The phrase civil service reform is used in two quite distinct ways. It is often used by politicians and senior officials as short-hand for efforts to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the c.400,000 civil servants who work around the UK – paying benefits, protecting our borders, collecting taxes and so on. But this is a misuse of the word ‘reform’, which should surely suggest more fundamental change in the way in which the civil service behaves and operates. And the behaviour of the UK civil service is in turn deeply bound up in its structure, its culture, and the incentives of its leaders in ‘Whitehall’.
(Note that almost all of the debate about true civil service reform - and indeed almost all media comment on the civil service - concerns the relatively small proportion of the civil service - no more than few thousand - who work closely with Ministers. Most civil servants are busily engaged in on executive tasks all around the UK and no-one questions the legality, impartiality or nature of their activities. Even in Whitehall, the supposedly seismic events that hit the headlines have little or no relevance even to most senior officials' daily activities.)
The most recent report that dealt with fundamental civil service reform was published as long ago as 1918. The Haldane Report was unambiguously aimed at improving the effectiveness of government policy-making, and led to fundamental changes affecting policy makers and other senior officials. Now, nearly 100 years on, the quality of policy making, and support for Ministers more generally, is generally reckoned to be patchy. Too much of the best civil service policy-making talent is nowadays devoted to maintaining the governing party in power rather than in formulating and delivering policy. Ministers have responded in piecemeal fashion (by strengthening the centre of government,by introducing and then strengthening departmental boards, etc.) but there has been no serious review of the fundamental relationship between Parliament, Ministers and civil servants. This part of this website discusses these question, and has three levels, so you can dig as deep – or not – as you wish.
- This introduction summarises the key issues and arguments.
- There are eight pages that look at each of the issues and arguments in greater detail.
- And then there is a very detailed history from the 1850s right up to the present date.
To begin at the beginning …
The Northcote-Trevelyan Report - 1854
In the absence of fundamental reform, the UK civil service retains many of the characteristics of the service that was created as a result of the 1854 Northcote Trevelyan Report on the Organisation of the Permanent Civil Service. Interestingly, the need for reform then was driven by circumstances which have immediate resonance today: 'The great and increasing accumulation of public business, and the consequent pressure on the Government'. The result was a civil service appointed on merit through open competition, rather than patronage, with four core values: Integrity, Honesty, Objectivity and Impartiality - including political impartiality.
But ... the result was also a civil service that placed little value on management and leadership. Mike Coolican's book No Tradesmen and No Women demonstrates all too clearly how the Victorian reforms of the civil service generated a mindset and established the dominance of 'the gifted generalist' over the qualified expert.
The Haldane Report - 1918
The next major set of reforms came about as a result of the 1918 Haldane Report, published at the end of the First World War. Haldane recommended the development of deeper partnerships between Ministers and officials so as to meet the more complicated requirements of busier government as substantial executive ministries emerged from the first world war. The Report's impact came through two closely-linked ideas:
- Government required investigation and thought in all departments to do its job well: "continuous acquisition of knowledge and the prosecution of research" were needed "to furnish a proper basis for policy". Gone were the days when government Bills and decisions could rely on the expertise of Ministers, MPs and outside opinion. Ministers could not provide an investigative and thoughtful government on their own. Neither could civil servants, but a partnership between both could.
- The partnership must be extended, however, from the cluster of officials round a Minister, typical of 19th century government, to embrace whole departments as the repositories of relevant knowledge and opinion. Haldane did not spell out how such investigation and thought were to be developed, except to recommend they should be based on a split of functions between government departments which essentially has continued to this day.
The relationship between civil servants and Ministers thus became one of mutual interdependence, with Ministers providing authority and officials providing expertise.
Again, however, the post-Haldane culture has disadvantages which have arguably become more serious in recent years Officials' accountability to Ministers, and not to Parliament, means that there is very little effective scrutiny of the practicability of Minister's policies. Ministers can and do announce impossible targets and under-resourced programs safe in the knowledge that failure, maybe years later, is very unlikely to be career threatening. Experts will of course criticise the targets etc. when they are announced but ... who needs experts when the government benches and government-supporting media sing their praises? It is perhaps particularly distressing that the civil service - knowing full well that the programs are flawed - will nevertheless help Minister mount a string defence of them both in Parliament and the media.
