Appointed on merit: the value of an impartial civil service

Think tank: Institute for Government

Author(s): Alex Thomas

May 24, 2023

This report from UK think tank the Institute for Government looks at the concept of impartiality within the context of the UK civil service.

The importance of an impartial civil service is part of the conventional wisdom of government in the UK. Often discussed, sometimes challenged, debate on the subject is not new but often superficial. For supporters of impartiality, the benefits are self-evident. Sceptics claim that civil servants are either working to thwart ministers’ plans or complacent and ineffective; their cure is more political appointments. Such clashes distract from more valuable debate over the civil service’s effectiveness, and how it can be improved. This is difficult and time-consuming work, but vital, as maintaining a highly effective civil service is the best way to make the case for impartiality. This Insight examines the concept of impartiality within the context of the UK civil service. It looks at the pros and cons of an impartial civil service, weighing these against the more politicised model seen in France and the US, among others. We find the impartial model conclusively of most value to UK government. But there is no divine right for an impartial civil service to continue to exist; it does so at the discretion of ministers and so rightly needs to prove itself to successive administrations.