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About this book

Britain's Modernised Civil Service provides detailed analysis of the structure and operation of the modern civil service along with an historically grounded account of its development. Key events, personalities and scandals help bring the account to life and illuminate and challenge the various theories of what the civil service is or should be. 

The authors take the evolutionary change of the civil service as a central theme and examine the impact of the major reforms of recent years on the historic Whitehall unitary model. They assess the impact of the New Public Management agenda of the Thatcher and Major years and the role of the Civil Service in the multi-governmental context of devolution and membership of the European Union. Further changes associated with New Labour such the increased role of think tanks, special advisers and the impact of the freedom of information act further sharpen the picture of today's civil service and lead to a rethinking of theories of its role.

This readable book by two leading authorities provides an up-to-date account of Britain's Civil Service that will be essential reading for students of British politics, public policy and management.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Mapping the Territory

The title of this book makes clear our view that the British civil service has been ‘modernised’. It means that the service has been subjected to a series of reforming measures and processes that enable it to respond better to the demands, needs and expectations of the government of the day and of contemporary society. Despite its many imperfections, identified in the following chapters, the British civil service, in the bald terms of dictionary definitions, comes closer to being ‘ organised in a manner which matches today’s needs’, and to having been ‘given a modern form, adapted to current techniques’, than the civil services of many other liberal democracies or, indeed, its own old self of the 1960s.
June Burnham, Robert Pyper

1. Perspectives on ‘Decline’ and ‘Modernisation’

The civil service of the early twenty-first century retains at least some of the defining characteristics of the organisation that was effectively created as a result of the Northcote-Trevelyan Report of 1854, even if its origins were elsewhere. At the same time, however, it bears the imprint of the series of significant reforms to its structure and management that were put in place during the 1980s and 1990s, and built upon in the first years of the new century. The fundamental question this book seeks to address concerns the extent to which the Civil Service has been transformed positively by the process of modernisation and change, or, alternatively, has been damaged. Some quite different positions on this question are adopted by those who analyse and comment on the workings of the British civil service. The range of answers has considerable importance, beyond the theoretical interests of academics, because the alternative conceptions of what the civil serviceis, and could or should become, feed into the practical projects of reformers, and indeed the behaviour of civil servants themselves as they interpret and develop their own roles in the organisation.
June Burnham, Robert Pyper

2. Policy Issues

The policy role of the civil service has traditionally been described with reference to the work of the senior civil servants who surround ministers, as the official filters and analysts of policy, and as the authors of papers setting out the options available for the political chiefs of government departments. Policy work can be categorised in different ways. One useful approach, adopted by Page and Jenkins (2005: 59–75) describes civil service policy work in terms of ‘production’ (creating drafts, statements or documents), ‘maintenance’ (looking after schemes, initiatives or bodies, with no clear end point for the work), and ‘service’ (providing advice to a person or institution, again on an ongoing basis). The Whitehall model assumes that the civil service exercises (or exercised) a virtual monopoly in the policy business, with ministers reliant on their senior officials as the researchers and writers of policy alternatives.
June Burnham, Robert Pyper

3. Multilevel Mandarins and Complex Structures

The structure and organisation of the UK civil service has historically been interpreted in terms of the unitary principle. With the exception of the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS), which has a distinct organisational identity, officials employed by central government worked within a single structure, albeit one that contained substructural variations (including the executive agencies) with the potential for limited flexibilities in matters of pay and service conditions. The civil service was ultimately run from Whitehall, with the Permanent Head of the Home Civil Service as the clearly identifiable senior executive of the entire operation.
June Burnham, Robert Pyper

4. Restructuring for Efficiency, Control and Delivery

For many academics, party politicians and civil servants, the structural changes that the Thatcher and Major Governments made to the civil service were assaults on the Whitehall model that would have disastrous consequences. However, the worst fears were not realised and there was much cross-party consensus on the reforms by the time Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party. Yet there were problems, to which New Labour responded with its Modernising Government agenda. This chapter examines more closely the restructuring of the civil service and the distinctively different motivations that appeared to drive.
June Burnham, Robert Pyper

5. Accountability, Freedom of Information and Open Government

The fundamental argument put forward in this chapter is that the processes of civil service modernisation have extended into the realm of accountability, freedom of information and open government, with the mixed outcomes and consequences that earlier chapters have led us to expect. The traditional ‘chain of accountability’ that linked civil servants, ministers and Parliament, as encapsulated by the Westminster-Whitehall model, has been subject to waves of change, as the complex realities of the world of network governance and the differentiated polity - not to mention the different expectations of an ‘Information Age’ electorate - have encroached upon the apparent simplicities and certainties of ‘tradition’. The result, as with so many other aspects of modernisation, has been slow adaptation by the civil service to the new challenges (in line with its capacity to assimilate change, as seen in each of the three previous chapters), and an accommodation (not always complete, nor completely successful) with the messy realities of modernised governance.
June Burnham, Robert Pyper

6. The Human and Managerial Dimension

Today’s civil service shares features with the civil service of a century ago, and yet there have been profound changes. Whether these changes are interpreted as undermining the Whitehall model, adapting it to the new demands of civil and political society, or ‘hollowingout’ the central state, they have had a practical impact on the working lives of individual civil servants. The principles of civil service recruitment, which are integral to the Whitehall model, derive from the Northcote Trevelyan Report of 1854. This report recommended selection on merit on the basis of fair and open competition in ‘literary’ examinations, followed.
June Burnham, Robert Pyper

7. Conclusion: The Modernised Civil Service

There is more than one way to interpret current developments in the British civil service, depending on the eye of the observer and where he or she chooses to look - and therefore more than one way to predict where the British civil service might be going. However, there is no disputing that the civil service has undergone significant internal change over recent decades, of a form that is recognised internationally as ‘modernisation’. It has had to adapt to external developments too, such as the UK’s membership of the European Union (EU), the devolution of substantial power to Scotland and Wales, and the intermittent progress towards new institutions in Northern Ireland. There is no denying that traditional features of the civil service have experienced some erosion during the course of that modernisation. Nevertheless, the departures from the classic norms are less drastic than is often portrayed, because much of what went on in Whitehall was not well described by the Whitehall model.
June Burnham, Robert Pyper
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