Thursday, July 5, 2012

Civil servants and public policy

Anyone familiar with the classic British television series, the satirical “Yes, Minister” will know that at its core the show was about the efforts by a government Minister to lead and his battles with often recalcitrant civil servants. This fictional series was not too far from the truth. Where politicians lead and civil servants are meant to implement policy, the process is rarely smooth and without its own internal challenges.

One reason why the link between policy setting and implementation may not go smoothly is because of disagreement with the policy decision among civil servants. In almost all instances, civil servants dutifully carry out their responsibilities and implement policy directives. But not always. I recall an instance a number of years ago when a minister made a decision that was clearly contrary to the view of a particular civil servant who had responsibility to act on it. The civil servant found a multitude of reasons to explain his delay in implementation and after three months still no action had been taken. It was only when the civil servant was subjected to an intensely colourful, semi-public dressing down that he set about acting on the decision — immediately.

Policy implementation may also be delayed or set askew because of internal procedural requirements. The pace envisioned by Ministers for putting policy in place may simply not be possible given that civil servants have the responsibility to ensure that all necessary details are properly addressed. There is even likely to be a level of tension at times when a Minister wants a decision acted on immediately, yet is constrained by the need for civil servants to liaise with all appropriate parties and secure any necessary permissions. Because civil servants operate in neither an explicitly political environment nor in the private sector their sensibilities and modus operandi will necessarily be quite different and not always readily understood. The logic of the civil service is to ensure that decisions are implemented correctly, without a primary reference to the political context.

A third challenge to the smooth alignment between policy and implementation is one driven by purely internal dynamics. Like any large organisation, there is always internal politics — the small “p” sort — at play. The jockeying for power, personality conflicts and the abuses that at times ensue all conspire, even if inadvertently, to challenge the policy implementation process. This sort of political battle takes a toll on morale, sustained collaborative work and, no doubt, productivity. The politician has no real control over this domain and this must be left with the leadership with the civil service to address. 

Understanding the dynamics at play between the political leadership and the civil service provides insight into the sometimes circuitous route policy implementation takes. Noble objectives can be stymied by the practical realities; opposition to policy emanating from within can produce frustrating delays; and internal politics can weaken the system altogether. The way forward is to find strategies to minimise these realities.

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