WhitehallSir David Normington reflects upon over 40 years at the heart of the British Civil Service

By Sir David Normington 
(Corpus Christi, 1970)

It is 43 years ago this summer that I came down from Corpus Christi with my degree in Modern History and joined the Civil Service graduate fast stream.

There was no gap year for me. By September I had started at the Department of Employment. I was sent to an office in Regent Street to work on vocational training and skills shortages in the construction industry. The country is still worrying about skill shortages - nothing really changes, does it? 

I stayed for the next 42 and a half years, retiring at the end of March this year. Of those 42 years, 22 were spent in the Department of Employment. I then had 10 years in the Department for Education, five of them as Permanent Secretary; and five as Permanent Secretary in the Home Office. For the last five years I have been the First Civil Service Commissioner, overseeing appointments and upholding impartiality. Corpus Corpus Christi, where Sir David read Modern History in the 1970s 

The Civil Service today

The caricature of a Civil Service populated by wily Oxford educated “gentleman amateurs” is remarkably persistent. The great BBC series “Yes Minister”, still very funny 28 years after the original series, has a lot to answer for.

But reflect on this. The Civil Service has never been as small, as diverse and as skilled as it is today. I wonder whether Sir Humphrey Appleby (below) would even recognise it. When I joined it in 1973 there were 730,000 civil servants; today there are under 400,000: a reduction of one third.

In 1973, most senior staff were men. Today 40 per cent of the top four levels are women, although there are still relatively few women Permanent Secretaries.Sir Humphrey Appleby

Most civil servants do not work in Whitehall or even in London. Only 18 per cent of civil servants now work in London; fewer than 10 per cent in Whitehall itself.

One characteristic does not change. The British Civil Service remains, as it has been for over 100 hundred years, essentially meritocratic and politically impartial.  Its enshrined long-standing values are honesty, integrity, objectivity and impartiality.

Most people take these values for granted. There are great swathes of the world where that is not the case, where the civil service is full of politicians' cronies. Even most Western Governments appoint some of their senior civil servants from those who sympathise with the Minister in power. In the US the three or four top levels of the administration can change with the President and sometimes it will take the best part of a year to get the full new team in place.

By contrast, it is still highly unusual to know the politics of any British civil servant. They are required by law to advise the Government of the day with objectivity based on facts and evidence. It is expected that they will remain in place to provide continuity from one Government to another, serving each with the same commitment.

Being a Permanent Secretary

These values of honesty, integrity, objectivity and impartiality are deeply embedded in its culture in a way that most company value statements are not. They matter deeply to most civil servants.BrexitUnlike many democracies, in Britain few of the civil servants change to suit the governing party

That is not to say it is all plain sailing. Frustrations can and do arise on a daily basis. Selection on merit, is, for example, fine until the Minister wants to bring in someone he knows from the private sector, who, he is sure, is better than all the civil servants working for him; or until a properly run competition produces an outcome which the Minister does not agree with.

Ministers and special advisers who have spent their lives in politics can find civil servants, who give non-partisan advice and keep private their political views, very curious indeed. One of my Secretaries of State occasionally referred to us as Martians, although I sometimes wondered which of us was from a different planet.

It is in this relationship between the Minister and the Permanent Secretary that the Yes Minister caricature is at its most persistent; and like all great caricatures, there is enough truth for Civil Servants and Ministers to find it very funny indeed, although sometimes for different reasons.

I recall that in the Department for Education, the then Secretary of State, David Blunkett, took his senior team away for a strategy day. After dinner he sat us down in front of the Yes Prime Minister episode about the Department for Education. Blunkett did not stop laughing continuously for the thirty-minute episode. 

There is a telling moment when the Prime Minister, Jim Hacker, asks Sir Humphrey what the Department for Education is for. Sir Humphrey is completely non-plused. It is not for anything, he says, it just is; and on that basis Jim Hacker decides he would like to abolish it. The moral of the story for David Blunkett was that Government – politicians and civil servants working together - could never afford just to be; we had to stand for something; we had to have ambition and purpose and to make the country better. It was the politician’s job to define the purpose and direction, but civil servants had to be an integral part of the endeavour.

