Process, protocol & the problem with the Civil Service

Dominic Raab’s resignation as Secretary of State for Justice and Deputy Prime Minister has led to intense discussion about the relationship between Ministers and the Civil Service.  This follows similar controversies around the conduct of Priti Patel when she was Home Secretary.

In January this year, I completed a 4 year secondment into the Civil Service.  I was one of a team of Advisers who joined the Rough Sleeping Initiative (RSI) team in the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government. 

Demanding and memorable

It was a fascinating experience during a time of social crisis and political turbulence.  In 4 years I worked under 4 different Prime Ministers and 6 different Homelessness Ministers. During the pandemic, being part of the team coordinating the national effort to end rough sleeping, known as Everyone In, proved to be one of the most demanding but memorable experiences of my life.

After 25 years working for charities, I relished the opportunity to directly influence the government’s approach. I worked alongside many great colleagues but as a secondee, I never considered myself a ‘proper’ Civil Servant. And the wider working culture of the Civil Service was a source of continual fascination, and frustration, to me.

Values and ethics

In my first few days I joined an induction day with about 100 others where we heard presentations about Civil Service values and ethics. A Senior Civil Servant gave a talk and referred to the recent resignation of Home Secretary Amber Rudd relating to the Windrush immigration scandal.

In the Q&A after the talk, I put up my hand and asked:

‘There must have been lots of senior people involved in these policies. How many Civil Servants were sacked or disciplined due to Windrush?’

The response in the room to my question felt like I had blasphemed. The previously erudite speaker spluttered out a response saying:

‘Well…er…I don’t think any Civil Servants were dismissed…but er…I know some were certainly moved into other roles.’

Perceptions and profile

This encounter illustrated the key demarcation and tension between politicians and civil servants. 

As politicians, Government Ministers live or die on public perceptions of their work.  They operate in a world where their personal profiles are central. They win public plaudits but also ultimately carry the can when there is major failure. They have virtually no job security and can be sacked or forced to resign almost instantly.

Therefore it is no surprise that their political advisers manage their communications incredibly tightly. And all public announcements from across government are centrally coordinated into ‘grid slots’ by Number 10 Downing Street. In politics, how things look is fundamental.

Process and protocol

In direct contrast, Civil Servants work in the background and actively avoid a high profile.  Instead, their work is strictly guided by process and protocol. Success is marked by delivering their work in a timely, calm and well-ordered way.

The Civil Service has developed into a system of immense bureaucracy, all built ostensibly to deliver on the elected Government’s commitments. But its scale and culture provide a unique insulation from the realities that affect most businesses and employers, and a rare form of job security.  

It was probably the most polite working culture I have ever experienced, far more genteel than any of the charities I have worked for. Problems or performance issues were rarely tackled head on and in 4 years I hardly heard any heated debates or arguments. Where problems did exist, you would find that colleagues left abruptly or were shuffled into different roles.

The key problem

The key weakness of this demarcation is that neither side is focused enough on practical impact.  Neither are institutionally designed to care enough about the actual difference that is being made on the ground.

Time and again announcements for the start of initiatives were delayed due to ‘waiting a grid-slot from No10’ due to the central coordination of communications.  This led to farcical situations where weeks would elapse between Ministers agreeing funding and it being allowed to be communicated. This put huge pressure on those delivering the frontline work. The desire to manage publicity compromised operational effectiveness.

Wherever you work, good communications and strong process are important aspects of any initiative. But in successful businesses and charities both are subordinated to operational effectiveness.

If your operation does not work, businesses go bust and charities run out of money. But this does not happen in government. It shows how both publicity and process are good servants, but bad masters.

Yes Minister

The dichotomy between politician’s desire for profile and publicity and the Civil Servant’s focus on process and protocol is the core axis of the brilliant 1980s BBC comedy Yes, Minister

In one memorable scene, the Minister Jim Hacker is arguing with his senior civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby about British weapons falling into the hands of foreign terrorist groups.  The Minister wants ‘to do something’ and Sir Humphrey is urging him to do nothing. It leads to a discussion about good and evil and what the point of government is.

Like all the best comedy, it is a scene of genuine depth and weight:

Jim Hacker: ‘Humphrey: have you ever known a Civil Servant to resign on a matter of principle?’

Sir Humphrey: ‘I should think not! What an appalling suggestion.’

Jim Hacker: ‘For the first time I fully understand that you are purely committed to means and not to ends.’

Sir Humphrey: ‘As far as I am concerned Minister, and all my colleagues, there is no difference between means and ends.’

Jim Hacker: ‘If you believe that Humphrey, you will go to hell.’

And like all good satire, it exaggerates reality to expose truth (watch the full scene).

Harnessing tensions

In my 4 years working for the government, almost everyone I worked with wanted to make a real difference but I was also continually struck by the intransigence of the system which mitigates against genuine change.  I think this is a key factor in fueling the frustrations which are played out in public disputes between Ministers and their senior Civil Servants.

It is easy to analyse and criticise, but what should be done to manage this tension better? 

Well, the good new is that a model exists and it’s the one I experienced through being seconded into the Civil Service.

Mixed teams

All Government departments should take the example from the Rough Sleeping Initiative and develop mixed teams of experts who work alongside the civil servants. Those with frontline experience of managing the work ‘in the real world’ are needed to focus and target resources in the right way.

For example, the Civil Servants working on improving building safety should draft in experts from construction companies who understand the issues and what needs to be done. Rather than be politicised, the Civil Service should be operationalised.

Sure, a mixed team such as this creates clashes of culture – but these are the tensions which are necessary.  This is how change happens in the real world. In my experience the civil servants appreciated having colleagues who knew the business from the sharp end. The bubble in which the Civil Service operates needs to burst.

