The Positive Neutrality of Civil Servants

Positive Neutrality and Trust – the policy role of a permanent civil service by Martin Donnelly, the Permanent Secretary of Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) .

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Sir Martin Donnelly KCB CMG

In their 1854 report on civil service reform, Northcote and Trevelyan argued that the Government of the country could not run effectively without an efficient body of officers, who would possess “sufficient independence, character, ability and experience to be able to advise, assist, and, to some extent, influence, those who are from time to time set over them”.

These words remain true today, when civil servants are recruited by competitive examination and promoted within a system designed to reward merit and be independent of political or other external influence. They expect to retain their roles when Ministers and Governments change. They do not take part in political debate, although they clearly influence its outcome by their advice and effectiveness.

But is this model still the best option for policy governance in the second decade of the twenty first century?


Independence offers a promising starting point. It limits the attractions of telling Ministers what they might like to hear and provides a framework to offer a more objective assessment of options. It also allows experience of effective policy-making to be built up and drawn upon. But there needs to be sufficient trust among Ministers to take this official advice seriously.

For Whitehall officials, the challenge begins within government. It is not a given that an incoming Minister, perhaps of a different political party, probably of a different temperament and outlook from her or his predecessor, should immediately trust official advice. Policy officials must achieve and maintain that trust.

The risk to good policy advice can stem from the temptation to become too close to the wishes of a particular Minister. Working in proximity to Ministers and to Parliamentarians leaves most officials with considerable admiration for the work politicians do, for limited reward and often much unfair criticism. Against this background it is important for officials to separate strong professional support for Ministers from becoming uncritical personal commitment.

In addition, Ministers appreciate clear advice but they also have a right to know that it is not based on the personal views of an official. Ultimately if an official is uncomfortable with the direction of policy in the area she or he works in they may need to move.

Building Trust between Officials and Ministers

To work effectively and achieve and maintain that mutual trust, we need to be explicit about the differences between a politician and a policy civil servant and how the latter should behave. There are three broad themes:

Firstly, not to do for one Minister what would not be done for another of a different party. Providing a convincing defence of government policy should be a core Whitehall skill; rubbishing the Opposition is not the function of permanent officials.

Secondly, to err on the side of disclosure to Ministers of everything that might take place. This must include challenging optimism bias, without allowing that challenge to become an excuse for inaction.

Third, officials should offer some advice that is not accepted. If Ministers are never challenged they are unlikely to be getting the best advice. This also applies within official structures. It is not always easy for civil servants in a hierarchy to offer opposing views to Ministers. But culturally, Ministers can be more at home with internal disagreement than civil servants; ensuring a genuine hearing for different options is a key role for the senior civil service.

Officials and Ministers

What then are the differences between officials and Ministers? Fundamentally Ministers have democratic legitimacy in their own right; and officials do not. Officials can expect their work to be taken seriously, based on their recruitment on merit and subsequent performance, but Ministers must have the last word. Those who are not comfortable with this reality do not have a place as permanent policy civil servants.

Second, politicians rightly want rapid action to deliver their priorities. Officials tend to welcome more time to weigh the evidence and assess delivery options. The value comes in how they are brought together delivering practical options to Ministers which recognise and respond to political priorities. Avoiding a monopoly on advice

That said, the relationship between permanent officials and Ministers cannot and should not be a monopoly. Political advisers add value through additional challenge to official advice and their own advice on the politics and presentation of a decision. But these additional comments do not change the original advice itself.

It is this direct access for officials, together with career progression which does not depend on Ministerial patronage, which allows honest and occasionally unwelcome advice to be provided by the civil service. Development in open policy making mean officials can and should seek challenge and alternative approaches from outside government. Digital connectivity is a powerful new tool enabling direct policy input by a wider range of stakeholders.

A further consequence of this model is that policy officials have to work wholeheartedly for the government of the day. They should not be looked to as a brake on politically divisive policy, nor expected to brief those outside government about policy disagreements. If voters do not like outcomes the answer lies in the ballot box, not in expecting permanent officials to take on a political role.

Building trust with wider society

But trust between ministers and officials is only part of the solution. How do officials convince a sceptical wider world that Whitehall really is good for them, or at least better than any plausible alternative model?

Integrity is the key value. One hundred and fifty years of public service tradition allied to a rigorous system of audit and control through the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee together with the personal responsibility of the Accounting Officer, for funds voted by Parliament give the United Kingdom a system which is the envy of the world in the honest management of public money.

There is also a much greater level of transparency and media engagement now with civil service processes and decisions. This means civil servants need to be more assertive in helping citizens to assess information about complex issues.
It is also increasingly clear that much trust-related dialogue takes place on social media. Digital literacy is becoming a core skill for policy officials. Agreeing how officials can engage directly in the digital world while respecting both political boundaries and their own private space is a key challenge for us all.

A public profile is not usually helpful for Whitehall officials, any more than for the large backstage crew of a successful play. Ministers know that policy making is a team effort, and it is important that officials do not come onstage except in specific circumstances such as Parliamentary hearings. Otherwise the critical distinction between political and administrative roles risks becoming blurred.

It is important that everyone has a clear understanding of their responsibilities within this structure. Officials must deliver a strong professional commitment to Ministers within mutually understood boundaries which separate them from political activity. Ministers need to accept that the occasional inconveniences of this system deliver them a better outcome for individual policies and government effectiveness. Both must work together to deliver the best outcomes available in the political space and to help wider society trust that it is getting a good deal.

I believe the UK system is worth adapting and improving, keeping the basic distinction between Ministers and officials, simply because it offers most potential for good policy-making and delivery. To maintain it we need to be assertive in explaining what we do, improving the service we offer Ministers and deserving the trust we receive from wider society.


Published 16 October 2014