Relationship with Ministers

The Permanent Secretaries’ relationship with their Secretary of State is central to their success or failure. It is why they give so much time to it, and fret when it is not going well. It is the element of the job, which it is impossible to capture in the job description. The fact is that Government Departments must have dual leadership in the true sense. Even though Permanent Secretaries and Secretaries of State have separate roles and responsibilities, they should be inextricably intertwined.

So yes, classically Civil Servants advise and Ministers decide. And yes, Ministers set the political strategy and direction and civil servants seek to implement the political will. But each needs to understand deeply the other’s role and perspective, to share the same understandings about policy, operations and tactics; to work together on winning support for the policy inside and outside Government.

Departments work best when there is absolute trust and understanding at the top and a shared endeavour to develop and deliver successful policies for the benefit of the citizen. That, I am sure, was the message that David Blunkett wanted us to take from the Yes Prime Minister DVD.

Working with special advisers

Special advisers are particularly important. They are the ones above all who share the Secretary of State’s political programme and personal ambitions. They are appointed personally by the Secretary of State; and must step down when the Secretary of State loses their job. They are often the Secretary of State’s outriders, the holders of the faith, the ones who devote themselves to ensuring that their Secretary of State succeeds above all others. They are technically civil servants but they are exempted by law from the requirements of objectivity and impartiality which apply to others.Sir Humphrey Appleby Spin doctor Malcolm Tucker gets to grips with special adviser Ollie Reader in the BBC's The Thick of It

The best special advisers are invaluable. They can help the civil servants understand the political imperative and protect the civil service from getting drawn into party politics. Some special advisers, however, like to be combative and separate. They dig themselves into a redoubt; try to act as the gatekeeper for all advice to the Secretary of State; brief against civil servants or even other Ministers. Then you get division within a Department or within the Government. 

When you see stories in the Press about cabinet divisions, it is a fair chance that they have come from a special adviser, keen to promote their principal against their rivals. When you read that a Permanent Secretary or Department is not performing well, the story is likely to have originated with a special adviser who wants to make sure that the blame rests firmly with officials and not with their Minister. 

The year 2006 

My most difficult year was 2006 and it illustrated clearly the problems that can arise in the life of a Permanent Secretary. I had arrived in the Home Office in January and the then Home Secretary was Charles Clarke, who I had worked well with at the Department for Education.

It is probably fair to say that I had been moved to the Home Office, among other things, to take a grip on some of its weak systems but I was not prepared for what I found. The accounting system and financial controls were in meltdown. Within a fortnight the Government auditor had disclaimed the Home Office’s accounts. Despite 30 years in Government I did not know that there was such a thing as disclaimed accounts. I soon discovered it was rare and very bad.Home OfficeThe Home Office, where Sir David found his greatest professional challenge

In parallel the prison system was overwhelmed by the number of prisoners. Many nights during that year we barely had enough places for the people who the courts had committed to prison that day. Sometimes they were driven round the country until a place could be found.

The immigration and asylum system was also under immense pressure of numbers and had an out-dated and largely paper based system for tracking arrivals and applications. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in London in 2005 the Home Office, with the police and Security Services, were on high alert for further attacks.

In the midst of this there blew up a crisis over the disappearance of 1,000 foreign national prisoners who had been released from prison but not deported. To this day, it is not clear whether this was a real crisis or a manufactured one, day after day, there were lurid headlines about murderers and rapists on the loose. After three torrid weeks Charles Clarke was forced to resign, replaced by John Reid. 

Most people don’t recall any of these details now. They usually do remember John Reid on camera at a select committee describing the Home Office as “not fit for purpose”: a phrase which is now in common for administrative disasters. The phrase still produces shivers down my spine. The balloon really did go up. For six weeks the Press castigated the Home Office for every misdemeanour, large and small, real and imagined, fair and unfair. The Home Office, which I had been appointed to lead four months before, became a laughing stock.

There were soon stories, not encouraged by me, that the Home Secretary and I were at odds and some questioning about whether I would survive. In fact I agreed with the Home Secretary’s diagnosis. The Home Office was in a fragile state. Some of that could be traced to mistaken policies; but it was largely the fault of failed management by civil servants. John Reid and I had discussed the problems and “not fit for purpose” was a phrase that I had used. But these were private discussions and I had not expected that he would want publicly to castigate his own Department and plunge it into a deeper maelstrom.

