Published on 19 December 2022
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Relationship breakdown
Civil service–ministerial relations:
time for a reset

It's time to reset relations between civil servants and ministers which have broken under the triple pressure of Brexit, Covid and the Johnson-Truss government, says Jill Rutter, Institute for Government.

In the 2022 series of the cult Danish political drama Borgen, a moment comes when a private secretary, troubled by the behaviour of his minister, seeks advice from his permanent secretary. Which should come first when the activities of the minister come into conflict with the interests of the ministry? The permanent secretary’s advice is clear: “The ministry, always the ministry.”

Borgen is fiction. But in the real world of modern-day British politics, relations between civil servants bound to serve the ‘government of the day’ and the more enduring values enshrined in the civil service code – honesty, integrity, objectivity and impartiality – seem to be coming increasingly into conflict.

In this paper, Jill Rutter, Institute for Government, looks at whether the current model of the UK civil service, and of relationships between civil servants and ministers, has reached breaking point and asks whether a new one is needed.

News release: Civil service–ministerial relations: time for a reset

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