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Good government under threat from rising influence of special advisers

  • Objective civil service advice is being steadily marginalised by ministers, says ex-Home Office speechwriter Alasdair Palmer
  • The quality of public administration is being undermined by a growing reliance on political counsel from spads
  • Politicisation of advice is undoing the Northcote-Trevelyan settlement designed to rid government of ‘unmeritocratic, politicised jobbery’

Britain’s rare heritage of relatively efficient, uncorrupt government is under threat as politically-appointed special advisers become increasingly powerful in Whitehall, a new pamphlet published by the cross-party think tank Civitas warns. Objective, impartial advice from civil servants is being marginalised as the influence of ‘spads’ grows.

Alasdair Palmer, who was a civil servant speechwriter under Home Secretary Theresa May, says that this process threatens the quality of public administration by undermining the civil service principles of impartiality, objectivity, honesty and integrity.

‘The practice of good government in Britain has not been lost – yet. But it is changing, and in ways which could eventually lead to the disappearance of objective and impartial scrutiny of government policy by civil service officials prior to that policy being implemented,’ he writes.

‘We need a keener awareness that we could be in danger of losing it, because without one, we could soon wake up to find that it is gone.’

He argues that, despite ministers’ outward displays of admiration for the civil service, its influence is being gradually downgraded as they prioritise the political counsel of their personal appointments.

This politicisation of the advice ministers receive is undoing the Northcote-Trevelyan settlement which was designed in the 19th century to rid government of ‘unmeritocratic, politicised jobbery’.

‘No-one in power has announced it. No-one in power has even admitted it. The political rhetoric from ministers of all three main parties has been to insist that the Northcote-Trevelyan settlement is being preserved, that they value and want to keep the benefits of policy advice that can only come from independent and impartial officials.

‘But the actions of successive governments since 1997 have in fact been to downgrade and marginalise objective and impartial civil service advice, and to replace it with counsel from politically committed special advisers.’

Palmer, who was a civil servant speechwriter under the home secretary, Theresa May, draws on his own experience of Whitehall, which he found to be not at all like the Yes Minister portrayal of wily civil servants manipulating the secretary of state.

‘Far from being manipulated by senior civil servants, the secretary of state and her special advisers had an enormously powerful influence on the department.

‘Advice from impartial and objective civil servants was much less important than straightforwardly political counsel from the unquestionably extremely able special advisers.’

In The Return of Political Patronage: How special advisers are taking over from civil servants and why we need to worry about it, Palmer warns that Britain is moving ‘slowly but surely’ towards the American system, where thousands of government officials change whenever there is a new president from a different party.

‘There are many things wrong with the civil service as it now is, and many things that can be done to improve it. But our government would not improve if its role in providing objective and impartial assessment of policy was totally supplanted by politically committed special advisers. If present trends continue, however, that is what will eventually happen.’

He adds: ‘The process of giving advice to ministers is being politicised, with the result that ministers do not get the amount of objective, impartial advice from permanent officials that they used to.

‘The result is not, or not yet, the elimination of all objective and impartial advice on policy from the civil service. It is its steady diminution, to the point where it can be seriously questioned whether the policies that are in fact implemented have been modified by that impartial and objective advice.’

Notes

A PDF of The Return of Political Patronage: How special advisers are taking over from civil servants and why we need to worry about it, by Alasdair Palmer is published by Civitas: Institute for the Study of Civil Society on Wednesday, November 11.

An embargoed PDF of the text can be accessed by journalists below.

Alasdair Palmer has worked for Granada Television, The Spectator and The Sunday Telegraph, where he won the Charles Douglas Home Prize for Journalism in 2002. He has been a creative consultant for HBO in Los Angeles and spent 18 months at the Home Office as a civil servant, observing the relationship between ministers, special advisers and civil servants while writing speeches for Theresa May.


The Return of Political Patronage: How special advisers are taking over from civil servants and why we need to worry about it

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