It’s time we gave the Civil Service independent communication!!

When a Government has been suspected of putting short term politics ahead of proper governance, we’ve often made functions independent. Suspicions that irresponsible monetary policy was being used to provide a short term boost to the economy ahead of an election led to us campaigning for the Bank of England being made independent. George Osborne’s distrust of the Labour Government’s own economic forecasting led him to create the Office of Budgetary Responsibility, to provide economic forecasts that were guaranteed to be free from political interference.

Following Boris Johnson’s assault on our political norms and institutions, and the rest of the Conservative Party’s subsequent descent into post-truth conspiracism, I feel that the Lib Dems need to add a new bullet point to our programme of constitutional reform: Give the entire Civil Service independent communication!

“Why is this even important?”

Civil servants tend to deal with the technical side of Government; establishing what the facts are, what can be done, with what risks and what costs. Our MPs then deal with political side; making and/or evaluating decisions, based on the facts and options provided to them by the civil servants.

It’s a good system, as the two require completely different skillsets. However, it’s muddied by the fact that the public don’t hear the facts from the politically neutral civil service directly. Instead, it’s communicated by Government ministers, politicians, who will often garnish it with political spin. (and even when they don’t, the public find it difficult to trust them, especially if they’re from a different political party).

And this was before Boris Johnson strode onto the scene.

His complete disregard for the truth rode roughshod over a system seemingly designed under the assumption that someone elected Prime Minister simply wouldn’t do that. It showed once and for all that our current system just isn’t built to withstand heavily partisan politics.

“So how would independent communication help?”

Allowing the civil service to directly communicate facts to the public would not only ensure that the public get clear information free from party political spin, it would also make it easier for the public to trust the information being given to them. It’s difficult to trust facts when they’re being delivered by a partisan politician that we deeply distrust.

And if another Boris Johnson figure tried to offer an alternate version of reality, it would be easy for the Speaker, or a journalist, to simply point at the Civil Servant’s published factual position and demand to know why they’re contradicting it.

“Wouldn’t this give the Civil Service unaccountable power?”

Making the Civil Service an arbiter of facts in the political arena would certainly give them a lot more power, but it doesn’t have to be unaccountable. By making this communication to the public ‘two way’, we’d be able to ensure that the Civil Service is made more accountable than ever.

At the moment, the public aren’t able to challenge the Civil Service directly. It can only be done indirectly, by challenging the Governing Party. This is impractical for a number of reasons. Firstly, a challenge to the Civil Service is often politically interpreted as a challenge to the competence of the Government running it, so the response will most likely be a defensive one. Secondly, discussion of the detail and nuance of technical issues is ill suited to political debate, not least because we’d want it to be about constructive solutions rather than which political party is to blame. Lastly, the Civil Service itself has a lot of influence over which political positions are considered ‘sensible’ or ‘credible’.

It’s common to hear to Government insiders complain about the Treasury, but it would be very difficult to challenge it politically, for the above three reasons. It would take a new system to make the Treasury properly accountable, enable it to be challenged, mistakes exposed and learned from.

Once the Civil Service is responsible for publishing its view on the facts, it will need to be able to defend them. It will need to have people responsible for their correctness, be able to respond to inquiries and other challenges. People will be able to challenge the facts directly without party politics muddying the water.

Adapting to this new way of doing things would be a challenge at first, but in the longer term it would be very beneficial to the Civil Service itself. We associate accountability and transparency with putting pressure on a service, but it also gives well run services an opportunity to shine, to show the public what good work they’ve been doing.

A Civil Service that provides clear evidence for its facts, alongside a robust system to challenge them, and change them when they’re wrong, would operate with a lot more public confidence. This would be the most effective way for them to combat conspiracy theories like “the blob” and other forms of public distrust.

There’s a gap in our reform agenda

The Liberal Democrats have always led the way on constitutional reform, from electoral reform to decentralising Government power, yet I’ve not yet seen any ideas to directly tackle the issue of people being unable to trust what their Government tells them. (If there has been such ideas and I’ve missed them, please accept my apologies and link to them in the comments below!)

Even before Boris Johnson, people were finding it increasingly difficult to trust politicians. Given two opposing views, it was often impossible to tell who was telling the truth. Liars thrived in this environment, with Boris Johnson finally demolishing any illusions that our existing institutions could keep such a charlatan under control.

