You can skip this advert in 5 seconds

skip this advert


It is a popular sport to blame elected politicians for everything, but is the real rot in our system somewhere else? Professor Paul Reynolds questions the honour of the British Civil Service and the grey men who run our world.



Is the UK public service an incompetent institution as a whole? And does corruption play a part? To listen to UK business organisations and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office you wouldn’t think so. They still promote the UK globally as a relatively ‘corruption-free’ nation. The UK government’s current Civil Service Reform Plan is full of praise for the competence of the UK public service, taking a ‘make it even better’ approach and offering only minor change.

By contrast, public confidence in UK public sector organisations and the Civil Service has declined dramatically. According to the Institute for Government, two thirds of the British population say they are not satisfied with the way government is doing its job. In 2013, Eurobarometer found that just 22% of the British public trusted their government.

So, who to blame? High profile scandals such as MPs’ expenses or ‘cash for questions’ have led the public, perhaps unfairly to point the finger at elected politicians for the misdeeds of unelected public officials protected by problems in the accountability of UK civil servants. While public perceptions about politicians and elected ministers come mostly from the media, our views on government as a whole and full time public officials in particular come mostly from personal experience; through work or direct interaction. In many cases, the experience is not good.

Transparency International’s latest Global Corruption Barometer reported that 60% of people in the UK felt that the government was entirely or to a large extent run by a few big interests looking out for themselves. Five percent report being asked for a bribe in the last year. In the 2013 Eurobarometer business survey, 15% of respondents consider corruption to be a problem for their company when doing business in the UK and 46% think corruption is widespread.


The case that incompetence is institutional and pan-governmental is rarely put; rather they are reported as individual or even isolated instances, if at all. Aggregate the incompetence cases and the ‘pan-governmental problem’ case is compelling.

What is striking about the hundreds of UK cases of large-scale incompetence and waste, including those regularly uncovered by the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and the National Audit Office (NAO), is that the same problems occur, and the same recommendations are proffered, time and time again over decades. And it is not just a few isolated parts of government requiring ‘reviews’ to allocate blame to bad apples. It is something more systemic.

The Department of Transport was heavily criticised for its incompetent handling of the West Coast Franchise, which included special treatment for one bidder, badly flawed contract terms, and poor handling of advisers. Large sums went down the drain. That such a large, vital and high profile project should demonstrably be so badly managed, and that no civil servant was ever held accountable, speaks volumes about the state of the UK public service today. Similarly, Transport for London recently paid £300m to a Tube maintenance and repair contractor without any engineering work being done.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

In 2006, Minister John Reid famously described the Home Office immigration department as ”not fit for purpose”. The old UK Border Agency (now UKVI) was notorious for its incompetence in tracking over-stayers or foreign UK residents who have committed serious crimes. The immigration backlog today is still the size of the entire population of Iceland. In 2011, it threw £200m down the drain through incompetence in handling an ‘eBorders’ contract, and was subsequently sued by the contractor for another £500m.

The Department for Work and Pensions’ flagship ‘Universal Credit’ reform project was described in a 2013 National Audit Office report as beset by “weak management, ineffective control and poor governance”. At least £130m has been wasted on inoperable IT systems and the reform project is already £3bn over budget.

After nine years, the NHS abandoned a series of huge-scale IT projects in 2013 having committed more than £10bn. No significant benefits to the NHS resulted in the spending. A Public Accounts Committee report uncovered poor leadership, senior managers not taking responsibility for spending on large projects, and very poor contracting.


The Ministry of Defence (MoD) may surpass all other shambles. A major problem is its practice of never buying something off-the-shelf, which looks suspiciously like a ‘make it even better’ ruse to prevent outsiders from assessing value for money.

