An able, nonpolitical civil service

by Hugh Cortazzi

LONDON — In Britain and Japan, civil servants are supposed to be nonpolitical and to give unbiased advice. But their independence is threatened by some politicians who want posts to be filled by what Margaret Thatcher used to call “one of us” — people who share the same aspirations as the governing party. They advocate that our countries should move closer toward the American system, where the higher posts of an administration are filled by people chosen according to political affiliation rather than by merit.

Until 1855 in Britain, civil servants were recruited through a system of patronage. This was reformed as a result of the Northcote-Trevelyan report of 1854, which provided that civil servants were to be appointed on merit through open competition. The core values of civil servants were to be integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality (including political impartiality).

In Britain ministers are answerable to Parliament. Decisions are taken by ministers and implemented by the civil service. As politicians are subject to short-term political pressures, it falls to the civil service to maintain the public interest. To do this they must be politically neutral and have pecuniary and moral integrity. On the whole the system has worked reasonably well.

But the system has come under increasing pressure. Labour party governments have begun to rely on political advisers who claim that their function is to explain government policies not only to civil servants but also to the general public. Some ministers would like to put civil servants under these advisers, thus intervening in the flow of impartial advice to ministers.

Prime Minister Tony Blair frequently complained about what he saw as dilatoriness in implementing government policies by civil servants. He didn’t always understand that administration, like politics, is the art of the possible. Management consultants charging high fees were brought in to recommend structural and operational changes for the civil service. Numerous advisory quangos, whose members were appointed not on merit but by party relationships, were set up to take over the responsibilities of government departments.

Most senior positions in the civil service were opened up to competition from the private sector and established civil servants were encouraged to seek posts in the private sector. Ministers have sometimes tried to bypass their civil servants and publicly criticized their own officials rather than accept responsibility. More and more often, conflicting targets are set up without any real understanding of the problems involved in achieving these targets.

Ministers often ignore the old adage “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” Their call for more and more “diversity” seems to mean allocating posts to ethnic minorities, gays and single parents. (The head of administration in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office now has the absurd title of Director General for Change and Diversity!) All of these steps have tended to undermine the morale and the independence of the civil service.

The British government has reiterated its commitment to a nonpolitical civil service, but there is skepticism about the sincerity of this commitment. The Conservative opposition also pays lip service to an independent civil service, yet plans to institute management and supervisory boards for each department of state, filled with businessmen ignorant of the problems of the departments for which they will be responsible.

Japan has had one of the ablest central government bureaucracies in the world. Its recruits have come from the best universities and its ethos was traditionally one of hard work and integrity. Only in the last two decades have there been signs of declining standards. Politicians have been partly responsible for this. Like their British counterparts, they have been too ready to criticize their civil servants rather than accept their own responsibility.

Few ministers ever stayed in their jobs more than a year and thus had little time to learn the problems of their departments since, until recently, there also have been few assistant ministers. Ministers also, probably correctly, assumed that their civil servants would tie up all details of particular policies with the relevant Liberal Democratic Party committee chairman and influential LDP members.

Civil servants also kept in close touch with the industries for which they were responsible through the amakudari system. This system, now so widely condemned, had merits. It ensured that able civil servants could use their talents in business while leaving promotion prospects for ambitious juniors. But it did lead in some cases to relationships that were too cozy and invited corrupt practices.

The new Democratic Party of Japan-led government has declared its intention of further strengthening the powers of ministers while reducing those of the bureaucracy. It is important for the future of good government in Japan that the process of reform is carefully managed. Ministers need the cooperation of their civil servants and should recognize that bullying will be counterproductive.

Makiko Tanaka, by her rough treatment of officials in the Foreign Ministry, harmed morale in the service and its reputation abroad. Everywhere there are understandable calls for better supervision of expenses but this applies as much to politicians as to civil servants.

If corruption is to be avoided and faithful service ensured, civil servants need competitive and reasonable terms of service that include adequate pensions and opportunities to go on working beyond the normal age of retirement.

As some British politicians behave arrogantly and inconsiderately from time to time, civil servants must develop resilience and learn how to cope. Few British bureaucrats go into politics, perhaps because they have seen too much of politicians.

Japanese politicians also can be insensitive and demanding, especially when abroad, but more Japanese civil servants seem ready to go into politics.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.