About Me

This blog carries a series of posts and articles, mostly written by Anthony Fitzsimmons under the aegis of Reputability LLP, a business that is no longer trading as such. Anthony is a thought leader in reputational risk and its root causes, behavioural, organisational and leadership risk. His book 'Rethinking Reputational Risk' was widely acclaimed. Led by Anthony, Reputability helped business leaders to find, understand and deal with these widespread but hidden risks that regularly cause reputational disasters. You can contact Anthony via anthony.fitzsimmons At cranfield dot ac dot uk

Monday, 24 January 2011

Are civil service leaders competent?

Are the Civil Service's top mandarins competent?  Two strong pieces of evidence suggest that they have a reputation for incompetence among those who deal most closely with them.  Another suggests that this reputation is deserved.  Re-visiting Lord Fulton's seminal 1968 report on civil service competence suggests why.

The UK Commons Public Accounts Committee reports on the civil service.  At its last review, the Committee concluded: "The confidence reported by staff in departments’ boards and senior leadership has been improving but is still low."  Those who know the mandrins best have little confidence in their leaders.

Coalition ministers clearly arrived thinking mandarins lack management skills.  Despite resistance from senior civil servants, one of the coalition's first acts was to try to bring experienced private sector leaders into the so-called boards of government departments in order to inject management skills into the top of the civil service. 

Now there is evidence that this reputation for incompetence is justified.  It comes from a recent lecture by Professor Van Reenen of the LSE, as reported by Tim Harford.  Van Reenen evaluated management competence in a double-blind survey based on 8000 interviews.  A striking conclusion was that government-run companies rank right at the bottom of management quality tables.  As Tim Harford put it, "David Brent is alive and working in Whitehall".

Depressingly, this is not a new phenomenon.  As long ago as 1968, the Fulton Report characterised the upper reaches of the civil service as based on the cult of the clever, classically educated amateur. 

Lord Fulton made two important recommendations.  The first was to provide management training for the civil service's policy-makers.  Whilst civil servants do get management training, the evidence suggests there is a continuing systemic failure of the civil service to deliver good management.

Secondly, the Report recommended that scientists and engineers should be given more training and responsibility in management and policy spheres (Chapter 1 para 17 on page 12).  

There has been a total failure here.  Over forty years on, only two of the 42 permanent secretaries that lead the UK's Civil Service have science or engineering degrees.  Only two more have degree level numeracy.   The nearest the UK Treasury's policy-making Executive Management Group has to a scientist is one person with a maths degree.  (Source: Cabinet Office and Treasury FoI answers).  

This failure explains two weaknesses in government policy-making.  Firstly, senior mandarins as a class are scientifically ignorant to an extent that should make them blush.  This makes them vulnerable to stupid mistakes because they have no independent basis for knowing where to probe any subject that has scientific content.  A cadre of specialist scientists is no substitute for mandarins who, collectively, are not scientifically ignorant.

Secondly, the lack of science training amongst mandarins has excluded the scientific culture and way of thinking from the civil service leadership.  The civil service leadership is deprived of the evidence-based culture and rigour that imbues those with a good science education.  This evidence-seeking rigour can be uncomfortable, but it is highly desirable.  

It seems clear that the Civil Service has no intention of developing scientists and engineers to fill the highest levels. This is probably because it does not recognise its own weakness.  A recent FoI answer states "There is no strategy or policy that has been pursued by the Civil Service (either at present or in the last five years), to ensure that current and potential permanent secretaries are selected to ensure a certain distribution of academic backgrounds amongst this group." 

The civil service leadership needs to improve.  Its is notoriously resistant to change as the abiding image of Sir Humphrey reminds us.  It will take a determined government to change civil service culture.  

Political leaders could do worse than resurect Lord Fulton's report because forty years on, its diagnosis still seems to fit. They should commission a small group, well balanced between science and arts graduates, to revisit the Civil Service's culture and competence.  

And in the meantime, they should set the Civil Service Commissioners the objective of making scientific ignorance as embarassing to mandarins as ignorance of literature, history, politics or the rhetorical arts.

Postcript: You will find a recent piece by Richard Bacon MP here.

Anthony Fitzsimmons

Anthony Fitzsimmons is Chairman of Reputability LLP and, with the late Derek Atkins, author of “Rethinking Reputational Risk: How to Manage the Risks that can Ruin Your Business, Your Reputation and You


  1. Intersting...
    So is your position that a mix of science grads leads to better management?
    If so are there stats on the "well managed" non-government run companies that corroborae this?
    What is the optimum mix by those stats and should we all look to emulate them?

  2. Replying to anonymous Richard (please reveal your identity)

    In 1968, the twelve eminent members of the Fulton Committee concluded, after an enquiry lasting over 2 years, that "a wider and more important role [i.e. higher management and policy making] must be opened up for specialists [i.e. scientists and engineers] trained and equipped for it". (Fulton, chapter 1 para 17, last sentence)

    The world, including the UK, now depends far more on advanced science and technology for its operation and future than it did in 1968.

    If there was a need in 1968 to train and deploy scientists and engineers as policymakers, then it is likely to be even more true today.

