Christmas Special 2007

Whitehall in the thick of it

The Civil Service’s utter determination not to do anything ministers ask of it makes the Government’s work tricky

This article is taken from the December-January 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

On the thousands of corridors, stairwells, and lifts of Whitehall there are posters urging people to “bring your whole self to work”. This is quite funny considering you can pass hundreds of empty desks on your way to your office (a Government Property Agency survey revealed that 98 per cent of civil servants work from home at least some of the time). 

The notices are sadly not the legacy of Jacob Rees-Mogg, who once left passive-aggressive notes on absent terminals asking people where they were. As far as I can guess (because it’s never spelt out) the poster is intended to encourage gay civil servants not to tone down their gayness when they’re in the office, or an invitation for black officials to be “street” whilst in a conference call with the Secretary of State. Professionalism is probably a legacy of white colonialism or something.

Whitehall is too big to worry about what’s happening outside of it or what impact it has on the country. Whitehall is their country. 

Whenever you see articles in the Daily Mail about a civil service workshop on intersectionality, or read a news story in the Telegraph about the top brass of DoSAc going on a fact-finding mission to the Seychelles, don’t assume that anyone has lost their job or suffered embarrassment, other than the poor government minister who has nominal oversight of the department. To appreciate how much the bureaucrats in rainbow-lanyards care what people write about them, consider what impact it has on your life when the Grand Ayatollah of Iran or Kim Jong Un denounces the West. You’re probably in the right ballpark. 

When the minister asks why this kind of thing goes ahead, the reaction is borderline hostile. “Of course, secretary of state, if you really think queer civil servants of colour shouldn’t have their mental health improved by free balloon-modelling classes, then we will look at removing that provision.” 

The best case scenario for a minister is that they really will cancel the class until you’re reshuffled out of the job. A more likely outcome is that they’ll invent some long-winded process to look into it, which will report back to you in the year 3000. “We could have reported back sooner but the Government’s desire to reduce civil service staffing to pre-Covid levels is having a real impact on bandwidth.” To an official, “no” is only ever a temporary setback.

The idea that the civil service is the real opposition is not just a joke from Yes Minister

The idea that the civil service is the real opposition is not just a joke from Yes Minister. Every single day is a battle with officials to get the most basic things done. They’ve internalised the command from Malcolm Tucker in the BBC sitcom The Thick of It: “When the Opposition are here, you tell them nothing except where the toilets are, but you lie about that.” 

I knew a Spad (special adviser) who waited a whole year to get a security pass to her department, a process that should take a day or two. In the interim she queued up for at least fifteen minutes every morning to get a temporary 24-hour pass, which means over the course of a year she spent the best part of a week stuck in reception.

But it’s hard to know where the hostility to Conservatives ends and the chronic dysfunction begins. One new Spad was given the department’s version of the village idiot to help him settle in. He couldn’t access emails for a week and fought for months to gain access to his minister’s diary. He described the induction process as “mildly better than being kicked in the shins”.

Other departments are more subtle. Some Spads are given their own secretaries from the moment they arrive but are then flooded with long “submissions” or “subs” (the advice or requests for approval that go into the secretary of state’s red box for sign-off). This is a tactic by officials who hope to slip contentious things past you to be approved by the unsuspecting minister. 

Spads are the gatekeepers, so if they don’t read subs properly then they just go to the minister without any “political” input (For political read “people who actually care if you lose your job”). The minister doesn’t have time to do their box with a fine-tooth comb and will assume you have. (Remember the Red Box is their homework. They’re likely to be reading this stuff long after their spouse has dozed off in front of The Crown). So the civil servants make them really really long — filling them with verbose prose and pointless statistics — and then stick the thing they don’t want you to see in the last page of the appendix. You really have to read every last word they send you. 

If you’re lucky enough to have multiple Spads in your department, they will “Spad-hop”. Anything you’ve rejected, they’ll just send to your colleague in a week’s time, or when you’re on holiday. One department’s Spads once asked for all subs to be no longer than two pages, thus handing mandarins the perfect get-out-clause to omit anything they didn’t want their minister to see: “I’m so sorry we didn’t mention the data breach/deadly virus/terrorist attack. It’s so hard when we have to cram everything into so few pages”.

Everything in Government is political and senior civil servants are some of the canniest political operators

One question our famously impartial civil servants sometimes ask when they don’t want to do something is “Is it political?” This is absurd. Everything in Government is political and senior civil servants are some of the canniest political operators in the country. Even asking “Is it party political?” makes little sense, since Government Policy is also the policy of the party in power and the whole department helps to rebut opposition attacks at the Secretary of State’s regular Commons question time. It took me a long time to realise the correct answer is always “No”. Although it would have been wonderful to say “Yes” and exclude them from the whole process. 

A solution to all of this is to cut numbers until there’s no time for extracurricular activities. It is said Gordon Brown devoted so much time to plotting against Blairites because as Chancellor he was left twiddling his thumbs after New Labour made the Bank of England independent in 1998. Maybe there are so many problems because they have so little to do? If the British Raj could be ruled by 1,000 civil servants without computers, I absolutely refuse to believe we need 1,500 to run the Food Standards Agency — no matter how many Institute for Government (IFG) reports suggest otherwise. 

The full UK civil service headcount of 519,000 is 147,000 more than the population of Iceland (and about the same size as the city of Manchester). The IFG are relieved that Rishi Sunak has stopped Boris Johnson’s attempts to reduce the number of officials and point out that there are more bureaucrats required anyway because there’s more admin to do after Brexit. 

Of course, a bloated public sector is not just a British problem, but it’s not a problem every country shares. Twenty per cent of people work in the public sector in Britain, compared to just two per cent in Singapore, a country that also has to do its own admin because it’s not inside the EU. 

During his battle with the European Central Bank, Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister, described how at one point he sidelined the entire Treasury and worked for days on proposals for debt restructuring in his top floor office with just a handful of advisers. One can only dream. 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover