Northcote–Trevelyan Report

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The Northcote–Trevelyan Report was a document prepared by Stafford H. Northcote (later to be Chancellor of the Exchequer) and C.E. Trevelyan (then permanent secretary at the Treasury). Published in February 1854, the report catalysed the development of Her Majesty's Civil Service in the United Kingdom.

Origins and influences[edit]

The principles of the system proposed by Northcote–Trevelyan can be traced to earlier reforms in the Indian Civil Service[1] (ICS).Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1st Baron Macaulay, Secretary to the Board of Control, was instrumental in the passing of the Saint Helena Act 1833 which removed the East India Company's trade functions, and established is as an entirely administrative body. He was responsible for establishing the principle of 'appointment by generalist competitive examination' into government positions.[2] (Although, as with the Northcote–Trevelyan report subsequently, although Macaulay's intentions were clear, and incorporated into the Act, implementation of those intentions did not immediately follow; it was not until the 1853 that appointment by nomination rather than competition was made universal in the ICS.)[3]

Trevelyan had been a member of the Indian civil service, having been trained at its college at East India Company College near Hertford. He regarded Macaulay highly, and was also married to one of Macaulay's sisters.[4]

Northcote was also influenced by the example of the Indian civil service. He was a friend of William Ewart Gladstone, at that time chancellor of the exchequer and also of Benjamin Jowett, a theologian and tutor at Balliol College, Oxford. Jowett had been one of the commissioners involved in the earlier reform of the ICS, and subsequently wrote a letter which acted as a cover note to the Northcote-Trevelyan report.

In the years leading up to 1854, there were at least 11 other reports into the structure and functions of individual government departments[5] Because these were mainly motivated by the need for 'economy' rather than the improvement of effectiveness, they had Her Majesty's Treasury involvement, and so Trevelyan, as 'assistant secretary' to the Treasury from 1840, (a role now known as permanent secretary) had taken part in many of them. By 1848, he had become convinced of the need for reform across government rather than merely in individual departments,.[6] Although he had not been successful in instituting the kind of reforms for which he would later argue in the Northcote–Trevelyan report, his reviews into the Home Office, Foreign Office, Colonial Office, and the Irish Office had led him to draw two of the conclusions that would untimately have prominence in Northcote–Trevelyan; that work should be divided into mechanical and intellectual types, and that recruitment and selection should be based solely on merit.[7]

The appointment of a reform-minded Gladstone as chancellor in 1852, created greater pressure for civil service reform.[8] A report into the Board of Trade recommended that

‘the whole subject of the examination of candidates for public employment is well worthy of consideration, and that it would be of great advantage if a proper system was devised, and a central board of properly qualified examiners employed.'[9]


The terms of reference of what became the Northcote–Trevelyan report were issued by Gladstone in the form of a Treasury minute in 1853. They stated that an enquiry should be convened:

‘For the purpose of considering applications for increase of salary, abolishing or consolidating redundant offices, supplying additional assistance where it is required, getting rid of obsolete processes, and introducing more simple and compendious modes of transacting business…establishing a proper distinction between intellectual and mechanical labour, and generally, so revising and readjusting the public establishments as to place them on the footing best calculated for the efficient discharge of their important functions according to the actual circumstances of the present time…’[10]

The report took nine months to draft and publish.[11] It had the formal title "Report on the organisation of the permanent civil service, together with a letter from the Rev. B. Jowett." It had four major conclusions:

  1. Recruitment into the civil service should be by open examination, conducted by an independent ‘civil service board’.
  2. Entrants should be recruited into a ‘home civil service’ as a whole, rather than to a specific department.
  3. Recruits would be segregated at entry into a hierarchy of grades, ranging from clerical officers who would conduct routine tasks, through to those who would provide policy advice to ministers.
  4. Promotion would be on merit, not preferment, patronage, purchase, or length of service.

