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Can Labour tame the Civil Service? Whitehall can't function if it is plagued by politics

One civil servant was heard chanting "from the river to the sea"(HENRY NICHOLLS/AFP via Getty Images)

One civil servant was heard chanting "from the river to the sea"(HENRY NICHOLLS/AFP via Getty Images)


June 29, 2024   4 mins

This general election could well break records: pollsters are predicting the lowest turnout in modern history. People feel politically homeless. That there’s no point in voting. That none of the politicians can change anything. In this respect, they have a point. And I share their apathetic outlook. All the parties are making election promises about outcomes which our state no longer has the capacity to deliver.

Britain is a country with moderate natural resources and moderate human capital. Where we have excelled is in the strength of our institutions. But the effective delivery of public services depends on the capability, motivation and organisation of public servants, and right now, that can’t consistently be counted on.

So what’s changed? I joined the Civil Service not long before the financial crash when, despite the relatively low salary, good roles attracted smart graduate talent because the work was interesting, often prestigious, and because people had a stake in the ultimate outcome — the successful functioning of the state.

That balance has shifted as years of pay restraint, combined with soaring living expenses, especially in London, have affected the calibre of staff. I know many excellent public servants who have left to triple their wages in the private sector. As a result, the country is getting fewer of our best people and state capability is suffering.

Troublingly, this isn’t just a question of splashing the cash. Even if there were budget to spare (which there won’t be), rebuilding and remotivating the workforce would be tricky. This is partly because the problem isn’t just a numbers one. It’s an attitude one. Even though the overall size and composition of the Civil Service today does not look that different from when I joined, some of the cultural norms — or “expected behaviours” — are unrecognisable. The most noticeable change is how comfortable younger cohorts have become with publicly expressing ideological views.

The politics of identity is by no means unique to the public sector, but it is uniquely problematic within it. To take one example, it is common to see pronouns attached to the email signatures of public servants. This does not concern me because of what it tells us about those public servants’ views of gender, but because it tells us something about their views. Public servants should be aware that exposing their institutions to accusations of ideological capture, by any type of political persuasion, is damaging.

Stephen Webb, a former Cabinet Office Director, points out that ambiguity around employers’ legal position makes the hierarchy hesitant to challenge any exhibitionist public-sector behaviours, such as displaying pronouns (sometimes incongruously overlapping with the wearing of Palestinian flags and other signalling devices). Or maybe the leadership feels it’s nothing more than passive social compliance and, therefore, not worth the fight. But the effect should not be dismissed. While it’s hard to imagine this kind of signalling leading to any of the outcomes proponents want to see, normalising this sort of ideological signalling has given licence to a growth in cause based, non-work activities in the workplace, which draws focus from core business. Inevitably it also affects productivity.

Such behaviour also blurs the distinction between passive exhibitionism and more overt acts of ideological capture. This could be seen when some civil servants in the Department for Business and Trade decided that, of all the countries to whom we export military equipment, they should threaten to refuse to process export licences to Israel. There is a balance to be struck between engaging sincerely with employees to get the best out of them, and pandering to the latest TikTok cause and its pseudo intellectual underpinnings.

“Many of the public servants I know and respect think that the current equilibrium is skewed.”

And while the majority of public servants are passionate and professional, their jobs become increasingly difficult when the behaviour of their colleagues degrades their institution’s legitimacy. The Met Police, for example, were already struggling to defend themselves against accusations of permitting antisemitic and intimidating behaviour during the Palestine marches; something which has been made all the harder now one of their most senior advisors has been shown chanting “from the river to the sea. Either these public servants do not understand that the role of public service is to serve the whole public, or they believe that ideological actions are more worthwhile than their jobs’ substance.

Or perhaps there is another motivating factor. Professor Daniel Kahneman, the father of behavioural science, argued that there is a difference between the “experiencing self” and the “remembering self” (that is how the process of retrieving memories is prone to bias, meaning the impression we have of our past experiences can be different from how they really happened). Since, for many, the experience of real life now comes second to the way life can be presented online, I would argue that we are witnessing the emergence of a third “self” — the “representing self” — who experiences life in anticipation of how the experience can be represented on social media.

