The relationship between politicians and civil servants is back in the spotlight. Janan Ganesh in the FT, for example, has argued that civil servants need to be brought to heel more effectively by their political masters. Cries of ‘politicisation’, whenever the prized independence of the civil service is threatened, should be recognized for what they are – an attempt by civil servants to maintain their capacity to undermine democracy by frustrating the will of elected governments.
Giles Wilkes, in contrast, argues that the machinations of a Mandarinate intent on frustrating the will of the people are much less of an issue than this suggests. There are many reasons why Ministers’ pet ideas do not translate into policy. He argues that the independent testing of the feasibility and desirability of proposals delivers better policy. It is rushed policy, that civil servants fail to question or refine sufficiently, that often provides the most egregious examples of policy failure:
… ministers and their advisers frequently do not understand the implications of their policy spasms. Such spasms often stem from a pitifully thin evidence base, and are only subject to scrutiny from a generally tame bunch of close commentator-friends, who will naturally be told, and repeat back to their readers, that the policy idea is sheer, radical genius.
No it isn’t.
I find myself with greater sympathy for the view Giles sets out. [Read more...]