Implementation and effect[edit]

Initial reaction to the report’s recommendations was hostile, including from Queen Victoria. The report advocated that its recommendations be enacted in statute, but it quickly became apparent that this would be politically impossible.[12]

However, Gladstone did quickly establish the Civil Service Commission through an order in council on 21 May 1855.[13] The Commission was intended to fulfil the role of the 'Civil Service Board' argued for by the report. The Commission did issue certificates to civil service candidates, but the certificates were not, as had been recommended, issued on the basis of competitive examination results.[14]

Opposition to the reforms continued, and even by 1870, Gladstone, although by then Prime Minister, was still unable to garner support for statutory reform. Instead, he issued a second order in council on 4 June 1870, which placed responsibility for the recruitment of all civil servants, except for the Home and Foreign Offices, under the control of the Treasury. This had the effect of more fully implementing the first of the report's major recommendations; although entrance examinations would now be conducted (with patronage largely disappearing as a result) by the Commission, they would be overseen by the Treasury.

Even after 1870, there was still nothing approaching a unified, 'home civil service'; salaries, working conditions and reputation differed between Departments. However, in 1919, Warren Fisher, as Permanent Secretary of the Treasury, pushed hard for the idea that 'inter-departmental transfers should form a normal part of the middle and high-ranking civil servant's career...this was secured by Fisher's requirement that all of his own officials should previously have worked in other Departments.'[15]


In 1908, writer Graham Wallas wrote that 'the real 'constitutional' check in England is provided… by the existence of a permanent civil service, appointed on a system independent of the opinion and desires of any politician', which has been taken to be an endorsement of the by then well-embedded principles behind Northcote-Trevelyan.[16]

It has been argued that the 'structure provided by the Northcote-Trevelyan report and the…Order in Council' was flawed in its inception and [steadily grew] more inappropriate since then.'[17] due to increasingly stark difference between both the Civil Service, and the world in general, after the publication of the report.

These differences (such as a large increase in the number of civil servants and the scope of activity of the service itself, and the increasing perception of exclusivity of an entry examination system 'rooted firmly in the educational standards of Oxbridge and the curricular preferences of middle-class public schools'[18]) were reflected in publication of the Fulton Report in 1968. Fulton has been seen as marking the end of the UK Civil Service on the lines of Northcote-Trevelyan[19] but even since then, Northcote-Trevelyan is often still mentioned as a significant influence on the British Civil Service, enshrining the "core values of integrity, propriety, objectivity and appointment on merit, able to transfer its loyalty and expertise from one elected government to the next",[20]

One of the report's principles (that pay should be common across the civil service, rather than directly affected by performance or geographical location) was cited as being used to attack the first attempt to introduce performance-related pay in the civil service in 1985[21] and as late as 2004, a speech by the then Prime Minister Tony Blair, referred positively to the values implicit in the report's recommendations.[22] However, it has also been said that the ‘Northcote-Trevelyan system’, with ‘a merit-based, permanent career civil service, in which those at the very top were an elite of anonymous, objective, disinterested, party politically neutral officials…is a powerful myth’.[23]

Further reading[edit]

  • Duncan, C (ed) (1992) The Evolution of Public Management: Concepts and Techniques for the 1990s, Macmillan ISBN 0-333-52274-5
  • O’Toole, B (2006) The Ideal of Public Service, Routledge ISBN 0-714-65482-5
  • Pilkington, C (1999) The Civil Service in Britain Today, Manchester University Press ISBN 0-7190-5223-8

External links[edit]


  1. ^ O'Toole, p. 48
  2. ^ O'Toole, p. 50
  3. ^ O'Toole, p. 51
  4. ^ O'Toole, p. 51
  5. ^ O'Toole, p. 52
  6. ^ Pilkington, p. 18
  7. ^ Pilkington, p. 18
  8. ^ Pilkinton, p. 19
  9. ^ O'Toole, p 53
  10. ^ O’Toole, p53
  11. ^ Pilkington, p. 19
  12. ^ Pilkington, p. 20
  13. ^ O'Toole, p.59
  14. ^ Pilkington, p. 20
  15. ^ Pilkington, p. 20
  16. ^ O'Toole, p. 48
  17. ^ Pilkington, p. 21
  18. ^ Pikington, p. 20
  19. ^ O'Toole, p. 46
  20. ^ Hennessy, Peter. Founder's Day address, Hawarden Castle, 8 July 1999.
  21. ^ Duncan, p. 209
  22. ^ Champan, R and O'Toole, B (26 October 2009). "Leadership in the British civil service: an interpretation" (PDF). Retrieved 8 March 2015. 
  23. ^ O’Toole, p. 193