The most notorious case was a 1995 decision to purchase eight Chinook helicopters. Instead of taking largely off-the-shelf, the MoD decided to ‘improve’ them and awarded a contract to UK firms. The result was a dispute with the helicopter supplier and delivery to UK Forces which started 15 years late, during which time UK lives were lost in wars. The costs escalated from £259m to £500m. UK Forces never received eight working Chinooks.

There are so many such scandals that one is spoilt for choice in demonstrating almost comical MoD incompetence. One should remember as background that the MoD now has more staff and advisers than the entire deployable UK armed forces.

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Robyn Gerstenslager

In 1999, the MoD made an overdue decision to replace the Army’s old Saxon armoured vehicles. The plan was to order 4,000 new vehicles. UK Forces were keen to obtain updated vehicles and sought an off-the-shelf purchase. Eight years later, the MoD announced that it would not buy off-the-shelf and, instead, UK firms would develop a ‘better’ version with contractors. By mid-2015 there were two products under development, one due in 2019 and one in 2022, with further delays expected, and unit prices many times the original off-the-shelf cost. And so it goes on.


Why are all these UK government institutions so lacking in the necessary competence? There are more visible and less visible reasons.

The common more visible problems include structures and financing systems, which make it almost impossible to assess staffing or service costs accurately. For instance, there is a proliferation of monitoring and advisory bodies which are routinely by-passed in contracting, and a staffing system which moves ‘generalist’ staff around a lot so they never get a grip of the detail.

The less visible reasons include divided responsibility of ‘dual-hatted’ managers (managers who are also representatives of staff interests) and excessive secrecy rules (there are seven different layers of secrecy in the UK bureaucracy, plus excessive commercial confidentiality rules).

A still less visible result of these combined inefficiencies is the custom of ‘managing up’, meaning the practice of managers focusing most of their time helping their bosses’ upwards propaganda rather than their staff. This system manifests itself in an Orwellian ‘culture of good news’, where positive news stories are created and aggregated up the hierarchy; a culture of merely ‘being able to say’ that things have been departmentally achieved.


The main ‘less visible’ reason for such pan-governmental institutional incompetence is likely to be corruption. It is less visible because the legal framework, especially secrecy and protection from normal disclosure, allows it to be. With all the secrecy and protections from prying eyes, how can corrupt transactions be uncovered? With huge, oligopolistic suppliers to government and overtly flawed tendering processes how can it be established that government spending is good value for money, especially when the terms of contracts are opaque and ‘commercially confidential’?

There are several special unusual UK factors which lead to a lack of competence and promote corruption, whilst still allowing the myth of a corruption-free UK to be perpetrated.

First, the absence of a UK constitution combines with a weak legal framework for the public service and the Civil Service to make civil service accountability and the direct responsibilities of public servants fuzzy and permissive. For example, in the UK system there is nothing in law to define who the actual head of the Civil Service is. This is reflected across the system in the ‘lack of leadership’ so often referred to in NAO and PAC reports. Relationships between politicians and civil servants are also left comparatively vague and slippery.

Unusually in the OECD, UK civil servants can refuse to answer questions in parliamentary committees, and those committees in turn have no power to refer matters to the House of Commons or place matters on their agenda.


There have been some sad attempts to rein things in. Until 2010, there was no parliamentary legislation regulating the UK Civil Service. It was left to the Royal Prerogative and Orders in Council. After many years of planning, proposals for specific civil service legislation were abandoned. Instead, ‘light touch’ rules were included in the 2010 Constitutional Reform and Governance Act, slipped through at the last minute before the General Election in a tidying up session without proper debate. It is still the case that neither the UK Civil Service Code nor the Civil Service Commission have a parliamentary statutory basis as they do, for example, in Australia.

Second, there are no statutory conflicts-of-interest rules for UK public servants, unlike politicians. There are vague terms in employment contracts, and general provisions in the Code, but no effective enforcement mechanisms. There is no UK equivalent, for example, of Canada’s Conflict of Interest Act 2006.