The decisions people make have long been influenced by what they think those decisions say about them, but social media has magnified this human frailty to such an extent it has changed the way consumer markets function: people participate in activities, choose their holidays and even adjust their worldview very conscious of how this will make them appear to their chosen identity grouping. Studies have shown a link between narcissistic traits and modern Western activism and — sadly — professionalism is no longer a barrier to this type of vanity: it motivates the choices some make in the workplace (as anyone who has had the misfortune to use LinkedIn will know). This, though, should not be the case in public service. If ideological distractions are permitted, it allows employees to show they feel more connected to ideology-based identity groups than to the communities and national community they are employed to serve.

Shifting behaviours and organisational culture is hard, though, particularly when the barriers to sacking employees is high. But the stakes for the country are even higher. We have many exceptional public servants, who feel increasingly let down by the overall effectiveness of their institutions and we risk losing them to better paying work. So we need leaders who will reclaim responsibility for institutional culture from HR departments and will lead by example. Who will promote the talented and be empowered to sack those who are failing. Our public institutions have been allowed to crumble and if an incoming government fails to retain and reward those who can rebuild the legitimacy of these services, those electoral promises won’t be worth the paper they were written on.


Simon Ruda is an expert in applied behavioural science and was a founder of the Behavioural Insights Team, a Director in the Met Police, and Managing Director at Teneo.

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Daniel Holt
Daniel Holt
26 days ago

Excellent article. I thought the idea of the ‘third self’ intriguing. The discussion about service brought to mind ideas about grand narrative. The civil service seems to be that kind of institution that requires some sense of shared purpose to make everyone pull together.

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
25 days ago

Important truths here. Our Civil Service is in dramatic decline (hello Home Office). The author points to its ideological capture – it sits at the heart of the Progressive State and is no longer neutral as well as good. The uneducated young 20s and 30s washing up are wide eyed with identitarian fervour after their immersion in a Leftist edicational system where standards have been debased to fulfil the 50% Social Engineering Goal of this State. It was these cohorts not Tories or Rishi who were the disco dancers in Partygate. Their bosses led the assassinations of Raab Suella and Boris. The only omission is the scaring caused by decades of DEI hiring and the trashing of appointment by merit. The home of our ruling London cabal is indeed in fast decay and failing us. But you will never ever vote them out.

Caractacus Potts
Caractacus Potts
25 days ago
Reply to  Walter Marvell

Spot on Walter. Also much better written than my rant 😀

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
25 days ago

In answer to the question posed in the title – no. They won’t try because it suits them.The Tories have manifestly failed to do so and don’t seem to have a plan either.

David McKee asked in another comment thread today why people might vote Reform. Here in a nutshell is the answer.

AC Harper
AC Harper
25 days ago

Stand back and look through squinty eyes and you can argue that the Establishment (the Blob, the Clerisy, Davos Man and our own Civil Service) has become a progressive Establishment and carried out a bloodless coup against politicians.
It’s not a matter of Labour ‘taming’ the Civil Service (spoiler – they won’t) but that a political party gains sufficient support to stage a counter-coup. Our equivalent of Javier Milei perhaps?

Johanna Barry
Johanna Barry
25 days ago

Yep very good. Very sad really. Absolutely sick of rainbows being plastered everywhere to let me know the company or council or whatever is nice and has all the right views. It’s all about keep up appearances. And Labour are the worst of the lot so good luck with sorting out the civil service.

Caractacus Potts
Caractacus Potts
25 days ago

I did 14 years in the CS and my part of it was unrecognisable when I left. Ordinary work (life-saving in my case) had virtually ground to a halt in favour of virtue signalling in extraneous meetings and on internal message boards. The overhead from the HR bloat was immense.
Raises and promotions were based on ‘diversity’ and not for effort or accomplishment. Skills had gone off a cliff. Middle-aged men were driven out of their roles as a matter of policy. All that hard won experience and loyalty just arbitrarily thrown away. Their most recent recruitment campaign specifically excluded white males from applying. I fought their institutional corruption in Tribunal and they threw millions of taxpayer money at me alone. It must be billions going to waste over all.
So I entirely agreed with the article except for the premise. Labour wouldn’t be the slightest bit interested in changing the CS. It’s fully on board with their insane world-view that everyone is marginalised except for the ones who actually are. A pointless bloated HR cosy-club for little rich virtue signallers is exactly what Labour are all about.

Michael Clarke
Michael Clarke
25 days ago

My longer piece below spells out some of the reasons why.

