Rethinking the civil service in the post-Covid era


Jonathan Eyal

Global Affairs

PublishedJul 13, 2020, 5:00 am SGT


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Covid-19 is driving a debate on how to pick and train public servants in an age of uncertainty

Is your civil service fit to handle today’s problems and anticipate those of the future? This, arguably, is the sort of question the government of any country should ask itself, and on a yearly basis.

For the responsibilities that fall on the shoulders of the administrators who form the civil service vary all the time, as new technologies become available, and public expectations rise.

And if the balance between stability and change gets out of kilter, the damage inflicted on a nation soon becomes painfully obvious. A poorly designed civil service imposes immediate and severe costs on a country, either by subjecting its people to needless bureaucracy which stifles creativity or, more seriously still, by failing to seize on new technological opportunities.

As the experience of many European countries in handling the current coronavirus pandemic indicates, failures to make adequate preparations for dealing with health emergencies, coupled with faulty early warning systems which proved incapable of mounting an effective national response plan to the pandemic, may have resulted in higher than necessary death rates.

So, faulty civil services not only impose opportunity costs, but can cost lives. It is not surprising, therefore, that a debate about reforming the state administration is now all the rage in many European countries.

And that’s particularly the case in Britain, where Mr Michael Gove, a senior Cabinet minister, launched a searing attack on the country’s civil service, ushering what could well be the biggest reform in the country’s administration in more than half a century.


Mr Gove’s main contention is that the art of governing today requires civil servants “to evaluate data more rigorously”, and doing this necessitates the hiring of more mathematicians, statisticians, data scientists and other experts from the physical sciences.

“So many policy and implementation decisions depend on understanding mathematical reasoning,” says Mr Gove. “That means we need to reform not just recruitment, but training,” he adds. Britain needs policymakers and decision-makers “equipped to read a balance sheet and discuss what constitutes an appropriate return on investment, those who are conversant with the commercial practices of those from whom we procure services and can negotiate the right contracts and enforce them appropriately”.

At first glance, the criticism looks spot on. For the history of Britain is littered with examples of poor decisions on the management of the economy and public finances, as well as that perennial plague of all civil services: procurement projects that end up being grossly delayed and vastly over budget, often because those bureaucrats who originally drafted the contracts had no idea of either what was really needed, or how risk should be calculated and managed.

And in an age when there is an explosion in the quantity of available data – from “Web-scraping” to social media – all of which can inform governance decisions if properly collected, stored and analysed, British civil servants continue to be recruited from those who studied history, politics and languages at universities.

Just look at Britain’s Civil Service Fast Stream scheme, which selects the brightest young people to become senior civil servants: Out of 400 of those who were picked as fast-streamers in 2018 – the last year for which full statistics are available – only around 40 had degrees in science and engineering. So, not only is Britain’s civil service failing to adapt, but it may also be doomed to perpetuate the same weaknesses for another generation.


But while the British example may be more extreme, it is by no means unique in Europe. The French and German administrations are admired as being better than Britain’s at encouraging scientific expertise into the state administration. Still, many of the top civil servants continue to be recruited from a narrow pool and social base, and most go through elite training academies – be they the exclusive National School of Administration in Paris or the German University of Administrative Sciences – where the emphasis is on how to be a uniformly good generalist, rather than a radical specialist.

Rethinking the civil service in the post-Covid era


Throughout Europe, high-flying civil servants achieve promotions not by sticking to the same job year after year, but by hopping from one job to the next. So, one day a promising German civil servant may be dealing with the regulation of education in one of his country’s federal states, while the next day, he will be tasked with dealing with immigration questions for the entire nation. Instead of acquiring knowledge through specialisation, the system encourages the creation of jacks of all trades, and masters of one.

As a result, even specialists recruited into Europe’s civil services are transformed into generalists. And the result is invariably a lack of relevant expertise. Just ask Germany’s Defence Ministry – its biggest problem is not how to secure adequate cash for the country’s armed forces but, rather, how to spend what it already has, because it can’t find the appropriate bureaucrats to draft the specifications for weapons procurement, or assess contracts with commercial manufacturers.

