Permanent secretaries in a pickle over interdepartmental budget battles

Do budget-hungry civil servants seize the spirit of inter-departmentalism or gang up against each other all guns blazing?

Imagine you are Jon Thompson, permanent secretary at defence, or Martin Donnelly at business. You are in a bit of a pickle (and so, we’ll come on to this, is the formerly ultra-loyalist Pickles, and his officials).

Only the other day you heard your bosses (Bob Kerslake and Jeremy Heywood) waxing lyrical to MPs on how much they value inter-departmental cooperation. Kerslake talked “holistic”; Heywood spoke grandiloquently about an “outcomes-based approach” for Whitehall that “spreads across departmental boundaries”.

But you have other bosses, in the shape of Philip Hammond, the defence secretary, and Vince Cable, the increasingly tetchy business secretary. They are fighting hard not to make additional budget cuts, which translates into a battle against the “ring fence” that is supposedly protecting spending on health, education and international development.

Whether it was Thompson’s people or Hammond himself or his special advisers who leaked the proposal to redefine defence spending as development or even health so allowing him to get his hands on more money isn’t the issue. To serve his minister, Thompson will want to serve the cause of defence, and there are ranks of military officers at his back to remind him of that duty. In present circumstances, that has to mean joining the budget conflict, all guns blazing. And tactics may well require him to think up ingenious wheezes to worst the Treasury, and Number 10.

What is happening this spring is normal. Ministers want something to administer; civil servants serve departments first and wider Whitehall second. What is abnormal is the sometimes naive suggestion that collaboration comes first, that the system can be redesigned to encourage cooperation. “Silos” are not unnatural; they are usually the most appropriate way of organising around a function or an interest.

The brute fact of public administration as much as of politics is that interests differ and differences aren’t resolved most often by sweet reason but by power. If the “national union of ministers” – who include Eric Pickles to cut, cut and cut again for the party he loves – can muster their strength, they will force the prime minister’s hand and change one of the existential principles of the Cameron cabinet.

In their evidence to the Commons public administration select committee (where Bernard Jenkin is running hard alongside Andrew Tyrie and just behind Margaret Hodge in the stakes for most effective parliamentarian) the joint heads of the civil service had occasion to recall the famed Armstrong doctrine. This was the statement made by Sir Robert Armstrong during the Thatcher era to define civil service loyalties – it was in the wake of the Ponting affair, where an official thought he had a higher loyalty to the public, to be exercised through leaking documents to parliament. (There’s a discussion here by Professor Colin Talbot and previous references to the doctrine by Pasc here.)

The duty of the civil servant, Armstrong intoned, was to the government of the day and that, he went on, for all practical purposes meant the departmental ministers.

In those terms, Jon Thompson and Martin Donnelly really have no choice, do they? Forget inter-departmentalism, an end to working as a team – they ought to be ganging up with colleagues against health, education and international development, exploiting or embarrassing the Cabinet Office and Treasury as necessary.

Which leaves the aforementioned Bob Kerslake in an even greater pickle. He is permanent secretary at communities and local government as well as head of the civil service. So Kerslake number one is all for cooperation and joining up; Kerslake number two ought to be squeezing health so that, as Eric Pickles proposes, NHS cash is diverted to councils to pay for social care, or even housing. Which side is he on?

David Walker is contributing editor to The Public Leaders Network.

• Want your say? Email us at

To get our articles on policy and leadership direct to your inbox, sign up to the Guardian Public Leaders Network now.

Looking for your next role? See our Guardian jobs site for senior executive jobs in government and politics.

• For the latest on public services leadership, follow us: @publicleaders © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


Enjoyed this post? Share it!