Civil servants are those who are employed by ‘the Crown’. This usually means that they work in government departments and are employed by government ministers. But what do they actually do?
What makes civil servants different?
They are servants of the Crown, which refers to the Government of the day. As a result, all civil servants are expected to be politically impartial. They can — in normal times — promote the policies of the Government, but they must not be party political.
They may have their own views about government policies but must keep these views hidden and be willing to work hard to support minsters from any political party.
A small number work closely with government ministers, helping them design new or better policies, such as improving the NHS and the tackling climate crisis.
The vast majority are not involved directly in policy, but are responsible for operations like paying pensions and benefits (for instance, to the disabled and the unemployed), running prisons, planning new roads, carrying out driving tests, and so on.
How does this change when an election has been called?
For the majority, nothing really changes.
But those civil servants who work closely with ministers are now subject to much stricter political impartiality rules, so as to avoid favouring the current Government over opposition parties. This is known as being in “purdah”. No new appointments, contracts or major policy areas can be announced, and consultations and new appointments are postponed until after the election.
What is election ‘purdah’?
The term ‘purdah’ is often used to describe the period immediately after the dissolution of Parliament before an election, when there are additional restrictions on the activity of civil servants.
The word comes from the Urdu and Persian words for ‘veil’ or ‘curtain’, also used to describe the practice of screening women from men or strangers. Its English usage accordingly suggests government officials drawing a veil over themselves, and cutting themselves off as far as possible.
So, they all go home for five weeks?
No, there is still a lot of work to be done. Ministers ask them to provide facts which can be used in political speeches. They are also asked for their views on the analysis, costings and proposals contained in documents produced by political organisations, including the Opposition. But they must not draft ministers’ responses to such documents.
What about the work they do for the public?
The general rule is that citizens’ individual interests should not be prejudiced by the calling of an election.
It follows that emails, letters and phone calls must still be actioned, and replied to. But civil servants need to remember that correspondence may become public and might be used for political purposes.
Replies to letters are, therefore, drafted so as to be as straightforward as possible, and avoid controversy. If a minister is communicating with an election candidate, then the draft reply prepared by officials should not distinguish between candidates of different parties.
What happens if a different political party wins the election?
Another task in this pre-election period is for civil servants to prepare for new ministers in their departments, drawing up briefings and other induction materials. This falls largely into three main categories:
1. Preparatory contact with opposition parties that could come into government. So, officials are even now meeting leaders of the Labour Party — and maybe other opposition parties as well.
2. Work anticipating the likely policies of opposition parties and what the objectives of each department might be under a different government — for example, by studying the manifestos of each party.
3. Preparing briefing documents for new ministers. This can be a useful way for departments to take stock of their policies and organisation, and consider how they might need to change. Usually, two sets of documents are prepared — one assuming the existing government continues, and one that the Opposition wins. As soon as the election result is known, one set is shredded.
This briefing is produced by The Day in association with ENGAGE Public Policy, with thanks to Martin Stanley of the Understanding Government website.
- Could you be politically impartial if you worked for a government whose views you didn’t support?
- Read through one of our Briefings on the manifesto of a party that you don’t usually back. Then, applying political impartiality, defend one of its proposed policies as a great idea using evidence from your own research. Can you be convincing? Does it make you change your mind about opposition policies?
- Politically impartial
- Showing no favouritism towards a political party, whatever your beliefs and voting intention.
- Opposition parties
- Those parties that aren’t in government.
- An official ending; in this case, of Parliament.
- The Opposition
- The main opposition party to the one in government. Currently, this refers to the Labour Party.
- To make an early version of a piece of writing or document.