British Politics

Palgrave Foundations Series, second edition

by Robert Leach, Bill Coxall and Lynton Robins

Chapter 12 notes - Ministers, Departments and the Civil Service

Return to full list of chapter notes.
  • The bulk of decisions made by central government are made in departments by ministers and civil servants rather than by the Cabinet.
  • Most departments are based on the function or service principle, although there is no single coherent rational principle behind the structure of central government. Departments have been frequently reorganized for a mixture of administrative, political and personal reasons.
  • Departments are headed by politicians, usually a Secretary of State and several junior ministers. They are staffed by civil servants. The most senior civil servants who advise ministers are permanent secretaries and, beneath them deputy secretaries and under-secretaries.
  • The traditional characteristics of the British civil service include permanence, neutrality and anonymity, although changes over the last 30 years call much of this into question.
  • There are around half a million civil servants, geographically dispersed around the United Kingdom, although the majority of senior civil servants continue to work in London.
  • Although women and ethnic minorities are well represented among the civil service as a whole, they are under-represented among the senior civil service, whose social and educational background remains restricted in other ways.
  • The unrepresentative character of the civil service may influence their outlook. Although it is generally conceded that senior civil servants do not show a party bias, it is sometimes argued they show other forms of bias.
  • The civil service has been extensively reformed over the last 30 years, along the lines of the New Public Management (NPM). This has involved a reduction in size, administrative decentralization, and increased competition. Most civil servants are expected to concentrate more on the management of departments and agencies and the delivery of services rather than advice to ministers.
  • Renewed concern over ethical standards, prompted by scandals in the 1990s, led to the formalization of principles and codes of practice for both ministers and civil servants.
  • The Blair and Brown governments largely maintained previous Conservative reforms but emphasized the need for increased co-ordination and co-operation (‘joined-up government’) alongside competition.
  • The rise in numbers and importance of special advisers to ministers, and the implications for the responsibilities of career civil servants, has raised some concerns.
  • There is no easy answer to the question, where does power lie, with ministers or civil servants? The relationship is often more collaborative than competitive. Permanent civil servants may have ceded some influence to ministers and special advisers, but government has become more complex, shifting and multi-layered, so generalizations are difficult.
  • Civil servants now have to serve two masters in a coalition administration, but there are abundant precedents elsewhere and few indications that this will raise any serious problems.