Civil service–ministerial relations: time for a reset

Think tank: Institute for Government

Author(s): Jill Rutter

December 19, 2022

This report from UK think tank the Institute for Government argues that ministers and civil servants need to urgently reset relations.

Brexit, Covid and Boris Johnson have made existing tensions in relations between civil servants and ministers unsustainable. This report, the latest in the Institute for Government/Bennett Institute review of the UK constitution, argues that ministers and civil servants need to urgently reset relations – and proposes a new set of duties and responsibilities for civil servants that would put greater distance between them and ministers. This would create more powerful incentives on civil servants to improve the quality of advice to ministers, deepen their expertise and take responsibility for their failures, rather than hide behind the cloak of ministerial accountability. Building on the IfG’s recommendation to put the civil service on a statutory basis, a proposal since adopted by Gordon Brown’s Commission on the Future of the UK, the report calls for the current duty to serve the government of the day” to be supplemented by a separate requirement to “uphold the long-term public interest. It would fall to civil servants to point out when they thought ministerial actions were inimical to that interest.