Despite progress, the civil service must be further reformed if we are to see Brexit successfully delivered.

In scenes worthy of even the finest ‘Yes, Minister’ script, the papers have been awash with reports that scheming bureaucrats have taken it upon themselves to prevent the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. Dismayed by the referendum result – and apparently oblivious to the Government’s democratic mandate – The Sunday Telegraph reports that Whitehall mandarins have sought to frustrate the work of Brexit Ministers currently laying the groundwork for the UK’s departure.

The reports serve only to heighten fears among Brexit conspiracy theorists, already alarmed by the former Cabinet Secretary, Lord O’Donnell’s recent speculation that Brexit was not inevitable, and that the UK could end up remaining in a reformed EU.

Reports of miscreant civil-servants promoting their own agenda are not new. Recent fiascos that have garnered reams of column inches include the scrapping of Building Schools for the Future, relaxing border controls at Heathrow, and the handling of the West Coast Mainline franchise decision.

Indeed, the BBC even produced thirty-eight episodes of ‘Yes, Minister’ and ‘Yes, Prime Minister’ on the topic. The popular sit-com portrays the hapless Minister, Jim Hacker, in his frequent attempts to formulate and enact legislation or effect departmental changes, all of which are thwarted by the civil service, in particular his Permanent Secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby.

And while it’s true that the civil service that fills the corridors of Whitehall today has undergone significant reform since Jim Hacker left office – as last weekend’s coverage demonstrates: there’s still a way to go.

Under the Coalition Government a raft of civil service reforms was introduced. The role of Cabinet Secretary has been split in three. Meanwhile, Ministers have greater oversight in the appointment of their Permanent Secretary’s (the person charged with running the department on a day-to-day basis). And, crucially, as of July 2013 all new Permanent Secretary appointments were put on fixed five-year term contracts.

By moving Permanent Secretary’s to fixed term contracts and offering Ministers greater appointment oversight the civil service will be more in tune and responsive to the Government of the day’s electoral mandate.

Unfortunately, however, the reforms haven’t gone far enough. While the Minister has some oversight, it is still the Civil Service Commission that lends the guiding hand over the selection process and appointment. Sir Humphrey still gets his man in.

Instead, it should be for the Prime Minister, working with the relevant Minister, to have their choice from a list of appointable candidates drawn from a pool of candidates selected via open competition.

Similarly, the Civil Service Commission also has a heavy hand in the selection of senior civil servant positions below the rank of permanent secretary. This should stop. Ministers should be at liberty to choose who they deem best suited to lead the civil servants within their department, similarly that individual should be free to pick their own team.

Only by having a civil service fully committed to carrying out the democratic mandate of our elected government will we see Brexit properly delivered.

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