There is also little incentive to take risks; there are no rewards for taking a gamble which works, but plenty of downside for failure. And unlike in the United States, where senior civil servants are appointed by incoming administrations for political reasons and thereby at least hold the promise of some interaction between the private sector and the bureaucracy, in most European countries a bureaucrat stays in the service of the state from the time he is hired right until his retirement.


Given their often-lamentable response to the coronavirus pandemic, some European governments are determined to act now. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is apparently committed to overhauling the entire top echelon of his country’s bureaucracy. And in France, President Emmanuel Macron is pledged to a “profound modernisation” of the civil service, including – it is often rumoured – even the abolition of the elite school that supplies the top administrators.

But this may well be a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

First, it is worth pointing out that the problem is not new; all developed countries have grappled with such questions for decades, and some solutions have already been implemented. In many countries, secondees from the private sector are often co-opted into government departments for short periods and, conversely, civil servants are seconded to the private sector.

Many government departments have scientific advisers or scientific committees. And in many countries, government departments are no longer stove-piped, so certain challenges are tackled together by several ministries, thereby increasing the pool of human talent available.


More importantly, it is simply a fallacy to assume that including more scientists and other professionals into the civil service will tackle all problems. For the coronavirus pandemic indicates the limitations of this approach.

True, some specialist capabilities have come to the fore in the coronavirus crisis, notably the medical sciences and the knowledge of economic planning required to administer the various social benefit systems which European countries have applied in order to deal with the economic downturn created by the pandemic.



And there have also been some painful errors due to the lack of technical expertise.

Britain’s Department of Health and Social Care, for instance, did not have the capacity to do the epidemiological modelling required for handling the pandemic, so it relied on outside specialists, some of whom were better than others.

Britain’s National Health Service also insisted on developing its own mobile phone app for tracing people who are infected, rather than relying on commercial technology companies; the result was abject failure, and no functioning tracing app to this day.


But arguing that national decision-makers should merely “follow the science” when dealing with a new challenge remains a meaningless slogan, as the Covid-19 pandemic yet again proves.

For, which “science” should decision-makers listen to? That of the epidemiologists, who may know how the virus spreads? That of the clinical specialists who may know what hospital equipment they need to reduce deaths from infection?

Should decision-makers listen to the immunologists who could perhaps predict when a vaccine may finally be found? Or, should politicians listen to the economists, who may be able to predict how hard the economy will be hit by a decision to impose a lockdown on an entire population?

In practice, all these fields need to be listened to, even though these different disciplines seldom interact with one another. So, only politicians can arbitrate between these competing scientific fields.



And quite apart from the fact that this is never an easy task, there is the problem that the scientists themselves do not agree among themselves on the adequate response. Some European epidemiologists have argued that the only answer to the coronavirus pandemic is to allow people to be infected to create “herd immunity”, while others argued that this would be irresponsible.

For the moment, those who advocated locking people at home to slow the pandemic appear to have been right. But it remains to be seen whether this argument will be correct over a longer period; if, for instance, no vaccine is found and we are subjected to repeated flare-ups of infections, then those who argued for herd immunity may well be vindicated.

Either way, if Covid-19 has told us anything, it is that scientists may be as fallible as all of us when it comes to policy choices, and that scientific disciplines are more and more interconnected, so not one discipline holds the “answer”.

Perhaps the real answer to a better administration of a state is not only greater expertise among civil servants, but also an improved scientific competence among political decision-makers.

For, while spitting fire in his demands for an immediate overhaul of his civil service, Mr Johnson has just appointed a new national security adviser whose job is not only to coordinate all of Britain’s military and intelligence services, but also to handle all emergencies and, if this was not enough, to negotiate Britain’s future trade arrangements with Europe.

The new appointee is not a civil servant as was the case in the past, but a political choice.

And the qualifications of this new super-decision-maker? A university degree in mediaeval history.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 13, 2020, with the headline ‘Rethinking the civil service in the post-Covid era’. Print Edition | Subscribe

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