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The Civil Service The Real Government Essay

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Evaluate the claim that the Civil Service is the ‘real government’ in this country. Bethan Boyes
Her Majesty’s Civil Service is a hierarchical, unelected organisation that plays an integral part in decision-making within the British political system. Operating discreetly as a highly functioning component of the core executive, the civil service is a permanent bureaucracy whose role is to serve and assist the incumbent government. Operating within Whitehall, historically it’s been the work of the civil service to carry out the legwork of government departments and act as secretariat for the ministers at the head of these departments, with duties ranging from organising meetings and taking minutes to advising on and implementing policy. However, for some time their role in the formation and execution of policy has been observed as undemocratic; it has been said that the civil service holds the real monopoly of executive control in contemporary Britain, and with the estimated 120 government ministers overshadowed by about half a million civil servants in 2013, the numbers alone lend weight to the argument (class handout). The work of the government is divided between departments, with each managing a particular field; the Treasury handles public expenditure, welfare and taxation; the department of Health runs the NHS; the Home Office handles the police and immigration, and so it continues. At the head of these departments are government ministers (although the Treasury is headed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer) who are also cabinet ministers; known as Secretaries of State, they are formally responsible for the administration of their department and for the formulation and operation of the policies arising within it. However, despite ministerial authority, the bulk of the work orchestrated by each department is largely credible to the myriad of civil servants assigned to it, and not to the ministers themselves. With new policy and draft legislation frequently originating within government departments before reaching parliament, and with a legislative process mechanised so as to favour the government majority once a bill has reached the Houses for approval, the influential role of the civil service in the design and enforcement of policy has often been a source of controversy (R. Bentley, 2005, pp.316). Secretaries of State are appointed by the newly incumbent Prime Minister, usually hours after he or she has been elected, and are often assisted by junior ministers, political advisers and a host of civil servants (whose numbers frequently exceed the thousands) to assist in the coordination of the department’s work. There is a ministerial hierarchy within departments, with three ranks of junior minister assisting the Secretary of State; ministers of state, parliamentary under-secretaries and parliamentary secretaries, who’re appointed by the Prime Minister. However, the civil service are employees of the Crown and, unlike the ministers they serve, are not representative members of government; they are appointed by the Civil Service Commission, often after completing training courses at the Civil Service College, through fair and open competition. Further lending doubt to their function in agenda setting, the background of many civil servants tends to be rather narrow and stratified, with the careers of many top civil servants (known as Permanent Secretaries) beginning at the College and ending at the top of their department, with little-to-no relevant, pragmatic, real-world experience (civilservicecommission.independent.gov.uk) (B. Jones, 2004, pp.495-498). One of the main areas of concern surrounding the civil service is that of accountability; unlike the respective ministers and ranking junior ministers of any one department, civil servants are unelected officials who play a large role in the regulation and development of legislation, and who therefore are not chosen by the people, are not held accountable to parliament or even the junior ministers working for their department, but are answerable only to the Secretary of State or Permanent Secretary for that department. The issue occurs alongside one of the constitutional principles held by the civil service, Permanency; the ‘Security of Tenure’ endowed to all civil servants means that they remain within their department, regardless o...

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