Sunday, 1 June 2014

Devolution and the Civil Service

Scott Greer and Holly Jarman are from the University of Michigan and discuss devolution and the Civil Service.

As the slogan says, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” Political scientists might be at their best when studying structure, but political people most often care about people. Politicians and top civil servants are frequently more interested in placing loyalists in the right place or freezing out enemies than they are in establishing theoretically solid structures or even leaving functioning bureaucracies alone. Getting the right people in the right places is a key goal of top bureaucrats and their ministers- often to the despair of their enemies, departmental lawyers, lower level administrators, and those of us who seek to understand government. Whitehall systems, internationally, are among the most resistant to having political appointees at the top, but even there it matters who ministers and civil servants choose to carry out their policies. Your biography is a clue to your loyalties, preferences, and future career plans and therefore makes it clear what you will do in office; nobody thinks an NHS manager, a “City Lawyer” and a lifetime Whitehall official would do the same thing in office, and they are chosen to do different things[1].

With political devolution in 1998, devolved politicians got their opportunity not just to do things differently, but also to do things with different people. And it seemed that they would. There was talk of a unified Welsh public service corps that would enable a more joined-up Welsh way of doing things while reducing the segmentation of Wales’ small public sector labor market. There was an SNP manifesto commitment in 2007 to a separate Scottish civil service. The Northern Ireland Civil Service was never part of the Home Civil Service, but some thought it might innovate more with a new locally accountable government. Meanwhile, England as ever was a whirligig of change, with the Blair and Brown governments reorganizing, trying to hire outsiders, and massively expanding the top civil service and the Cameron government reorganizing and trying to hire outsiders while massively downsizing the top civil service. All four jurisdictions changed lines of reporting, pay grades, and job titles in efforts to make their civil services work better for them.

Holly Jarman, Andrew Azorsky and I, in a newly published article, asked what all this did to the UK’s four civil service systems [2]. Devolved civil servants are not especially numerous; any given devolved department is comparable in size to a UK department rather than the whole of Whitehall. That means our numbers must be treated with some care. Wales, especially, gave us problems of both small numbers and missing data. Likewise, only for Whitehall do we have historical data below the level of the Permanent Secretary. It should be no surprise, in particular, that official sources were cagey about the names of Northern Ireland officials during the Troubles.

There are some interesting variations; Northern Ireland, and Scotland have few Oxbridge graduates, as observers have long noted. Wales is somewhat better than the other devolveds at hiring women. But, strikingly, the three civil servants look very similar in the proportions of officials who are women, educated, outside hires, or lifetime officials. None looks like Sir Humphrey’s department, but they look a lot like each other- and if any organization, the UK DH, low on Oxbridge and high on NHS mangers, was the outlier [3]. In other words, multiple governments in four jurisdictions inherited, wanted, or at least created, quite similar civil services.

How could it be that four different governments over time produced such moderate variation? Looking back on our 2010 research on Whitehall biographies [4], it seems that the Cameron government’s cuts have actually led to a resurgence of “traditional,” lifetime, Oxbridge civil servants. The percentage of lifers in Whitehall went from a quarter to a half since 2010. We are not sure whether that means outsiders are keener to move on when their employer is cutting, or whether they were hired into the kinds of jobs that the Coalition has been keenest to cut or spin off into agencies- or whether they are just not as good at bureaucratic politics.

And, what does it mean for the UK? The civil service, in Richard Parry’s words, is both a “glue” holding the UK together and an “oil” easing relationships [5]. We suspect that it is more of an oil than a glue. Almost everybody who has studied the civil service since devolution finds that civil servants are (unsurprisingly) loyal to their minister, and government, not an abstraction like the “Home Civil Service”. [6; 7; 8]The ethos of the UK civil service in practice always meant supporting one’s minister in a conflict with another minister; it seems it can mean Scottish officials preparing for Scottish independence. Paradoxically, it might be the ethos of service that civil servants share that allows them to escape change when so much else is changing. 

[1] Hood, C. (1981) Bureaumetrics: Quantitive Comparison of British Central Government Agencies, Dartmouth Publishing.
[2] Greer, S., Jarman, H., Azorsky, A. (2014) 'Devolution and the Civil Service: A Biographical Study', Social Science Research Network, 20 January.
[3] Jarman, H., Greer, S. (2010) 'In the Eye of the Storm: Civil Servants and Managers in the UK Department of Health', Social Policy and Administration, 44 (2). 
[4] Greer, S. (2010) 'What Whitehall? Definitions, Demographics and the Changing Home Civil Service', Public Policy and Administration, 25 (3).
[5] Parry, R. (2004) 'The Civil Service and Intergovernmental Relations', Public Policy and Administration, 19 (2).
[6] Cole, A. (2011) 'Serving the Nation: Devolution and the Civil Service in Wales', British Journal of Politics and International Studies, 14 (3).
[7] Trench, A. (2008) Devolution and Power in the United Kingdom, Manchester University Press.
[8] Page, E. (2012) Policies Without Politicians: Bureaucratic Influence in Comparative Perspective, Oxford Universitiy Press.

sUniversity of Michigan
Scott Greer is an Associate Professor of Political Science researching health policy, decentralisation and European integration. 

Holly Jarman is a Research Assistant Professor who researches crossborder regulation and international trade, amongst others.

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