UCL Uncovering Politics

Should the Civil Service Be Neutral?

Episode Summary

This week we ask which is better: a bureaucracy staffed by neutral civil servants; or one filled by political appointees?

Episode Notes

In this our final episode for the current academic year, we’re going to tackle one of the biggest questions of political science: How do you run an effective government? In particular, how do you build a bureaucracy that’s able to deliver? Is it better to have neutral civil servants, who are appointed on merit and retain their posts whichever parties are in power? Or should we prefer a politicized bureaucracy, whose members are appointed at least in part for their loyalty to the politicians in charge, and who come and go with their political masters?

That question is particularly salient here in the UK just at the moment. As we have discussed on several episodes of this podcast over the year, the current government under Boris Johnson has been widely criticized for undermining Britain’s longstanding tradition of civil service neutrality by pushing some senior officials out and bringing in others it thinks better attuned to its agenda. Government ministers counter, however, that a nominally neutral civil service in fact betrays the prejudices of the establishment, and that a democratically elected government should not be fettered by unelected bureaucrats.

Similar questions arise in countries around the world. Indeed, by guest today has conducted research in dozens of countries aimed at answering these and related questions. That guest is Christian Schuster, who is Professor of Public Management here in the UCL Department of Political Science.