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The “Permanent” Side of the Coin – the Civil Service

Dr Michelle Clement previews our new ‘History of the Civil Service’ module

Nations begin by forming their institutions, but in the end, are continuously formed by them or under their influence.

Lord Halisham1

Dr Michelle Clement

The new MA Government Studies builds on over twenty years of innovative teaching, research and partnerships. Our pioneering masters programme offers the opportunity to examine how government works in practice, as part of a small in-person cohort. Our programme equips students with an institutional memory of British government. Many of our students go on to work in roles within and related to government where the benefits are compounded. Our students gain knowledge and skills to apply a historical dimension to policymaking, at a time where there is a widely recognised lack of institutional memory in government. This is in part due to turnover of staff, which is particularly high in some departments.

The MA Government Studies provides a broad and deep nuanced grasp of how government actually works. Not as we would wish it to work but how it actually functions (or disfunctions) in practice. We examine what it is a given government sought to deliver (policy); how decisions were taken and through which institutions (process); and critically what shaped the people who were making the decisions, and how their relationships with one another impacted government (personality). While our teaching stretches back to post-war, and at times pre-war Britain, our focus is on more recent developments. For example, my colleague Dr Jack Brown will be leading a timely new module on ‘The Conservative Years’ (2010-), which he has written about for The Independent. As we have seen in recent years, “History is dynamic.” What once seemed like historic occurrences – high inflation, a pandemic, and major conflicts – are now part of our lived experience. Never has there been a greater need to understand what has got us to now.

While much of the commentary on British government centres on the powerful, elected politicians who lead for a period, there is comparatively little focus on the “permanent” side of the coin – the Civil Service – which stays in place through transitions of power. As such, one of our newest modules examines this enduring part of the state. ‘The History of the Civil Service: Evolution of the Machinery of Government’ is partnered with the Cabinet Office, and focuses on how the Civil Service has developed alongside the changing role of government. World wars, the creation of the welfare state, as well as technological, economic, and societal change has carved new functions and expectations of what government is there to do. The Civil Service is a source of institutional power within the machinery of government. At present it totals close to half a million civil servants, based not just in Whitehall SW1 but increasingly around the country. Civil servants are recruited on merit and typically spend much of their careers working across multiple roles and departments, and for governments of different political hues. There is however a lack of understanding of how this institution has shaped the way in which government works. There is also a gap in examining how the Civil Service has interacted with the political leaders of government whom it serves.

On ‘The History of the Civil Service’ module, students will gain a deep knowledge of why the most senior civil servant position(s) of Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service were established and how they have evolved, how successive prime ministers have shaped the Civil Service, and how the changing role and functions of the state in public life have been cast by governments since 1945. We will consider how and why public services emerged in Britain, compare how they have been reformed and delivered, and synthesise lessons about what works for successful reform and delivery. We will see how the British system of government, including the Civil Service, operates with much elasticity and where it has historically been more rigid.

What is often underestimated is the extent to which departments have characteristics and, indeed, even characters. Departments are to a very great extent coloured in their attitudes by the last major reform that they undertook.

Shirley Williams3

While the focus of the module content will improve students’ knowledge and skills, what makes this learning experience rare and innovative is our approach to teaching. Teaching is at the heart of our mission. We work to bring to life the people and places behind decision-making for the benefit of our students. The academic anchors of the module, myself and Professor Jon Davis, will bring practitioners into the classroom to teach alongside us. Indeed, every year since the early 1990s, our students have had the opportunity to hear from and question the Cabinet Secretary of the day. Our Visiting Faculty includes former (and some current) senior civil servants, ministers, special advisers, journalists and businesspeople who work with government. This enables students to learn first-hand what it is like to be in the room when decisions are being debated and decided upon. To appreciate the nuance and uncertainty in governing. Our students will also benefit from my original research on reform and delivery in government and that of my co-teacher Professor Davis. We will scrutinise primary and secondary sources as a means of analysing the evolution of the Civil Service and its functions. In taking this approach, we triangulate our sources as well as advancing important skills. We will facilitate the development of students’ critical thinking, oracy, group engagement, and metacognition. This teaching and learning approach will support our students in producing an assessed detailed investigation into a theme or issue on the Civil Service.

Our student testimonials from other Strand Group modules illustrate the impact of this teaching method (from anonymous module evaluation surveys):

Without a doubt the best learning experience I have had as the module really brought the topics of study to life.

The style of teaching … is very inclusive, I was encouraged to embrace the topics as a potential future expert. This made for an immersive learning experience and engaging conversations!

The quality of the debate that has been brought out by Dr Clement in the seminars is brilliant. I have been able to build my confidence in making contributions through the weeks. Dr Clement strikes the right balance in being challenging to our thoughts as a group, as well as giving us the confidence/reassurance to share our thoughts.

Like all aspects of the British system of government, the Civil Service is no stranger to criticism by politicians, the media, and civil servants themselves. While continual renewal and greater productivity is to be prioritised, there is value in understanding how the Civil Service got to where it is today in order to embed meaningful and lasting progress. The government of the day is able to make vast machinery of government changes at speed, including to departmental structures which can lead to greater alignment with policy priorities. There are times when this is necessary and when it is effective, but there is also a cost. In over a decade of unearthing how delivery and reform in government works, it is clear to me that when governments make decisions on policy, process and personality based on well-defined outcomes, which crucially they adhere to for a Parliament or more, they achieve greater progress. Yet, this is not what the British political system and the communication of political strategy through the media typically encourages.

While there is always a clamour to tell the government and by extension, the Civil Service, what it should be doing, where it is going wrong and to even wring one’s hands at the state of institutions, that is of limited use if the history, constraints and strengths are not first understood. Even where progress is made, it is not wholly irreversible. It is down to individuals and those who believe in public service to make micro decisions and efforts every day that contribute to protecting and sustaining progress already made.

The conditions for good government cannot be deduced logically from presumptions about human nature, universal rights or ideologies. Instead they have to be learned, painfully, from experience. We use the language of universals to make sense of these lessons, perhaps because it is too frightening to admit just how much of human affairs is improvised

Geoff Mulgan4

If Mulgan’s statement is true, then there is much to gain from learning how the Civil Service and the machinery of government has painfully evolved over the last 170 years.

Dr Michelle Clement is lecturer and researcher on reform and delivery in government, and Researcher in Residence at No.10 Downing Street.

  1. P. Hennessy, Whitehall (London: Pimlico, 2001), p. xiii
  2. Professor Jon Davis, Director of the Strand Group and Professor of Government Education, King’s College London
  3. Hennessy (2001), p. 380
  4. G. Mulgan, Good and Bad Power: The Ideals and Betrayals of Government (London: Allen Lane, 2006), p. 10