Permanent Secretaries don’t have many options in these circumstances. They can get their heads down and try to put things right. Or they can resign. It is never an option in these or any circumstances to show public dissent about something your Minister has said or done; to do so is almost certainly a sackable offence in itself.

Walking away so soon was not an option for me. So knuckle down I did. The Home Secretary and I staged some rather tense shows of unity, including a launch of a joint action plan to stabilise the Home Office by Christmas. Things did eventually begin to improve and continued to do so. But we were also brought together by the biggest terrorist crisis of that year, when in August a plot to bring down transatlantic airlines was thwarted. John Reid and I worked closely together through that crisis and our mutual respect began to grow. 

Future challenges

I strongly believe that the model of an impartial civil service appointed on merit still offers the best prospect of professional, stable Government. You will find me manning the barricades if there is ever any serious attempt to change it.Brexit

I do not believe that the model is under any immediate threat from this Government. Nor do I think the public would side with any Government that wanted to politicise it. However, I do not think that one can take it for granted that the current model is wholly secure.

If you take the long view, there has been a steady growth in the number of politically aligned advisers, working close to Ministers with an increasing tendency for them to form a barrier to the involvement of civil servants. Ministers have very slowly increased their control over senior appointments and, in my experience, are always looking for a bit more. 

There is a long standing convention that the Minister must take responsibility for everything that happens in his or her department is weakening. In truth in big operational Departments it is often not sensible. It can result, as it did in 2006, in the sacking of Charles Clarke for an operational failure for which he was not responsible and could not have known about. It is not surprising perhaps that there are more occasions than in the past when Ministers criticise their civil servants in public. But it leaves unresolved the problem that civil servants cannot answer back or put their side of the story. 

Civil servants are certainly not blameless. Some are slow to act on a Minister’s decision. Some are not very competent: how could it be otherwise in a Service of 400,000? There continue to be high profile failures, particularly in big IT related projects. Historically senior civil servants have been slow to take responsibility for those failures or to root out poor performers.

All these trends have created a fraying at the edges of the political consensus which sustains the present model. Nothing is going to happen suddenly. For the moment the political consensus holds but, deep in most Ministers and Prime Ministers is a feeling that it would all be a lot easier if many more of their advisers were people who shared their political views.


There is a risk that Brexit will intensify these pressures. The decision has already put the capability and impartiality of the Civil Service under a new and intense scrutiny. That started during the referendum campaign with accusations that the Civil Service was too partisan in supporting the case to Remain and that the Cabinet Secretary was preventing civil servants providing advice to Brexit Ministers. It continued immediately after the referendum when some MPs expressed concerns that the negotiations would be in the hands of what they called “Europhile” civil servants. I was dismayed to see further claims, apparently from MPs, in August that civil servants were delaying the preparations for exit.

BrexitThere is no doubt that the vote was a profound shock for Whitehall as it was for the whole political establishment. The Civil Service is faced with implementing a decision, which it did not expect, had not largely prepared for and did not want. David Cameron himself said this is “ the most complex and most important task that the British civil service has undertaken in decades.” In my view it is the greatest challenge it has ever faced outside the two world wars. 

I am not as worried as some about the capability of the Civil Service to negotiate our exit. Many civil servants already have an unrivalled knowledge of the EU and are skilled negotiators. They can be supplemented from other areas of the civil service or from outside, by those who can be trained quickly, if necessary. We may need more trade negotiators, but, since we cannot conclude trade deals until after we have exited, there is time to build up the expert team that may be needed.

I am not worried either that the Civil Service is too Europhile to undertake the task. Scratch most Whitehall civil servants and you will find them pretty realistic about the EU’s shortcomings, even though they most of them will probably have voted to Remain. But their personal views are beside the point. As I have explained, it is deep in the culture of the Civil Service to serve the Government of the day with impartiality and dedication. Whatever their personal views, civil servants will be as keen to demonstrate their impartiality as if there had been a General Election and a change of Government. There will be many who are energised by the challenge of tackling the most complex and important task in decades. This is where we are lucky to have a non-political civil service. Imagine if we were facing the next year having just removed the top three layers of administration because the Government had changed; or if the only people advising the Government were people who were passionate Brexit supporters or who new nothing about the inner workings of Brussels or Strasbourg. 