    Hence I conclude that it is even more unacceptable now than it was in 1968 for the cadre of top mandarins to be so ill educated in science and scientific culture, method and thinking. (Engineering is applied science.)

    I also see it as a poor reflection on the culture of the leaders of the civil service to have perpetuated the civil service leadership in their pre-Fulton image and ignored this Fulton recommendation so thoroughly.

  3. This is an interesting article. After spending much of my working life in the civil service I have developed a couple of opinions on this.

    The quote from the Fulton Committee's conclusions says something different to me.

    What they were saying was that the very upper levels at that time consisted mostly exclusively of generalists i.e. those who had (either by design or accident) resisted being pigeon-holed into a specific profession. That is because successful evidence-based policy making requires a much wider range of skills than just being able to critically assess evidence in a 'scientific' manner. I think you will find that is true in a great many organisations - the accountant almost always aspires to be the Finance Director, not the Managing Director or CEO. Just because you are a scientist or engineer does not mean you will make a good manager or policy maker. In fact universities are filled with very clever people I wouldn't trust to run a bath!

    Scientists and engineers do often become policy makers. But to them that represents a very clear change of direction for them. Most scientists and engineers quite obviously work as scientists and engineers! For a start there's more money in both!

    I worked in science policy. I'm not a scientist but was able to draw on - and was lobbied - by a great many of them, who developed their ideas - often independently of government - and were able to put them across extremely well. Policy makers become expert very quickly in a very narrow area of focus whatever the subject by sheer dint of working in it day in day out, but they have to apply their skills - such as writing briefing papers, engaging with the public and politicians, working with a range of stakeholders, managing staff and finances and so on.

    Your view of 'science' is a very positivist stance. I think you'll find most if not all of the upper echelons of the civil service, whether they ever served as economists, statisticians or whatever, have very advanced critical analysis skills gained at Uni but had to become a generalist and develop highly developed management skills to 'get on' because the glass ceiling for professionals is a recognised phenomenon not simply restricted to the civil service.

    It would make sense that those that STARTED OFF as generalists, probably via fast stream entry, are much more likely to get ahead on their career than those who jumped from being a professional accountant/scientist/economist/ lawyer into a policy area.

    I hope this kind of makes sense? Just dropping this in for debate.


  4. Michael thank you for your thoughtful comments.

    I will make three points. One has to do with Fulton. Two are examples of the disadvantages of a science-free civil service leadership.

    Fulton's team recommended (para 197) that “in particular, scientific and other specialist staff should be able to bring their professional training and outlook to bear effectively on today's major problems of policy-making and management. This means an open road to the top of the Service for all kinds of talent. It also means that suitable specialists must be able to take part in policy-making and management at the lower and middle levels of the Service; quite apart from the valuable contributions they can make to management at these levels, it is unrealistic to expect specialists to reach top managerial positions without this earlier experience.”

    Fulton also recommended (para 100 (a)) that courses should be provided for “specialists (e.g. scientists, engineers, architects) who need training in administration and management both early in their careers and later.”

    In other words, Fulton's though that scientists had much to contribute to policy, but they needed training and opportunities.

    The Civil Service has brought few scientists and engineers to the top. There may be a de facto 'glass ceiling'. It is probably like the glass ceiling that leads company boards to appoint people in their own image rather than those who fill skill gaps that they are unable to recognise. The Civil Service leadership is wrong to perpetuate such a glass ceiling and for failing to recognise that the cadre of permanent secretaries lacks key skills essential to good government in a technological age.

    Secondly, you wrote: “I worked in science policy. I'm not a scientist but was able to draw on - and was lobbied - by a great many of them, who developed their ideas - often independently of government - and were able to put them across extremely well.” I am sure that you were well lobbied from by interested group and learned what they wanted you to know. Your disadvantage was “unknown unknowns”. You were not able to use a good scientist's general knowledge to test what you were told.

    Such a policy-maker can make apparently good decisions that are actually bad. Critical analysis skills are important. But they are no substitute for the knowledge that enables rigorous questioning.

    Thirdly, scientists have critical thinking skills that are not taught outside science. One example is the study of error and assumptions. I met these subjects in the first year of my physics and chemistry A levels and they were drummed in more broadly and deeply in the first term of my engineering degree.

    One of the first questions that a top quality scientist or engineer numerate enough to look critically at a mathematical model (i.e. certainly physicists and engineers and many others) would ask herself is: on what assumptions and approximations is the model based? And how does it work? Most other graduates (with the possible exception of statisticians and mathematicians) would lack this aspect of critical thinking let alone the numeracy to delve into the model.

    For example, it seems that most economic models were based on two assumptions. One was as to the nature of human decision-making: this seems to have led to 'bubbles' being underestimated if recognised. The second was an assumption that the frequency distribution of random events was a “bell curve”. Few bright people with an engineer's training, asked to consider such models, would have left such fundamental assumptions unquestioned; but it is no surprise that innumerate non-scientists on a very large scale missed the problem – as they did in fact with consequences for which we shall be paying for for decades.

    I hope this gives you food for thought on your comments.


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