I personally think that giving the Civil Service Independent Communication would be the best way to provide the public with an unspun base of facts to anchor political debate, to make it easier to spot when a politician is straying from the truth.

Either way, it’s a challenge that our Party needs to find an answer to.

* Daniel Henry is a member in Leicester.

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21 Comments

  • Kevin Hawkins 2nd Nov '23 - 4:45pm

    I think this is an idea worthy of serious consideration but it would need a lot more research to come up with detailed proposals. There would have to some exceptions in sensitive areas (such as defence) though even here the civil service advice could be made available to another body (such as a committee of MPs). The important principle is that someone other than government should see what the civil service are suggesting.

  • Michael Cole 2nd Nov '23 - 4:54pm

    An interesting proposition from Daniel which seems to make sense. It will be interesting to hear the views of others.

    Is this system adopted by any other country ?

    I doubt that either Labour or the Conservatives would contemplate this reform. It suits them to keep things as they are. They would be most unhappy with any system which allowed the public to hear the unvarnished truth !

  • Laurence Cox 2nd Nov '23 - 5:22pm

    @Kevin Hawkins,
    Yes, classified information is one issue, although a good deal of that will end up being released after 30 years. More seriously, though, is an issue that the author does not consider; that the advice given by civil servants to Government may end up being hedged around with more qualifications to protect the civil servant. Unlike MPs who form the government, civil servants are not elected and are expected to serve government ministers impartially; yet this proposal would open up individual civil servants to attack by people with different views. It is rare in my experience for issues to be so clear-cut that there is only one possible interpretation and we have to assume that people with malicious intent will take advantage of this.

    We already have a means for MPs to question civil servants through the Select Committee process and this involves all MPs, not just those from the governing party. Unless the author is suggesting that no MPs are trustworthy, a better approach would be to strengthen the Select Committee process rather than introduce an entirely new layer of scrutiny.

  • This idea is an example of what I most like about the LibDems: The willingness to come up with and think about imaginative/original solutions that challenge how we have always done things.

    It would need a lot more fleshing out. One thing that bothers me is: The ONS already publishes very detailed statistics about many aspects of what the Government does (albeit in a form that’s hard to digest unless you’re already very competent with statistics and spreadsheets). How would this proposal be different? I’m worried that there is a danger that even the impartial civil service is populated by human beings and all human beings have biases and opinions: No-one is totally objective, and that could cause problems if partly-subjective recommendations etc. by civil servants are published and are then incorrectly seen as being objective. As a minimum, you’d need strong restrictions to make sure the people tasked with writing public documents confine themselves only to topics that they really do have sufficient expertise in. But with those caveats, it does seem an idea worth exploring.

  • All statistics are published independently on ministers already. The civil service declares in advance what will be published when, and that is what happens. Ministers only see the numbers at the same time as the general public, opposition, and journalists. In that sense it is an even stronger version of what is proposed – the cs publishes the facts before ministers are briefed.

  • David Simpson 3rd Nov '23 - 9:25am

    Not a new idea – remember the Central Office of Information, formerly the Ministry of Information. Shut down in 2011 by decision of the coalition government!

  • Steve Trevethan 3rd Nov '23 - 11:43am

    Thank you for an interesting and thought provoking article!

    Are you secure in your premise that the B. o E is or should be independent of the government?

    According to Richard Murphy, in his books and in his blog, ultimately H. M. G can override the B. o E.

    Might H. M. G be currently “hiding behind a general misconception”?

    I have e-mailed the B. o E. about this question but am not very confident of a clear reply. Previously, I asked the B. o E about the destination of monies extracted by bank rates but they declined to answer.

    In any case , is it democratic or wise to take power from an [allegedly] democratic body and give it to an unelected body?

    Currently, the [allegedly] independent B. o E is driving the economy downhill by managing a largely externally caused inflation by moving money from debtors/mortgage holders to creditors/banks and their associates. The recent bank results indicate that bank rate rises benefit banks to the cost of the general public.

    Might this be undemocratic, banking self-interested and mistaken economics for the regular citizens and their children?