In the UK, civil servants are allowed to join suppliers or consultants that they have been contracting with when they leave the government. Such appointments are vetted by non-statutory informal committee, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA), which is so permissive it seems to legitimise rather than regulate. And there are no staff at all engaged in enforcement of its provisions. A civil servant spending billions on procurement with an outside supplier would be allowed to resign and join the supplier at the end of a mega-contract, with perhaps even a multi-million pound ‘joining bonus’. Typically, they are required ‘not to lobby for contracts for three months after leaving’. There is a very long list of such cases. This, surely, is the easiest legal route to bribe a UK civil servant, the scope for which has been highlighted with overpriced helicopter contracts or pension reforms, as well as hundreds of other cases.


Surprisingly, and unlike that for elected politicians, there is no requirement for UK public servants to declare their interests and those of their family in a register, no requirement to recluse themselves from discussions where they have a personal interest, and no requirement to divest assets (or leave post) where conflicts exist. More surprising still, there is no explicit statutory prohibition passed by Parliament preventing civil servants and their families from having direct financial interests (eg shares) in companies that they make contracts with.

Put this together with there being no hard requirement for civil servants to use competitive tendering for contracts, and the fog starts to clear on the magnitude of the problem. But despite the secrecy some cases do come to light, typically as a result of unrelated court cases or commercial disputes.

For example, Gordon Foxley, a junior officer, was convicted of taking bribes for smaller MoD contracts, following a chance discovery by a police team. He served only two years in prison, and was able quietly to retain much of his ill-gotten millions.

In another case, a large UK coastal rescue contracting process was abandoned when a bidder unusually went public with evidence that three civil servants had hawked themselves around; seemingly routinely offering contracts in return for highly paid directorships with the winning bidder.

As a cocktail of many Civil Service failings, consider the case of Qinetiq. The state military research, production and facilities management was all cobbled together into a new company and sold as a private business at an extraordinarily low price. It was managed by former civil servants involved in the deal, coddled in special secrecy rules, and then allegedly awarded outrageously lucrative contracts on a non-competitive, single-source basis. A governmental investigation resulted in barely a slap on the wrist for the individuals involved, despite a public outcry.


In sum, inefficiency, incompetence and waste in the UK public service across government arise from a weak legal frame and from protective privileges for public servants. All of which combine to create a permissive environment for corruption, leading to poor leadership and even poorer management practices. This has a negative effect on the ability of the UK to solve its economic, social, fiscal, and security problems and to pursue its interests across the world. It causes lives to be lost.

The remedies required are clear and stark.

First, the UK needs a proper, separate public service law for all public servants. This must not confine itself to a narrow concept of civil service, but instead clarify the role of senior public servants and define the relative responsibilities of politicians versus public servants.

Second, the law needs to incorporate anti-corruption measures including those related to conflict of interest. This must require, for example, a register of interests for public servants and stronger statutory prohibitions (eg of public servants owning shares in companies engaged in transactions, or public servants gaining employment in such companies).

Third, secrecy needs to be confined to security matters, and not just to hide errors. Fourth, procurement reforms are needed to prohibit single sourcing for larger contracts, to create a ‘duty’ to promote competition among suppliers, and eliminate the need for excessive ‘commercial confidentiality’.

It is the responsibility of all elected politicians to enact these reforms. No one else can. The alternative is a further decline in public service accountability, a further increase in public servant privilege, and perversely politicians shouldering even more of the blame for the rise in corruption and incompetence.

“Look at the men themselves who lead in this cause. Is there one among them with whom you would trust yourself in the dark?”

Dead Guest Editor, Charles, 2nd Earl Grey


No Comments



You must be logged in to comment
Log in or Sign up

Log in

Forgotten password? Not got an account?

Forgotten password?

Back to log in

BULLITThd is for over 18s.

We also use cookies to function and help us understand how you navigate through our site.

Continuing on through the site confirms that you accept our cookies, and that you are over 18.