The most important thing

The involvement of those with senior experience of managing change would bring a vital emphasis on the most important aspect: the practical impact of policies and initiatives.

And this is the focus needed to manage the dysfunctional tension and intransigence between political profile and bureaucratic process. Good policies lead to positive change. The ‘means’ must be focused around the ‘ends’ they produce. As someone wise once said:

“Wisdom is proved right by her actions”

The practical impact should be the guiding principle around which everything is managed.  This is the way to rebuild trust and confidence in both politicians and the Civil Service.

12 thoughts on “Process, protocol & the problem with the Civil Service”

  1. This was a good read.
    This is what I think
    Great article that highlights the tension between political profile and bureaucratic process in the Civil Service. The suggestion of forming mixed teams with experts who have frontline experience is practical and impactful. It offers a way to manage the tension between the two sides and create positive change.
    Thanks, Ely Shemer


  2. Thank you Jon for this personal insight to explain the reality behind what we see on the news. Very interesting.


  3. As ever hugely insightful and thought provoking. I won’t waste space with all that I agree on here, which is a lot.
    I would put some charities in the same bucket as politics frankly, because their operational effectiveness is not measured on practical outcomes, or on a practical outcome that is still somewhat removed from a real practical outcome. So for instance the campaign for asylum seekers to be given greater rights to work in the UK is focused on those ‘rights’, not on the practical issues around whether asylum seekers will actually be given jobs as a result of having acquired the right. When you ask ‘what might cause an employer, faced with a number of job applicants, to employ and invest in training an asylum seeker who might be adjudged the very next week to be illegally in the country and returnable to their home country?’, you get blank looks – from both sides of the ‘rights’ debate. A fight for rights can support practical outcomes in some cases. But it can obscure, and even substitute for them, in others.
    Politics is of course primarily a popularity contest – a least in a democracy – so has always had a big performative element. But I wonder whether it has recently become even more so, partly as a result of the record levels of university educated MPs in the UK who have never had a job outside of politics. This was not the case in even quite recent times past.
    Was Margaret Thatcher more interested in publicity and public profile than practical outcomes? I’m not sure she was. She didn’t just want to privatise British Gas and give ordinary people the right to become shareholders in it. She actually wanted them to exercise that right and become owners, and she spent a lot on TV advertising to achieve that.
    But she came from a very practical background. Did that have something to do with it; and help her overcome the institutional bias? But nowadays, one of the few MPs who actually has come from a practical job – Lee Anderson – is also one of the most performative actors on the political scene. Go figure.
    So maybe you understate some things and overtstate others in your piece. And maybe practical impact is more of a complex gradation thing, and a mixture of institutional bias with personal background and agency? And also with circumstance – in emergency war-time, or emergency pandemic-time and if – like Mrs T – you think the country has gone so much to the dogs that it is therefore sort of emergency war-time all the time (and then conveniently to top it all off the opportunity for a real war appears out of nowhere) practical outcomes suddenly become the thing.
    Whereas homelessness is politically viewed as endemic, so hard to get that emergency war-time practical output is all that matters vibe going, and instead you sink back into the mire of rinse and repeat performance policy.
    As with all your best writings, it certainly leaves me with more questions than answers. And also very glad that you are heading an important charity totally immersed in practical outcomes.


  4. As a civil servant (12 years in a lot of roles and two departments), but with a lot of previous experience in various roles, I couldn’t agree more. One role I had was working on policy reform and we brought in those individuals and organisations working directly with the people we were trying to help (included GPs, charities and frontline workers). It was very unusual to do this but absolutely vital. I am still baffled to this day why we don’t do these mixed teams as a matter of course. And I am completely baffled and frustrated when I see people who should be sacked for incompetence, poor performance or bullying, being moved onto other teams without any consequence (or forewarning to the new team) or worse, being promoted! I’m sorry you have left the CS but very grateful that you contributed to such an important piece of work and made it work.


  5. Thanks for this its really interesting and very informative.
    MY wife worked for a university where lecturers constantly arrived in the building just after 9.00 for lectures due to start at 9. The Vice Chancellor waited in reception and then gently challenged lecturers as to why they were late. Sure enough, he was publicly attacked and vilified by the Unions for “Bullying!” There are two sides to every story. Some sides are news worthy others are not.


  6. I don’t know the world of government or the civil service (but enjoy listening to Alastair Campbell & Rory Stewart on the podcast ‘The rest is politics’). Jon, in your mixed teams, how would you guard against an unhelpful politicisation? Outcomes will be crucially affected by which people of practical experience you draw in – is that OK?


    1. Hi Steve, well there needs to be clear boundaries and expectations. I joined the Civil Service working under a Tory government, so a quick google search would have shown that I am no Tory (despite the rumours) and I was open about this. I had to agree that I would not blog about issues directly about rough sleeping and homelessness which I agreed to – this was why I hardly wrote specifically about the issues during my time in that job. That was until I was later specifically asked to write as they could see it was relevant to my role but I had to run the copy past a senior colleague. I accepted these ‘political’ restrictions as fair and reasonable.

      The funny thing is that whilst political differences are stark, often the policy options are actually far more limited, so (issues like Windrush aside) there are loads of practical things to be getting on with that don’t involve a huge amount of ‘politics’.


  7. Great article.
    I did in fact leave the CS, after 2 years, out of principle. Frustrating and infuriating. I struggled with my conscious far more working there than in any of my time working in the private sector.


    1. thanks for reading and commenting. Its interesting, though perhaps inevitable, that I have had lots of comments from former CS and quite a few private messages from current CS – but very few public ones from current CS!


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