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Politics and the permanency of permanent secretaries: testing the vitality of the Westminster administrative tradition, 1949–2014

I was trained in the Treasury for good or ill by a man who still ferociously pursues the public good … He showed me how to negotiate, how to draw breath in mid-sentence so as to discourage interruption, how to draft, and why the Service belongs neither to politicians nor to officials but to the Crown and to the nation.

—Ian Bancroft (cited in Hennessy 1989, p. 346).

Abstract

Many scholars lament that reforms first introduced in the late 1970s led to the demise of the Westminster administrative tradition. A recent body of research, however, has begun to question the death of the Westminster administrative tradition. This article contributes to this debate by focusing on an important tenet of this tradition: the permanency of civil servants. Using original longitudinal data of administrative heads in the UK between 1949 and 2014, this article investigates whether the relationship between several political events within the executive government and turnover of permanent secretaries has strengthened since 1979. The empirical results from cross-tabulation analysis and logistic regression suggest that over the last 60 years the relationship between political events in the executive and administrative turnover has largely remained unchanged. Since 1979, a change in the governing party, a change in the prime minister, and the re-election of a prime minister, do not lead to a greater increase in permanent secretary turnover. With the permanency of elite bureaucrats still intact, the evidence supports research suggesting that reforms since 1979 better reflect a pattern of institutional layering on top of the Westminster administrative tradition, rather than constituting its demise.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. This is not to suggest, however, that the only cause of turnover following a political event is the political motivations of governments to increase control. Factors such as retirement, death, and illness likely affect turnover. Importantly, however, there are no reasons to believe that these non-political factors are more likely in years following a political than in other years. In other words, presuming that non-political factors likely affect turnover equally in years following an event and years in which no event has occurred, we can gain the ability to see the influence of politics by comparing years following a political event with years in which there is no political events.

  2. Recent evidence also suggests that governments continue to face resistance from civil servants to their efforts of reform (Paun et al. 2013, pp. 11–12).

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Cooper, C.A. Politics and the permanency of permanent secretaries: testing the vitality of the Westminster administrative tradition, 1949–2014. Br Polit 15, 311–325 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41293-019-00113-8

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1057/s41293-019-00113-8

Keywords

  • Administrative tradition
  • Bureaucracy
  • Politicization
  • Westminster
  • Institutional reform
  • Permanent secretaries