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Tensions between ministers and civil servants explored in new book

19 March 2024

Corner of Downing Street

A greater emphasis on policy delivery and implementation has resulted in growing tensions between government ministers and civil servants, a Cardiff University academic argues.

Professor Leighton Andrews of Cardiff Business School analysed interviews with former ministers undertaken by the Institute for Government for its Ministers Reflect archive, as part of his new book, Ministerial Leadership.

A former Welsh minister himself, Professor Andrews said: “There is no question that relations between civil servants and ministers have significantly changed since the New Labour years. Brexit and Covid are another two factors which have opened up discussion about ministerial working lives. In recent years, there have also been unprecedented accusations of bullying by ministers investigated independently.

“My analysis of interviews by outgoing ministers identified a number of frustrations, including a lack of front-line delivery experience among senior civil servants. There are criticisms of the way in which the civil service manages projects. Former ministers argue that delivery and policy cannot be separated. This cuts across the separation of roles between ministers and civil servants.

“The book puts forward an additional factor underpinning this: the recognition that ministers are political activists seeking to achieve change, and that recent years have seen the emergence of more ministers who speak more emphatically about delivery and implementation. Of course, activism in the context of a consensus on constitutional norms on the role of ministers in relation to the state is one thing; activism linked to a populist appeal against the state or its supposed controlling ‘Blob’ is quite another.”

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