Review: Everyday Life in British Government

Written by Keith Simpson on 2 September 2011 in Culture
Keith Simpson reviews a historical study of Britiain's government departments

RAW Rhodes  
OUP, £25

Everyday Life in British Government builds on the author’s earlier work Beyond Westminster and Whitehall (1988), which assessed the Thatcher reforms, and then a reappraisal, Understanding Governance (1997). Rhodes’ new book is based on work done within three Whitehall departments, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), in the period 2001-05. He was granted access to meetings with ministers, officials and special advisers (SpAds). He conducted a series of in-depth interviews with them, and spent hours observing their daily lives in government. In the author’s words: “I seek to provide my interpretation of their interpretation of what the world looks like through their eyes.”

As Rhodes admits, this study has a historic flavour, as it refers to events over six years ago under the Blair government and with ministers and some officials who have moved on, retired, resigned or been dismissed. After a year of coalition government, it would be fascinating to repeat the exercise, and perhaps focus on two big-budget departments, like the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence.

The author sets out to challenge conventional views of British government and governance, and paints a portrait of a storytelling political-administrative elite, with beliefs and practices rooted in the ‘Westminster Model’, which uses protocols to deal with rude surprises and recurrent dilemmas.

In ‘The Governmental Setting’ chapter, he points out that, while he was concerned with domestic politics, the second Blair government was totally dominated by Iraq. He notes that although there was more centralisation under Blair, and No10 was more powerful, it wasn’t necessarily more effective. Blair’s government wanted to replace the system of departmental barons with a Bonapartist model. Rhodes looks at the central secretariat and industry at the DTI, education in schools under the DfES and central secretariat and rural affairs under DEFRA. In his definition, the central secretariats are the private offices, or the ‘departmental court’.

He documents the high turnover of ministers in all three departments. Between 1997 and 2005 there were seven secretaries of state in the DTI, three apiece in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and DEFRA and four in the DfES. He also highlights that the change in ministers of state did not contribute to effective political leadership or continuity of policy. Permanent secretaries had longer periods in office, but the private secretaries tended to be in post for less than a year.

In theory, all of this takes place within the Westminster Model of strong cabinet government, ministerial responsibility, a constitutional bureaucracy based on a neutral civil service and parliamentary sovereignty. Rhodes prefers to call this ‘network governance’, which is more like a layer cake.
Rhodes delineates each level in the parliamentary chain of command. He stresses that most successful secretaries of state have clear objectives, which they use to drive issues through and don’t get bogged down in micro-managerialism. They need senior civil servants with keen radars for political risk and judgement to advise on problems. Permanent secretaries deal with strategic management – while junior ministers hardly count, as we’ve seen in the diaries of both the late Alan Clark MP and Chris Mullin. Ministers of state (higher up the Whitehall food chain) are deemed more ‘progress chasers’ than managers.

He points out the key relationship in ministers’ offices is between private secretaries and the SpAds, who deal with party political issues, although these overlap with the purity of policy. Rhodes shows the vital relationship that ministerial SpAds have with the SpAds at No10.

Together, the private secretaries and SpAds make up the departmental court, whose key task is to defuse problems and prevent crises. The perceived impact of Parliament on this useful working tool, however, is often resented.

This has happened more so since May 2010, when the Speaker allowed far more Urgent Questions, and since direct elections for membership of the select committees have given those committees a greater democratic mandate.

The book’s central idea is how to implement policy and change. Successive prime ministers, such as Thatcher and Blair, felt frustrated by Whitehall lethargy and a ‘consent and evade’ attitude.

Finally, Rhodes repeats his criticism of the Westminster narrative of British government, contrasting it with his preferred version of affairs, showing that managerialism and network governance coexist within the existing Westminster traditions.

Keith Simpson is the Conservative MP for Broadland and PPS to William Hague

Tags: Civil Service, Everyday Life in British Governm, Keith Simpson, Whitehall

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