Management and Efficiency Reports
All the key reports and initiatives since 1918 have focused on management and efficiency. Even the far-reaching 1968 Fulton Report looked only at the structure, recruitment, management and training of the civil service. Indeed, its authors complained that they were not allowed to look more widely at questions such as the relationship between Ministers and officials, and the number and size of departments, and their relationships with each other and the Cabinet Office.
The post-1979 Thatcher government then focused on improving the efficiency of the big, high-spending departments and achieved notable success, including sharpened financial management and the establishment of separately managed 'Next Steps' Executive Agencies. Mrs Thatcher's and subsequent governments also delegated considerable power to various regulatory bodies, including the Bank of England, the utility regulators and bodies such as Ofcom and Ofsted.. These developments are extensively discussed in the Understanding Regulation website, whilst the political and social implications are the subject of much academic analysis - not least Michael Moran's The British Regulatory State.
Subsequent reform programs have also been essentially managerial, and have addressed subjects such as leadership, performance management, the role of the Senior Civil Service and improved delivery.
Cabinet Office officials have from time to time tried to focus Ministers' and colleagues' minds on the need to consider what might be regarded as constitutional issues (see this 1998 Memorandum on Accountability and Incentives, for instance) but such efforts meet with indifference or worse. My own failed attempt to inject some life into the same reform programme is here. Patrick Diamond noted in 2021 that:
What was more significant was the ‘identity crisis’ that afflicted the civil service, prompted by the failure to clarify its constitutional role against the backdrop of growing concerns about the ‘elective dictatorship’, particularly under Thatcher and Blair. ... the civil service was reluctant to engage in public debate about its future. The preferred strategy was the time-honoured approach of ‘muddling through’, striving to protect their relative privilege and status in an era of unprecedented turbulence.(Video) Civil service reform: this time is different
The detrimental impact of the politicisation of the government machinery on the quality of statecraft is palpable. British government is more exposed to blunders and fiascos. Delivery failures have ranged from the politically catastrophic poll tax to the negotiation of botched public procurement contracts that cost the taxpayer billions. Writing in the Financial Times in April 2012, the political scientist, Anthony King, observed that policy making increasingly resembled ‘a nineteenth century cavalry charge’ with insufficient deliberation. After Brexit, these failures may become even more palpable.
There are fundamental issues still to be resolved: what are the respective roles of ministers and officials? How can civil servants be protected from unwarranted political interference? What role should ministers play in appointing officials? How can political advisers be effectively scrutinised? Should the appointment of special advisers be independently regulated?
After forty years of reform, the system of government in which ministers and officials worked to fashion effective policies has morphed into a ‘them and us’ model where politicians and civil servants are at odds, believed to have conflicting interests.
Kevin Theakston added that:
... the constant waves of reform also had a destabilising effect on staff and their morale. Furthermore, there were real problems concerning the arrangements for ensuring accountability in the much more fragmented world of executive agencies, delegated management and a more ‘Balkanised’ civil service. In politically charged situations there was shown to be plenty of scope for blurred accountability and buck passing between ministers and agency chief executives and civil service managers when things went wrong. The government and the Whitehall top brass themselves were arguably too blasé or even disingenuous about the constitutional implications of the Next Steps and other managerial changes for parliamentary and public accountability, and the meaning of ministerial responsibility.
The civil service has, over the years, undoubtedly become better managed, more efficient and less stuffy in its higher reaches. It attracts some very bright, energetic and personable young people and in general seems to provide as good a service than similarly large organisations in the private sector. But the more high profile change programmes (1999 - 'Modernising Government'; 2004 - 'Civil Service Reform: Delivery & Values', 2009 - 'Gershon' and 'Lyons' - 'Putting the Front Line First') have achieved much less than they might have done, which is why the initiatives come along so frequently.
