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To what extent are senior British civil servants still “anonymous, permanent and politically neutral?”

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Introduction

To what extent are senior British civil servants still "anonymous, permanent and politically neutral?" The British executive is divided into two halves, the political arm and the administrative arm. The political arm consists of the elected and unelected politicians who run the various departments and sit in cabinet, while the administrative arm consists of the civil service. The civil service is essentially the machinery of government, carrying out the policies created by politicians. The civil service has a hierarchical structure, stretching from the top officials concerned with policy matters, right down to the hundreds of thousands of junior civil servants concerned solely with administration. Senior civil servants have traditionally been referred to as mandarins. They are responsible for running government departments and work closely with the actual minister, and include the posts from assistant secretary to permanent secretary. Traditionally the civil service has had a closed career structure. Recruits would largely come from Oxbridge and be chosen because of general intellectual skills rather than relevant qualifications. Personnel would then be trained on the job, and most would expect a lifelong career, progressing through the ranks. Reforms resulting from Labour's Fulton Report (1968) created an open structure throughout the civil service. This opened up positions, including those at higher levels, to outside competition. A whole new grading system was introduced with the aim of creating increased transparency in the overall structure, as well as making movement between the grades easier. ...read more.

Middle

The most radical recent reforms have occurred during the last 20 years. The Fulton Report set the ball rolling, but it was Thatcher's administration which really kick-started radical reform. On entering government she was intent on reducing the size of the state, reducing government expenditure, and this included the civil service. This firstly meant immediately freezing civil service recruitment. Thatcher was keen on introducing free market principles throughout the public sector, not withholding the civil service. One of her first moves was bringing in Derek Rayner from the private sector and giving him a senior civil service post, as head of the new Efficiency Unit. The purpose of this unit was to review the civil service from within, improving management and reducing costs. Thatcher also wanted to see a greater degree of responsibility taken by senior civil servants over policy, contravening the principle of ministerial responsibility. Performance-related pay was also envisioned, although appeared difficult to apply in practise. These reforms still left many unsatisfied, and Thatcher's next head of the Efficiency Unit, Robin Ibbs was commissioned to produce a report with further recommendations. The product of the Ibbs Report (1987) was largely the Next Steps agencies. The recommendations of the report were considered so radical they were kept under-wraps until after the 1987 election. The Report again heavily criticised the civil service for being too large, for being too conservative and for spending too much money without being cost effective. ...read more.

Conclusion

The relevant ministers blamed the civil servants involved, and the vice versa. There were no resignations as the Ministers claimed that the civil servants had acted on their own initiative. The "Spycatcher" affair managed to ruin both the "anonymity" and "neutrality" of the civil service. On a number of occasions Thatcher had asked the Cabinet Secretary, Robert Armstrong to defend government policy, compromising his neutrality. The affair in question was over the governments wish to ban the publication of a book called "Spycatcher". The person sent to argue what was a political decision in court was Armstrong. Finally political neutrality has been hit hardest by the huge surge in political aides. The number of special political advisors has increases astronomically under Blair. While combating the claims of centrist conservatism within senior civil servants, politicised policy advisors don't have the same non-partisan objective outlook. The characteristics of "anonymity, permanence and political neutrality" were valued for their creation of a supposedly objective civil service, carrying out government policy and constructively advising about the practicalities of policy. However justification for change comes from the claims of a census-inclined civil service, holding back forward-thinking radical governments. The expertise resulting from their permanence has been criticised as being the wrong kind of expertise, with not enough emphasis on management, and a lack of exposure to market forces leading to complacency. To a large extent senior British civil servants are no longer "anonymous, permanent and politically neutral," and as Blair's Labour government has shown no signs of reversing Thatcher's reforms, they can only really become less so. ...read more.

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