  • I’d like to thank everyone for the kind and constructive comments so far. I agree with a lot of the points being made, especially around the need for fleshing this idea out further, which I hope discussions like these will help achieve.

    I agree with Kevin’s caution over what should be made public. To clarify, this isn’t a call for more information to be made public, just clearer attribution and contrast on what information is coming from the Civil Service, and what is coming from politicians.

    As you noted, the important part is that the public can see clearly where a message is coming from, and whether to treat it as political or technical.

    I’m also interested in Michael’s question whether other countries do something like this, and share his suspicion that the other parties would be sceptical of this change. I think the Conservatives in particular have been very effective in using the blurred lines to present their highly political policies as mere practical ones.

  • I’d like to thank Simon and Tim for their examples on how the ONS and CS already operate in a similar way. Like many reforms, it would be building on the traditions of our existing institutions rather than trying to totally reinvent the wheel.

    But this does lead to the obvious question: What exactly would this change?

    As I said to Kevin, this isn’t about calling for more or new information to be published, this is about clearer attribution over where the existing information is coming from.

    Does this piece of information originate from a politician looking to paint a picture of the world that matches their own preferred narrative? Or is it the result of the disciplined processes of the professional Civil Service that operate without a party-political motive?

    I think once the public have clarity over this difference, I think politicians will twig that their own positions/narratives will be more credible if they’re shown to be in line with CS-published facts, which should incentivise a political debate that’s more respecting of the facts.

  • This brings us to Simon’s understandable concern that this could lead to CS positions being seen as purely objective and infallible, when they themselves a simply humans capable of their own . This is a potential pitfall if this reform was implemented badly.

    So for this to work, we’d need to present CS position as being party-politically neutral, and based on professional processes rather than political ones, but while such positions will generally be more reliable than freewheeling political narratives, they’re still potentially subject to error, e.g. mistakes being made, personal or institutional biases, etc.

    So as said in the article, we’d need processes to allow CS positions to be challenged, and a culture of challenging them. The important thing would that these would need to be professional/technical challenges, not political ones; “Are these factual claims justified by evidence?”; “Do these numbers add up?”; “Are the processes achieving their intended outcomes?”

    Very different to the political debate of “Who should be in charge?” and “What decisions should we be making?”

    I think that would make these conversations/debates far more focussed, and able to get into the kind of nitty gritty detail that more narrative-driven political debate doesn’t generally allow for.

  • Laurence expressed a concern where giving the CS a voice would open them to attack. I feel that the CS already faces distrust as a shadowy organisation that manipulates things behind the scenes, “Yes Minister” style.

    The CS already gets blamed for things going wrong. It’s become particularly common for right wing conspiracists to refer to it as “the blob”. And currently they have no way to defend themselves. I think giving it an independent voice would give them an opportunity to clear misconceptions and set the record straight.

    I think that giving them a voice (and a clear process for challenging them) would make it easier to communicate with the public what they actually do. I think this transparency would increase trust in the CS rather than reduce it.

  • That’s an interesting post David. I wasn’t aware of the Central Officer of Information before. According to Wiki, rather than be shut down, it was repurposed into a “traded service” that charges other departments for public relations services. (so looks like it largely does the same job, just with a different financial/operating structure?)

    Either way, it looks different to what I’m proposing, in that it provides public relations services to departments/ministers rather than providing the CS with its own attributed voice.

    Lastly, regarding Steve’s points around the BOE. I’m not an expert, but the impression I get is that the Government determines the high level policies, setting its strategic aims and goals, while the BOE handles the day-to-day operations to meet these aims, free from short term political inteference.

    So the institution isn’t completely free from democratic control, just day-to-day interference. I expect that an elected Government that agreed with your concerns would be able to change its high level strategy as needed.

    In the same way, the Government would still be in charge of the CS, making all the overall strategic decisions, but without political interference in its day to day communications. (which as Tim pointed out is already how things largely operate to some degree – this is more about better communicating to the public what factual claims can be attributed to the CS rather than politicians.)

  • Steve Trevethan 3rd Nov '23 - 4:48pm

    What might be the similarities and differences between “day to day interference” and democratic responsibility, which is sometimes control?

  • Daniel Henry 4th Nov '23 - 12:00am

    The reason “day-to-day” control was taken away, is that Governments were able to irresponsibly manipulate the money supply to give a short term economic boost ahead of an election.