One perhaps inevitable weakness is that it has proved hard to set public, measurable objectives for senior officials in general, and for Permanent Secretaries in particular. Follow this link to read a short discussion of this issue.
The latest (2012) Civil Service Reform Program was driven by the need to cut the number of civil servants as part of the post-2010 austerity drive. This makes the civil service machine look more efficient, but there can be a trade off in terms of poorer customer service, less well-informed advice to Ministers, and so on. There are some signs that this has become a problem - see Civil Service Reform Detailed Note 7 et seq.
A more detailed note on managerial and efficiency reforms is here, and a Colin Talbot's very readable brief history of performance measurement is here. I also recommend this separate commentary which describes Civil Service Reform Syndrome and explains why management/efficiency reform programs are too often set up to fail.
But - returning to the subject of 'proper' civil service reform - critics assert that the traditional Whitehall/Westminster Model of government is unsuitable for the modern world. Yes, Minister’s author Sir Anthony Jay’s summarised the argument rather nicely on the Today Program on 6 April 2012: ‘We have a really rather silly system. If you look at any big corporation you will find that the people at the top are concerned about the product and they are concerned about the market. They are concerned about what they produce and sell, and they are concerned about the people that they are selling it to. But in politics we divide it up. We have a lot of people who are only concerned about what they are doing and what they are making and another lot who are really concerned about very little except marketing and getting public approval.’
Is it indeed possible to build a more detailed case for government/civil service reform. Those that seek to do so use three main arguments.
First, they point to the substantial changes that have taken place in British government and society since 1918 – globalisation, joining the European Union, devolution, the growth of the regulatory state, the decline of deference, the greatly increased power of the media, 24/7 social media, and so on. Today’s politicians are relatively powerless compared with their predecessors 100 years ago. Further detail is here.
Second, critics point to a succession of government ‘blunders in recent years, including the Poll Tax, the Child Support Agency, our joining and leaving the Exchange Rate Mechanism, and a wide and very expensive range of disastrous IT projects. Further detail is at here.
Note that these first two arguments suggest the need to reexamine the relationship between Parliament, Ministers and officials.
The third argument points to weaknesses in the Civil Service itself. Senior Civil Servants too often appear to be in a world of their own, out of touch, poor managers, defensive, occasionally incompetent, and far too keen to act as Ministers’ courtiers, rather than speaking truth to power. The full charge sheet is here.
It is less clear what sort of change would improve the performance of the government machine. Prime Ministers have tried greater centralisation of power, target setting, more devolution, and giving more power to departmental boards and Special Advisers. But none of these seem to have made much difference. Further detail is here.
It is nevertheless possible to imagine some ways in which real reform might be brought about. Part of the answer must lie in re-thinking the relationship between Parliament, Ministers and officials. The civil service is, after all, an instrument of government, and - like any tool - is only as good as its user. Some Ministers find it relatively easy to get the support they need - see letter opposite - but it is clear than many do not.
Some would start by 'reforming' the Treasury. Robert Shrimsley (criticising the Treasury's opposition to regional devolution) described it as '[squatting] like a complacent toad over all policy. Its groupthink, innate fiscal orthodoxy and and resistance [to the policy proposals] have made it a block to progress. ... Whitehall will never be rewired until the Treasury is reformed. '
Politicisation of the upper reaches of the Civil Service might also make a difference. Or Ministers might no longer be held personally responsible for all the key decisions taken by their departments, but instead responsible mainly for establishing the Government’s strategy, leaving officials responsible and accountable for implementation. There is a more detailed discussion here, including an explanation of what stops these reforms from happening – with a suggestion that the main culprit may not be the Civil Service, but politicians themselves.
If you need more detail than is in these web pages, I strongly recommend:
- Rodney Lowe - The Official History of the British Civil Service - Reforming the Civil Service, Volume 1 - The Fulton Years, 1966-81
- Rodney Lowe and Hugh Pemberton - ditto, Volume II, The Thatcher and Major Revolutions, 1982-1997
And the House of Commons Library published an excellent history of Civil Service Reform through to 2010.
