A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Sunday, 12 July 2020

Some Thoughts on Politicisation of the Civil Service

Trying to get back into the habit of blogging, mostly so that I'm writing more frequently. I'm not starting to write with well-formed views, or even nascent thoughts which I hope to clarify through the act of writing, so don't expect too much from this post.

One recent piece of news: the resignation of Sir Mark Sedwill, who until recently held the posts of the UK Cabinet Secretary and National Security Advisor. Significantly, his replacement as NSA will be David Frost, presently the UK Lead Negotiator in the negotiations with the EU.

For people not from the UK: the higher posts in our civil service are considered non-political: while there is ministerial involvement in the recruitment of Permanent Secretaries (the civil servants who run government departments) and Director-Generals (the next rung down, and incidentally the highest rung I've had personal contact with in my own work as a fairly junior civil servant), but this is usually more limited than the extent of involvement which is suspected here.

I'm not going to comment too much upon the circumstances of Sedwill's departure. I know very little about him - when he started as Cabinet Secretary I began but did not complete a rather tongue-in-cheek post pretending that his "Fusion Doctrine" was the latest and most damning sign yet of the authoritarian nature of the government, but besides the minimal research involved in that I know nothing of him. The suggestion I've seen was that the UK's appalling response to Coronavirus was a proximate cause, since one would expect the NSA to be on top of the UK's pandemic response. Perhaps this is true, it seems plausible, but really very few people know enough to say with great confidence and I am certainly not one of them.

I'm not going to to comment much, either, on the appointment of David Frost as the new NSA - or at least, not on him personally. He previously served as the UK Ambassador to Denmark, and has held two Director-level posts previously, so I don't think objections to his appointment should focus upon questions of competence.

The move to making the position openly political is itself interesting, however. To comment effectively on this, one requires a conception of under what circumstances a decision should be considered "political" as opposed to "operational". The standard self-conception of the civil service would be that our political ministers tell us what to do - or we distil an understanding of what they want from their public statements. We then do what they want, providing updates on what we're doing, giving options and recommendations but giving them the decision where it's not clear what they want, alerting them to risks of the proposed approach - but there are a lot of details which one simply does not need to check with ministers. Political decisions, then, are those which involve (a) a weighting of interests: as a country would we rather seek to achieve X or Y, noting that X is better for some people but worse for others, or that it carries a certain risk, or will take longer to put into place; or (b), a decision about what it is, at the more fundamental levels, that the UK government is aiming to achieve.

What are the kinds of decisions of that sort which will arise in the post of NSA? One can think of a few - e.g. what are the criteria we prioritise when deciding how significant a risk is (loss of life? loss of effective national sovereignty? do we value lives differently based on the ages of the people dying?). Where risks are brought into being or exacerbated by the actions of other governments, particularly our allies, how do we respond to that? Certainly it feels as though, given the politically neutral basis of the UK civil service, there should be some political oversight - when the NSA reports to Cabinet on risks to the UK, they are not simply "reporting the facts" - they are passing on a mixture of fact and opinion, filtered by opinions regarding what is significant enough to be worth reporting on.

Is security different to other areas, in a way that justifies a political role which we do not apply across the board? I don't know. The argument which comes to mind is that a major advantage of political appointments - and in particular of ministers appointing their friends - is that it promotes greater trust between political and operational officials, and may give operational officials more leeway to tell unpleasant or unpalatable truths. There are of course risks to this approach, so I can see an argument that it's not an approach you'd want to take generally (and in any case, there's probably only so many people who have the requisite level of trust with any given Prime Minister, so it's not something you could do across the government) but in the field of security, where such truths are more likely to abound, it's worthwhile.

I have doubts about the merits of that with regard to this particular government; going into detail on that would possibly go beyond the civil service neutrality which I would prefer to uphold whenever writing publicly. In any case, these doubts are similar to those which Stian Westlake has written about with regard to the government's strategy around procurement and the need for freedom from state aid rules.

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