    Now with independence, instead of driving the car it’s like they’ve hired a taxi – they choose where to go but someone else does the driving.

  • Trying to flesh this a little, I think you can categorize information as:

    Raw statistics – what the ONS already publishes: (NB: This seems objective, but it isn’t entirely: There’s always a subjective value judgement in deciding what statistics to collate in the first place.)
    Interpreting the statistics: Maybe under a new system, the ONS could do more in terms of having subject experts draw some conclusions of what the statistics are showing and write that up in layman-understandable language. This will be more subjective, so should as Daniel says, be open to questioning.
    Explaining to inform discussion: Maybe you could publish explanations of the current situation as it applies to hot political topics. (Example: A year ago when the energy market was being debated: How many of us really understood exactly how the energy market works in the first place and what regulations energy companies are under? A published layman’s explanation of that would have been useful. Another example could be: Explaining how GP surgery contracts work).
    Likely consequences: Where the Government is proposing some action, maybe an expanded ONS could get subject experts to evaluate and publish what they consider to be the likely consequences of that action, and also of alternative actions. That’s possibly the most subjective because it requires forecasting, and deciding what consequences would be most noteworthy.

    I think a system where an expanded ONS is responsible for those things could be workable and useful.

  • Just to add: I think advice to ministers etc. should still remain confidential; and protect civil servants, there should be a complete separation between the ONS/the people who write public reports, and the people who advise the Government.

  • Steve Trevethan 4th Nov '23 - 8:38am

    Where is the evidence/verification for the assertion that the B o E is “day to day “ independent?

    Is it democratic to give such great financial power to a non elected group who represent/are appointed from a limited direct interest group.and so remove it from a “democratically” elected group “representing” the whole nation”.

    Are the financial-social effects of the current arrangement beneficial to British society?

    Were the British electorate consulted about governments making themselves subordinated th the unelected, unrepresentative B o E?

    If not, why not?

  • Steve Trevethan 4th Nov '23 - 9:33am

    P S
    How democratic and how likely is the metaphorical taxi to benefit the passengers if they have no say in choice of driver, route, destination and fare cost?

  • Simon, some interesting ideas on expanding the ONS’ remit to better informing and educate the public.

    Where my proposals differ is that they’re primarily about attribution and accountability, rather than simply informing. For example, with Boris Johnson’s various covid related scandals, so many times he tried to hide behind the civil service, e.g. claiming that his reckless covid policies were “following the science” or that he was “advised by civil servants” that he could attend those covid parties.

    Each time he could casually throw out lines claiming that the CS were responsible for his actions, and it would take an entire lengthy inquiry to determine what went down. Under my proposals, the CS would be able to set the record straight themselves.

    Under my proposed system, the CS would keep a record of official advice given to Ministers, so when a Minister makes a claim about CS advice, the CS would be able to provide an accurate record of what advice was given.

  • You raised a point I agree with that advice should still be confidential. (Remember, my proposal isn’t to change what’s confidential and what’s public, but instead have clearer attribution what information comes from where.)

    So under my proposed system, a Minister asking for advice could have three options:
    1) Informal advice that’s off the record – advice given verbally, that’s not recorded, but in turn can’t be used or quoted by the Minister as justification for something.

    2) Formal advice on the record that’s published – advice given to the Minister in writing that is published and that the Minister can quote and refer to justify their decisions/actions.

    3) Formal advice, recorded but kept confidential – formal advice given in writing, but the Minister gets to choose if and when it is published (or whether to publish it at all)

    So that means that Ministers will still be able to get confidential advice, but if the Minister wants to make use of this advice in public statements, to justify their position and/or actions, the CS will be able to provide a record of what was actually advised.

    Wouldn’t that give the best of both worlds?

  • Though this is an important suggestion it does not go far enough. Civil servants need to feel they can stand up to the government when it is necessary. They have an accountability to the nation as well as who governs it. It is they who can think long term and help develop a consistent approach to issues that last beyond our parliamentary time scale. Party politics can get in the way of building a national concensus around subjects such as funding public services, constitutional reform, our relationship with the EU as well as a host of social issues such as assisted dying. An impartial civil service is one way to confront this threat to creating a more unified country.

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