
“I did see some text on the economy the day before, but I had no idea that she was going to describe Brexit in the hardest possible terms. … I was completely and utterly horrified by what I felt was almost a coup: a definition of Brexit without any proper Cabinet consultation at all. … she dug a 20-foot-deep hole … in making that speech and, from that moment onwards, cupful by cupful of earth at a time, was trying to fill it in a bit so that she wasn’t in such a deep mess.
I’m not even sure that she understood, as she was delivering that speech, how extreme the words coming out of her mouth really were. I think if she’d understood, if she realised that she was lining up people like me and metaphorically kicking us in the groin, I don’t think she would have done it. I don’t think that was her intention.”
EU expert Ivan Rogers …
“… said to Jeremy after the October speech, ‘You just have no idea how bad this is. This is a disaster in Brussels and around capitals. What she’s done is a fatal error and she’s now put herself in an incredibly weak negotiating position, both with the guarantee by a date certain of invocation of Article 50 and then with these red lines, which are unobtainable, and which she is going to end up bitterly regretting having put in such blunt terms.
Then of course he’s doing the usual Jeremy thing of exhorting, ‘Everybody carry on and sooner or later they’ll all sober up a bit in the face of reality.’ You remember, the classic Jeremy response of course is, ‘We can’t rush our fences, otherwise we won’t be in the room at all and it’ll all just be [Theresa May’s Special Advisers] Nick and Fi, and sooner or later, reality will dawn even on these people.’ And, of course, I’m saying, ‘Yeah, but it’s much worse than that actually. She’s just blown herself up, she just doesn’t know it yet.”
Sir Ivan was sacked soon afterwards, as were several others. Patrick Dunleavy summarised Sir Jeremy’s dilemma as follows:
“The May team’s interfering did not stop at ministers … In a little recognized but very consequential move for how Whitehall operates, a veritable putsch was organized to get rid of all the senior officials that May disliked (essentially anyone ‘speaking truth to power’). Instead, one by one, May’s team bullied the Cabinet Secretary, Jeremy Heywood, into replacing 5 out of 18 Permanent Secretaries across Whitehall, plus the vitally important head of the UK’s … delegation in Brussels, so as to bring in officials more compliant to Downing Street’s complete hegemony. A further 8 Perm Secs were already new to their roles, not having held posts at the 2015 general election.
Talk to senior Whitehall officials and they are bemused at the violation of past norms of behaviour that has already gone on under Conservative majority rule. ‘It’s very difficult for Jeremy’ they murmur, in attempting to excuse his quiescence in the face of this naked politicization. But the end result has been that two thirds of the Cabinet of ministers struggling with their new roles are also being advised by new-to-the-job Permanent Secretaries. And the senior civil service’s ability to offer frank advice has been cowed by the PM’s detailed insistence on everything going her way.”
The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee published a devastating report on The Evacuation of Kabul including accusations that the Foreign Office Permanent Secretary and the National Security Adviser had lied to the Committee – presumably to protect the Prime Minister.
“[There was no] plan for evacuating Afghans who supported the UK mission, without being directly employed by the UK Government, despite knowing 18 months before the collapse of Afghanistan that an evacuation might be necessary. The hasty effort to select those eligible for evacuation was poorly devised, managed, and staffed; and the department failed to perform the most basic crisis-management functions.
One whistleblower, a senior FCDO official, told us that she had “never in my career seen anything within the civil service so badly managed.” There was no induction for new staff on the team, no clear tasking, no system for recording decisions or actions, and no system for handovers between shifts. The team was severely understaffed, and the rostering system was ineffective. …
A junior official with two years’ work experience was the only person monitoring the Special Cases inbox on the afternoon of 21 August, as hundreds of emails poured in. This was the height of the evacuation effort, which would end days later, and the last chance for many Afghan judges, journalists and human rights defenders seeking help from the British Government.
… The Prime Minister denied any role in [one] decision, as did the Defence Secretary. … [When] we asked the National Security Adviser whom he had consulted, he said he did not remember. … The fact that nobody can state who made the decision … suggests at best that the political leadership was chaotic and at worst that senior figures are not telling the truth.
… we repeatedly received answers that appeared calculated to mislead or to evade our questions and that were contradicted when new facts came into the public domain …
… we asked the Permanent Under-Secretary and the PM’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan six times whether there had been “a ministerial instruction or a political instruction to help these people […] received by you or the Foreign Office”. They evaded the question each time, and were unable to find emails on the subject that were subsequently published by the Committee. After revelations from whistleblowers, the FCDO was forced to concede that there had been an instruction from outside the department. It has been unable to account for the discrepancies, or the disappearance of the email evidence.
