2

Ministers and their departments

One of the crucial dynamics of the British Cabinet system is that policy-making is very much in the hands of individual departments. It is the departmental minister who initiates change by imposing new initiatives and altering the course of existing policies. The ‘lead’ department for a subject controls the subsequent development and implementation of policy, and is invariably the focus of discussion and consultation with interested outside organisations. Consequently, the minister in charge of a department in Britain enjoys a level of autonomy in policy matters greater than in almost any other country. As Professor Jones has observed, British government is essentially ‘ministerial government’, although this is counter-balanced by a Cabinet whose collegiate ethos is stronger than in most countries. But while many of the outputs of the policy process are well publicised—through parliamentary debate and the extensive presentational efforts of departments—and while many of the inputs are publicly visible—pressure in Parliament, the advocacy of interest groups, the advice of government inquiries, the statistical or scientific data on which decisions are based—it is extremely difficult for the outsider to penetrate the stage at which the decision is actually taken: the stage often referred to by political observers and professional lobbyists as the ‘black box’ of policy-making. This chapter examines a facet of that process which crucially affects the operation of the Cabinet system: the relationship between departmental ministers and their civil servants.


Ministers: ‘just passing through’

Britain is governed by the creative friction generated by putting temporary ministers in charge of more permanent civil servants. Whitehall departments are large, expert, monolithic to the outside eye, and staffed by experienced officials. Onto the top of these organisations are parachuted ministers, largely unversed in administration or departmental subject

-12-

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