Jeff Dudgeon
Jeff Dudgeon
25 days ago

Despite the article title, there will no need to ‘tame’ the civil service. They will be compliant, indeed enthusiastic endorsers of Starmer policies given identitarian control already exists internally in those areas.
In the old days, civil servants were satisfied with the dual control they had of their own position through their role in policy formation and when necessary the wearing of their other hat of trade unionist to protect pay, position and most of all pension entitlement.
Now the FDA has dropped any pretence of neutrality, let alone objectivity. A Minister is out if they insist on going against the new ideology as with Raab and Johnson. Statism is all.

Michael Clarke
Michael Clarke
25 days ago

As a retired civil servant, I’m shocked by what I’m reading and hearing about what is going on in the British civil service. (I witnessed its decline over more than three decades of contact with it, ending in 2009, since when, I gather, things have gone to hell in a handcart completely. Things aren’t great here either so this is not a Brit-bashing exercise.) Some of the problems go back to the decision to introduce performance management (PM) in the 1980s (in our case), which I would sum up by saying that instead of having a business plan each unit now has a Business Plan. A bp sets out the work to be done during the year whereas a BP is a set of boxes to be ticked. The bp might include drafting a Bill (implicit in that is drafting it properly). The BP is about drafting the Bill any old way so that the head of the unit can tick a box and get his bonus. This is very micro and too detailed for journalists to understand perhaps but PM (we copied the UK) has been a disaster. Then there is the decline of the education system. Ditto here. In my final years at work I noticed how some new entrants struggled to read. (Grammar, spelling and punctuation went out the window decades ago in the English-speaking world.) Then there is the pay gap between the (now split in two) middle class – the well off middle class, e.g., doctors, lawyers, accountants, IT, bankers, and the new poorly paid middle class (as opposed to the lower middle class, which the poorly paid middle class has now joined), e.g., teachers, nurses, civil servants. You can blame the Big Bang in September 1986 for that. Needless to say, attracting smart people to the new poorly paid middle class isn’t easy. As well as splitting the middle class in two, the Big Bang also ushered in globalisation-gone-mad. Smart work Mrs T. I gather that her Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, regretted the Big Bang. Then there was Covid followed by people refusing to return to the office. Bad here, shocking in Britain. Productivity shot to pieces. Then there is (90% of the time) the carry-on about “bullying”. Most of the time it is people refusing to be disciplined even led. Then there are protected disclosures. Too many and too easy to make. All the above is common to both Britain and IRL but as far as I can make out the British civil service (once, with the French, the Rolls Royce of civil services) has declined more than ours. The wokery stuff – pronouns, Palestine badges and refusing to comply with Govt. policy on arms sales or whatever – is simply shocking and needs to be addressed robustly, comprehensively and immediately. It is a sign of deepening societal decline and decay. I think we are some way behind you on wokery but, only today, I saw a tweet from our Foreign Ministry saying that they are proud to be part of Pride Month. Madness and completely contemptuous of the views of thousands (in your case it would be tens of thousands) of good civil servants. Our problems need tackling but Britain will go to the dogs completely under Starmer.

Peter Hall
Peter Hall
24 days ago

In the private sector, change happens every day as problems and opportunities are identified and addressed. They can’t afford to be a19th priesthood. Targets are set, performance is managed and there are positive and negative consequences for success and failure. As so many instances of failure by public institutions have demonstrated it is time to move to a new model of government with much more flexibility of organisational structure and personal, permeability to outside cultures, people and ideas, shorter tenures, more measurement of performance, disclosure and accountability. Rip up the current structure, benchmark against the best in the world and focus on solving problems rather than employing bureaucrats. There should be no public sector pensions, everyone should have a portable personal pension that moves with them as they move frequently from job to job. How many teachers are sacked for incompetence in the state sector? Costs must come down, numbers must come down, quality and innovation must go up and change must be permanent.

Udo Wieshmann
Udo Wieshmann
23 days ago

Excellent work.

Roddy Campbell
Roddy Campbell
21 days ago

Labour will exacerbate the problem.

And, it’s salutary to note that one reason for the Tories’ spectacular failure to achieve much of what they promised the country was a Civil Service which dragged its heels when it didn’t like the agenda, and conspired to have ministers removed when they called this out.

The Civil Service has become too Self Service and not enough Public Service.