The Foreign Office has not been open about [its] failings. In the course of the inquiry, it has given us answers that, in our judgement, are at best intentionally evasive, and often deliberately misleading. Those who lead the department should be ashamed that [junior] civil servants of great integrity felt compelled to risk their careers to bring to light the appalling mismanagement of the crisis, and the misleading statements to Parliament that followed.”
Covid vaccination program
The Covid Inquiry has only just started work, and the vaccination program undoubtedly saved many lives, but it was nevertheless disturbing to read Kate Bingham’s criticisms of the modern civil service. In her Sunday Times interview, promoting her book The Long Shot, she complains that:
[She had entered] a world where politics trumped pragmatism and process apparently mattered more than outcome. … Civil service micro-management and requests for data became increasingly distracting. Bingham compared it to building a plane while flying it in the dark, simultaneously writing the instruction manual and fielding petting questions from air traffic control about the strength of orange juice served to passengers.
[She] thought that the civil service … was woefully detached from the real world … “they can write papers and policy documents but it’s not clear to me how useful that is unless you actually understand the content of what it is you’re doing.”
[She was also] stunned by the lack of relevant expertise in Whitehall. “… none of them really understood the science or had any engagement with industry. Being in the business department and not understanding industry I thought was pretty shocking.”
The civil service urgently needed to change its approach to recruitment, she said. … If people have a science PhD, they hide it because then they are deemed to be a boffin
A more detailed exploration of Kate Bingham’s views may be found in her 2021 Romanes Lecture.
No.10’s blatant flouting of the letter and spirit of the Covid regulations, including by the Cabinet Secretary and the Prime Minister’s Principal Private Secretary, was summarised in Sue Gray’s report:
“Many will be dismayed that behaviour of this kind took place on this scale at the heart of Government. The public have a right to expect the very highest standards of behaviour in such places and clearly what happened fell well short of this.”
And No.10 civil servants told obvious lies. Jill Rutter, in an Institute for Government blog, noted that …
“… the press office was at the heart of the party culture in No.10 exposed in Sue Gray’s report. But despite knowing that it was impossible to dress up what had been going on as “work events” – the defence which cost Allegra Stratton her job – they went on covering up. It was only after the fines were issued and the full Gray report was published that the official spokesman stopped lying and put an apology for doing so on the public record.
Amazingly that apology was not followed by the spokesman’s resignation or dismissal. It should have been. The prime minister’s official spokesman cannot double as a liar. Both the press and the public need to know that they can trust what is being said in the name of the prime minister and the government. And that action should not have rested with the prime minister – it should have been the cabinet secretary who made clear that the lies had besmirched the civil service’s reputation and demanded their departure.”
The formal Inquiry is yet to report on the actions of civil servants but DLUHC’s barrister addressed Inquiry as follows:
“For the department’s failure to realise that the regulatory system was broken, and it might lead to a catastrophe such as this, the department is truly sorry and apologises unreservedly.”
I have already summarised some of the evidence about the performance of MHCLG officials before the fire. No-one has yet objected to my conclusion:
The Grenfell fire is important not just because it killed 72 people. It is important because it highlights deficiencies within the highest levels of the civil service. MHCLG civil servants seem to have responded to ministerial pressures by degrading their working practices until they became unrecognisable to those of us who worked in government 20 or 30 years ago. It seems likely that their opposite numbers in other large departments are even now working in similar ways.
These reports present a depressing picture of senior officials who have given up on leading effective, properly resourced teams, speaking truth to power and/or telling the truth to Parliament. Maybe they have fallen into what James Thomson described as ‘the effectiveness trap’ in his analysis of the disastrous Vietnam war? “The inclination to remain silent or to acquiesce … to live to fight another day, to give on this issue so that you can be “effective” on later issues – is overwhelming.” Or maybe it was all about protecting their careers, especially now Permanent Secretaries are on fixed term contracts. After all, none of the officials mentioned above appear to have suffered any detriment, even following ‘Partygate’.
The invasion of Iraq (and its botched aftermath) together with the botched implementation of Brexit have had enormous financial and international consequences which were entirely avoidable. The consequences of Windrush, Kabul, Partygate and Grenfell have all been smaller scale but devastating in their way. Let us hope that our recently appointed new Prime Minister encourages experience and expert advice, however politically uncomfortable.
Martin Stanley, was a Senior Civil Servant in the Business Department and Cabinet Office. He then became Chief Executive of the Better Regulation Executive, the postal industry regulator Postcomm, and the Competition Commission. He edits the Understanding the Civil Service website and is the author of How to be a Civil Servant and Speaking Truth to Power.
The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.
 James Thomson, ‘How could Vietnam happen? – An autopsy’, in The Atlantic (April, 1968).