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Whitehall.

On Her Majesty's Civil Service

Snobs at the top, no patronage, and other perils.

Few countries outside Britain have a collective noun for their civil service. Whitehall itself is a misnomer--among main departments, only the Treasury, the Foreign Office, the Cabinet Office and the Health Department actually face the London street that connects Trafalgar and Parliament Squares. But the street's name instantly conjures up an image: of a man (few top British officials are women) in a pin-striped suit complete with bowler hat and sandwiches to munch for lunch in St. James's Park. Even the television series "Yes, Minister" has not changed this image. Instead, it has confirmed the popular view that such men spend their lives, like reverse Micawbers, gloomily waiting for something to turn down.

Peter Hennessy is fascinated by the British civil service in the manner of the perpetual outsider looking in. His career as a journalist and academic has been little more than a preparation for this book.[*] It is no surprise that one of his conclusions is that Whitehall should admit well-qualified and energetic outsiders--the subtext suggests the author himself--who have spent their early lives elsewhere. (Where I, a former Treasury official, to write such a book, I would conclude that Whitehall should open up to those who have left it.) Hennessy's obsession has produced a book that, in the American style, is at least 250 pages too long. It is a bit ponderous, and the author is overly fond of the phrase "jumping the gun." But it deserves to be the definitive book for anyone who wants to understand British government.

Wallowing in its pages produces some splendid tidbits. Three of the last four prime ministers (Wilson, Heath, and Callaghan) began their careers in civil service. It is hard to imagine an American president having done the same. Of the many characterizations of civil servants that are quoted, the best is Hugh Dalton's "congenital snag-hunters." And of the anecdotes, the one I liked most concerned the formidable John Anderson when he was the Home Office's permanent secretary (top official) in the 1930s. A lowly official sent a paper under his signature--"HMT"--to Anderson's boss, the secretary of state. His superiors, through whom the paper passed, unanimously disputed HMT's recommendations. But the secretary of state wrote that he agreed with HMT. The next note on the file, signed by Anderson, read simply: "I have spoken with the S of S. He no longer agrees with HMT."

In addition to telling such delightful stories, this book raises some serious points about government. Though the British civil service's roots can be traced to Elizabeth I's adviser William Burghley, today it is essentially the product of one document, the 1854 Northcote-Trevelyan report, and one man, Sir Warren Fisher, permanent secretary to the Treasury from 1919 to 1939. Northcote-Trevelyan scrapped the system of patronage appointments and put in its place the idea of career civil servants selected by competitive exams--an idea deliciously sent up in Anthony Trollope's novel The Three Clerks. One incidental result of Northcote-Trevelyan is that in Britain, unlike America, the career civil service reaches right to the top, to just below cabinet minister rank. As for Fisher, it was he who ensured that the service was uniformly graded and paid--and answerable to the Treasury.

It all sounds like progress, doesn't it? But it has led, Hennessy believes, to some serious problems. One is that British public administration is uniquely closed to outsiders. In France or America, by contrast, it is common for an academic, say, or a lawyer to serve a stint as a senior official in government. Hennessy cites approvingly the experience of World War II, when Whitehall successfully drafted in squads of outsiders to help run a siege economy. At a crucial meeting in March 1946, the head of the civil service, Sir Edward Bridges, opted to go back to career insiders even though the job of the civil service, like the role of government, had become manifestly bigger and more managerial.

Truckloads of snag-hunters

But it is the combination of Treasury control and Mrs. Thatcher that has done most recent damage to the Whitehall machine. When I joined the Treasury in 1975-76, the British economy was going through its worst patch since the war. Yet morale, stimulated by the interest that always attends crisis and by the presence of the pugnacious Denis Healey as chancellor of the exchequer, was high. The British Treasury is more powerful than its American counterpart, for it effectively includes the jobs of both the Office of Management and Budget and the Federal Reserve. We young officials certainly thought smugly that we were an elite fitted to govern. Parliament was at best an irrelevant rubber stamp for government legislation and at worst a nuisance to which, through our ministers, we were only nominally accountable (contrast that, too, with the power of the U.S. Congress).

Ten years later, when I resigned to join The Economist, old-timers were saying that morale was as low as it had ever been. Three things had happened. First, pay had fallen more dramatically behind outside levels. Second, since the arrival of Mrs. Thatcher in 1979, civil servants had been constantly denigrated for both their function and their abilities--often by the ministerial bosses who ought to have supported them. The two interrelate--lower pay can both contribute to and reflect lower status and morale.

The third change was that the long-held belief that all policy expertise was to be found inside Whitehall had been severely shaken--in part because those unsupportive ministers refused to accept it and in part because London was following Washington in the arrival of a miscellaneous bag of think tanks, pressure groups, and quasi-academics with considerable and growing influence.

Neither this change nor Mrs. Thatcher herself has been all bad. She has introduced more political advisers and brought in a few highly paid outsiders. And she has enthusiastically pressed for better management and delegation of authority away from the central Whitehall departments (though not as far as local authorities, which she has spent ten years emasculating). Ultimately, that will mean removing some of the Treasury's power over pay and conditions, maybe even weakening its tight grip on public spending. One industrialist quoted by Hennessy reckons that the Treasury has done more damage to Britain this century than Germany and Japan put together. You do not have to subscribe to this view to welcome hints of a diminution of its power.

Yet even after this change, there will still be an enormous contrast between the British and, say, the Japanese civil services. Indeed one can widen the two camps: on one side are the Anglo-Saxons, who have spent the past decade or so systematically undermining the status, morale, and pay of their public services, and on the other are the Japanese, French, and West Germans, who continue to hold public service in high regard--and are accordingly better at attracting able outsiders into it. In Paris and Tokyo, the brightest college graduates think naturally of a stint in public administration; in New York and London, they head straight for lawyers' offices, consultancies, and banks. The social and economic consequences are obvious.

Of course that is too simple. Government (and the economy) in both Washington and London suffers from lots of other problems. The British, for instance, draw virtually all ministers from the tiny pool of the 650-strong House of Commons, hardly a recipe for recruiting only the most talented. America suffers enormously from the total clear-out at the top that accompanies changes in administration--newcomers can spend two years getting their knowledge up to the point their predecessors had already reached. Both countries make matters worse by switching officials (and, in Britain, ministers) to new jobs every couple of years. And both could benefit from more determined efforts to bring in able outsiders at all levels (not just the senior level, as in Washington).

But the contrast between America and Japan, in particular, is significant. One Japan expert, David Hale of Kemper Financial Services in Chicago, reckons it could partly explain the difference in relative performance. Ten years after the deregulation and anti-Washington mood arrived in America, perhaps more people will start to realize that in a complex modern society a decently paid, high-morale public service that is determinedly open to outside entry can be as important an ingredient of economic and social success as many truckloads of business-school entrepreneurs and lawyers.
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Author:Peet, John
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1990
Words:1407
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