31 October 2011

 British commentators have noted that an outcome of the inquiry into the conduct of Britain’s former Defence Minister is a tilting of the balance of power in favour of the civil service. Recommendations in the Secretary to the Cabinet’s report to the Prime Minister will “tighten a department’s grip on its minister”.

In what seems an extraordinary exposition of the institutional status of departments, Sir Gus O’Donnell’s report indicates that departmental staff should attend any meeting at which official matters might be raised, “and should be told if any ministerial acquaintances are ‘involved in policy development’ ” . Some see this as “an alarmingly catch-all phrase” attacking the ministerial practice of obtaining advice and support from outside the public service.

This will reinforce the way officials can constrain challenges to departmental advice. The commitment last year by the UK Government to establish a register of lobbyists is likely to lessen the willingness of some parties to be seen influencing ministers. With the involvement of officials at all meetings “the influence of …mandarins is likely to grow”.

The Economist reports on a “tension in the government between reforming ministers, keen to push power away from central government in areas such as education, welfare and policing, and their more cautious civil servants. In this war of attrition, each side scores victories. It was recently announced that Sir Gus will soon be replaced by Jeremy Heywood, who shares the government’s enthusiasm for decentralising the state. That was a coup for the government. But Whitehall might be about to strike back. ”

A similar situation is most unlikely in New Zealand, where ministers have shown no embarrassment about getting non departmental advice, and are wholly unconvinced about the need for any limitations on lobbying, despite international good practice advocated by the OECD.