What are civil service reforms in Britain? ›
The phrase civil service reform is used in two quite distinct ways. It is often used by politicians and senior officials as short-hand for efforts to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the c. 400,000 civil servants who work around the UK – paying benefits, protecting our borders, collecting taxes and so on.What did the Civil Service Reform Act do? ›
The resulting Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 (CSRA) reaffirmed the merit system selection process, codified collective bargaining procedures, and identified prohibited practices in the federal workforce, including nepotism and discrimination on the basis of age, sex, race, religion, or other specified factors.What was the civil service reform in 1883? ›
The Pendleton Act provided that federal government jobs be awarded on the basis of merit and that government employees be selected through competitive exams. The act also made it unlawful to fire or demote for political reasons employees who were covered by the law.What are the list of civil service reforms? ›
The five important civil service reforms were the two Tenure of Office Acts of 1820 and 1867, Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883, the Hatch Acts (1939 and 1940) and the CSRA of 1978. In addition, the Civil Service Act of 1888 signed by President Grover Cleveland drastically expanded the civil service system.What are the three reforms that were introduced by the British? ›
- The British introduced the policy to protect the landlords and Zamindars and granted them land rights.
- The British respected the. religious. Secular. and customary practices of Indians.
- The British gave right to princes and Rajas to manage their state affairs.
The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 is intended to provide Federal managers with the flexibility to improve Government operations and productivity while, at the same time, protect employees from unfair or unwarranted practices.What problem did the civil service reform try to fix? ›
The Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act provided for selection of some government employees by competitive exams rather than ties to politicians, and made it illegal to fire or demote some government officials for political reasons.What stopped the civil service reform movement? ›
Chester Arthur did sign the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act to end the spoils system that had bred corruption for decades, requiring that most federal employees be hired on the basis of merit rather than political favoritism.What was the civil service reform 1877? ›
On June 22, 1877, Hayes issued an executive order prohibiting political assessments and forbidding civil servants to manage political parties, conventions, and campaigns. Hayes wanted to depoliticize the civil service, but at the same time, he did not want to destroy Republican Party organizations.What did the English Reform Act of 1884 do? ›
Parliament's resistance to 'one man, one vote' was partly overturned in 1884 with the third Reform Act which: established a uniform franchise throughout the country. brought the franchise in the counties into line with the 1867 householder and lodger franchise for boroughs.
What was an important consequence of the civil service reform of the 1880s? ›
What was an important consequence of the civil service reform of the 1880s? Business became even more influential in politics than before.What are the 5 reforms? ›
Reforms on many issues — temperance, abolition, prison reform, women's rights, missionary work in the West — fomented groups dedicated to social improvements. Often these efforts had their roots in Protestant churches.What are 3 progressive reforms? ›
To revitalize democracy, progressives established direct primary elections, direct election of senators (rather than by state legislatures), initiative and referendum, and women's suffrage which was promoted to advance democracy and bring a "purer" female vote into the arena.What social reforms were made by the British? ›
Important reforms included legislation on child labour, safety in mines and factories, public health, the end of slavery in the British Empire, and education (by 1880 education was compulsory for all children up to the age of 10). There was also prison reform and the establishment of the police.
Laws were passed to stop the practice of sati and to encourage the remarriage of widows. English-language education was actively promoted. In 1850, a new law was passed to make conversion to Christianity easier. This law allowed an Indian who had converted to Christianity to inherit the property of his ancestors.What were the 7 reform movements? ›
The reform movements that arose during the antebellum period in America focused on specific issues: temperance, abolishing imprisonment for debt, pacifism, antislavery, abolishing capital punishment, amelioration of prison conditions (with prison's purpose reconceived as rehabilitation rather than punishment), the ...What is an example of civil service reform act? ›
What is the Civil Service Reform Act? The CSRA significantly changed how the federal government manages its workforce. For example, it replaced the Civil Service Commission with the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).What was main problem with civil service reform address? ›
What main problem did civil service reform address? The problem of giving government jobs based on political connections.What was the Civil Service Reform Act 1871? ›
Civil Service Commission
In 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Civil Service Act, marking the first time that any government jobs were awarded based solely upon merit. The commission lasted until 1874, when it was disbanded due to a lack of congressional funding.
Through civil service such as ministries and departments, government implements policies and programs that provide services which stimulate economic growth and development at all levels and increase trust and connection between the government and the people.
What is the biggest expectation from the civil service? ›
Professionals in civil service roles are expected to work toward the betterment and protection of the people. Every government job needs passionate, educated, and trustworthy individuals who citizens can go to without a second thought.What was the main reason behind the failure of the reform movement? ›
The 1898 reform movement failed because it was too radical and it went against many Chinese people and their beliefs. Hsu argues that the reform went to fast and the changes made caused resentment form the Chinese.Who led the civil service reform? ›
Commissioner Roosevelt believed his role was to create a civil service system that would attract the best people into government. He based his philosophy for reform on three principles: Opportunities should be made equal for all citizens. Only those who had merit should be appointed to Federal jobs.What was the purpose of efforts at civil service reform during the late 1800s? ›
Congress took action in the late 19th century to protect ethical politicians and create standards for political service; including, a civil service test for those seeking a job in government.Why was 1877 the end of Reconstruction? ›
Reconstruction ended with the contested Presidential election of 1876, which put Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in office in exchange for the withdrawal of federal troops from the South. Republicans and Democrats responded to the economic declines by shifting attention from Reconstruction to economic recovery.What major event ended Reconstruction in 1877? ›
The Compromise of 1877 gave Rutherford B. Hayes the presidency in exchange for the end of Reconstruction in the South.What did the 1832 Reform Act do in Britain? ›
In 1832, Parliament passed a law that changed the British electoral system. It was known as the Great Reform Act, which basically gave the vote to middle class men, leaving working men disappointed.What did the British Reform Act of 1832 change? ›
The first Reform Act
disenfranchised 56 boroughs in England and Wales and reduced another 31 to only one MP. created 67 new constituencies. broadened the franchise's property qualification in the counties, to include small landowners, tenant farmers, and shopkeepers.
The 1867 Reform Act: granted the vote to all householders in the boroughs as well as lodgers who paid rent of £10 a year or more. reduced the property threshold in the counties and gave the vote to agricultural landowners and tenants with very small amounts of land.Which president changed his ideas on civil service reform when he gained the presidency? ›
As the 19th President of the United States (1877-1881), Rutherford B. Hayes oversaw the end of Reconstruction, began the efforts that led to civil service reform, and attempted to reconcile the divisions left over from the Civil War.
How has the civil service changed over the years? ›
The present federal civil service system is much the same as in 1883. Only two new elements have been added—retirement and position-classification. However, the merit system has been vastly expanded, both in giving protection from spoils and politics and in requiring competitive tests and efficiency on the job.What unintended consequence did the Civil Service Act of 1883 have? ›
- Unintended consequences: Politicians had to find money elsewhere and thus turned to corporations. This meant that they were no longer pushing immigrants and mobilizing voters, but instead were seeking money from "marriages of convenience" with big corporate leaders.What are the 23 civil services? ›
All these services contribute to a total of 24 posts in UPSC namely- IAS, IPS, IFoS, IFS, IAAS, ICFS, IPoS, IRTS, IRS, RPF, ICAS, IRAS IRPS, ITS, ICLS, IDAS, IIS, IDES, IOFS, Armed Forces Headquarters Civil Service, DANICS, Pondicherry Civil Service, Pondicherry Police Service, and DANIPS.Which is the highest position in civil services? ›
Head of the Civil Services
The highest ranking civil servant is the Cabinet Secretary. They are ex-officio Chairman of the Civil Services Board; the chief of the Indian Administrative Service and head of all civil services under the rules of business of the Government of India.