But there are grounds for real concern. First, no one yet understands the true nature and scale of the task of disentangling ourselves from the laws and regulation of the EU. The Secretary of State for Brexit, David Davies, described it the other day as probably the most complex negotiation ever. It is likely to take years to conclude, during which time the public and politicians will get bored with the minutiae and will want to move on. The Civil Service, on whom most of this painstaking work will fall, is likely to be criticised for taking too long and getting bogged down in the detail. If politicians are already blaming civil servants for delay, what may it be like in three or five years’ time?

Secondly, as I explained earlier, it is for the Government to set the political direction. The Civil Service can only do the detailed work on exit if there is a clear political lead on what Brexit means; it can advise on the options but it cannot and must not fill the void itself. We must hope that the Government can define what Brexit means and give clear direction to the civil service. At this moment the jury is out on whether that is possible; and even if it is, whether all Government Ministers will be able to unite around that direction. 

Thirdly, the likelihood is that the eventual deal will be built on a series on compromises; and perhaps no one, particularly among those who were the most passionate supporters of both sides of the argument, will be satisfied. That is a point of maximum danger, not just for the Government, but for the Civil Service, which will have done most to negotiate the details; and is likely to believe it has got the best deal available. Expect to hear accusations that the country has been sold down the river by its bureaucrats.

In any of these scenarios it is easy to imagine some politicians and their supporters arguing that it would all have been a lot quicker and a lot better if the negotiations had been in the hands of those who were enthusiastic for leaving . The calls for the Government to be able to appoint more politically aligned senior civil servants in the future may grow. The current political consensus may continue to fray. 

I am not too pessimistic. I think that my former colleagues have enough skill resilience and integrity to rise to the challenge. There is, however, a more profound issue here – and it is the one on which I want to end. What sustained me in my 42 years in public service was the belief that the Civil Service exists to serve the public good by enacting the will of the democratically elected Government of the day. Serving the public interest by supporting the elected Government is the guiding star of most civil servants and the reason they get up each day to go to work. What the referendum showed, however, is that that the country is split almost 50/ 50 on what is in its best interests and that a substantial section of the public do not trust the Whitehall and Westminster establishment to act in their interests. That is a crisis for politicians in particular but, if, as I have argued, Government is a joint endeavour, it is a crisis for civil servants too.

What is certain is that at the heart of it will be a civil service, which will be trying to do its best with as much professionalism and objectivity as it can muster. We must hope they are successful, not just in negotiating a successful future for the UK, but in helping to restore public trust in the way the country is run.

The full version of Sir David's talk was given at the Alumni Weekend 2016.

Images © Oxford University Images, Shutterstock, Wikipedia


By 奥巴马


By S M St. John

An excellent article. These people deserve all the support we can give them over the next few years.

By Timothy keates

Very good article, and most encouraging — especially when I recall how, some years ago, a top civil servant (or the equivalent of such) in a leading country (not UK) confessed to having sabotaged a policy with which he disagreed. Names witheld.

By John Hudson

Thanks for those insights, particularly about the Home Office. While an undergraduate in the 1960s, I heard a number of criticisms of the Home Office. When I next came into contact with it in the 1990s, nothing had changed.

More generally, as a management consultant, I wonder why the Civil Service seems to adopt discredited management practices at about the same time as progressive industries get rid of them.

By Rhidian Jones

This is a marvellous insight into the virtues of the British civil service, only marred by the penultimate paragraph suggesting that 51.9% to 48.1% is almost 50/50, a piece of obfuscation of which Sir Humphrey would have been proud. Unless, of course, Sir David, as a Corpus historian, was contemptuous of C P Snow's "Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution" and thought maths was only for the lower orders.

By Peter Sunderland

David Davis, not David DAVIES

By Dr. Charles Griffin

Under 400,000 civil servants eh! What DO they all do?

By Christopher Wain

What a silly remark, that 51.9 - 48.1 is not "almost 50-50". You would certainly regard a constituency that voted like that as a marginal one!

By Dr Dick Morris

Given the narrowness of the margin for leave (and even ignoring the lies, undeliverable promises and barely concealed racism that characterised the leave campaign) it is unbelievable that members of the Government continue to claim that the result was clear, decisive, "the will of the people" and similar nonsense. It indicates a determination to fly in the face of all reason to achieve who knows what. I cannot see how an impartial Civil Service can survive this sort of ideology.