This code sets out the standards of behaviour expected of all civil servants to uphold the Civil Service's core values, which are integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality.What are the 4 types of reform? ›
There are four main methods of reforming the law: (a) repeal (removal or reversal of a law), (b) creation of new law, (c) consolidation (combination of a number of laws into one) and (d) codification (collection and systematic arrangement, usually by subject, of the laws of a state or country).What are the 8 reform movements? ›
…is the amazing variety of reform movements that flourished simultaneously in the North—women's rights, pacifism, temperance, prison reform, abolition of imprisonment for debt, an end to capital punishment, improving the conditions of the working classes, a system of universal education, the organization of communities ...What are 3 reform movements examples? ›
Key movements of the time fought for women's suffrage, limits on child labor, abolition, temperance, and prison reform.What are 5 Progressive reforms? ›
The leaders of the Progressive Era worked on a range of overlapping issues that characterized the time, including labor rights, women's suffrage, economic reform, environmental protections, and the welfare of the poor, including poor immigrants.What are 2 important reforms passed during the Progressive Era? ›
Anti-Prostitution Campaign Progressives were responsible for the Mann Act (1910), which prohibited interstate transportation of women for immoral purposes. By 1915, nearly every state had outlawed prostitution. Woman suffrage This was the movement to secure for women the right to vote.
Which two US presidents can be considered Progressive? ›
The presidents most associated with the Progressive Era are Theodore Roosevelt, William Taft, and Woodrow Wilson. During the times these guys held office, trusts were busted, national parks were founded, social programs were enacted, and tariffs were lowered.What is the civil service in Britain? ›
The Civil Service provides services directly to people all over the country, including: paying benefits and pensions. running employment services. running prisons.What was the Reform movement in Britain? ›
In the 19th century, Parliament made reforms to improve the lives of men, women and children in the poorer sections of society. Reformers within Parliament joined forces with campaigners outside in pressing for reform.What are the 4 reform movements? ›
Some historians have even labeled the period from 1830 to 1850 as the “Age of Reform.” Women, in particular, played a major role in these changes. Key movements of the time fought for women's suffrage, limits on child labor, abolition, temperance, and prison reform.What were the civil services introduced by the British? ›
The company started the Covenanted Civil Services (CCS). CCS members had to sign covenants with the company's board. After the Revolt of 1857, when the rule of the company ended and power was transferred to the British Crown, i.e., after 1886 the service came to be called the Imperial Civil Service.Is UK civil service good? ›
The Civil Service prides itself on being a great place to work. It's built on a belief that everyone has the potential to make a difference, and a desire to make sure colleagues are equipped with the knowledge and skills to do so. Joining the Civil Service allows you to become part of a profession.Why did the British start the Civil Service? ›
The covenanted civil service consisted of British civil servants occupying the higher posts in the government. The uncovenanted civil service was introduced to facilitate the entry of Indians at the lower rung of the administration.Is the UK Civil Service impartial? ›
As a civil servant, you are appointed on merit on the basis of fair and open competition and are expected to carry out your role with dedication and a commitment to the Civil Service and its core values: integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality.What social reforms did Britain carry out? ›
- Abolition of Sati: This was influenced by the step of Raja Ram Mohan Roy's frontal attack. ...
- Abolition of Slavery: This was another practice which came under British scanner. ...
- Widow Remarriage: These practices were high on agenda of Brahma Samaj and issue got polarised.
The three main nineteenth century social reform movements – abolition, temperance, and women's rights – were linked together and shared many of the same leaders.
Which reform movement was the most successful? ›
The abolition of slavery was one of the most powerful reform movements.What are 5 progressive reforms? ›
The leaders of the Progressive Era worked on a range of overlapping issues that characterized the time, including labor rights, women's suffrage, economic reform, environmental protections, and the welfare of the poor, including poor immigrants.What discrimination was made by the British in civil services? ›
Answer. It was highly difficult to Indians to get selected in the British Indian civil service. ... As these services were reserved only for British even though Indians attend and get selected in the exam they were not appointed because the power of appointing the civil servants was in the hands of British.Who was dismissed by British from civil service? ›
After clearing the matter in the courts, Banerjee cleared the exam again in 1871 and was posted as assistant magistrate in Sylhet. Banerjee was soon dismissed for making a serious judicial error. He went to England to appeal his discharge, but was unsuccessful because, he felt, of racial discrimination.