Civil servants lack basic training, like ministers who do as they're told and opposed the poll tax: four ex-ministers share their views
Baroness Stowell, Lord Heseltine, Baroness Warsi and Harriet Harman are the latest former minsters to look back on their time in Whitehall as part of the Institute for Government’s Ministers Reflect series. They reveal the good and the bad of the civil service
Baroness Stowell: 'I don’t feel there is enough basic training of civil servants'
Baroness Tina Stowell became a Conservative peer in 2011. She was a government whip and spokesperson before becoming a minister at DCLG in 2013. From 2014-16 she was leader of the House of Lords.
Baroness Stowell urges civil servants to recognise that the public are disillusioned with the established ways of running the country and to engage more with the legislative process.
Stowell, who became a Conservative peer in 2011, also claims that officials don’t understand the value of effectively communicating policy, and that too much “process” and basic training has been lost from Whitehall since she was a civil servant in the '80s and '90s.
“Over the last few years, all this public disaffection and disillusionment which has led to surprising referendum results and surprising general election results…. I don’t think those of us in Westminster, Whitehall and Parliament have responded to that in how we legislate,” she reflects. "We have to recognise… there’s something about this system that we are a part of that needs to change.”
She says civil servants “could do a better job” of pushing through legislation, by dropping assumptions that the parliamentary process is “a battle between two institutions” and accepting that some challenges from parliament can produce better results.
There is a need for more effective communication, which is too often left to the end of policy development. Bills must be as short and focused as possible, while all legislation should be thought of as “like a campaign”, Stowell explains.
“The efficiencies that were made in the communications departments within Whitehall, whilst I can understand them on one level, mean there are not enough people who can explain to ministers, or indeed themselves as senior officials, what it is that is going on in their department,” she says.
Elsewhere in the interview, Stowell is critical of overly detailed civil service briefings, particularly those she received when she became a whip in the Lords in 2011. It was a “really tough gig”, she says, because government whips – in the Lords especially – have to get to grips with a wide range of “brand new” policy topics, and have “very little support from the relevant departments”.
“The civil service will give you a briefing folder, as thick as a brick, but they are very, very bad at actually saying to you look, we know that you can’t get all of this, but let’s give you some basics to help you at this moment in time.”
Stowell, who joined Whitehall as a personal secretary and left in 1996, says civil servants don’t understand parliament well enough. “I don’t feel as if there is enough basic training of civil servants. Just in having them understand the role of a minister.”
She also says when she was a civil servant in the 80s there was “unnecessary bureaucracy” but coming back as a minister for the Department for Communities and Local Government in 2013, in the midst of Whitehall’s efficiency drive, she was surprised to find that process wasn’t as important as it used to be. “I think that’s a problem," she says.
She later expands on this: “I’m not the easiest person to work for. But when I went to DCLG I felt like I had to almost train people on what it is that you need to do in order to provide effective support to somebody.”
Diary management in particular is “a dying skill” in Whitehall, Stowell argues.
Another frustration is that some “reasonably senior” civil servants confuse impartiality with not giving their view. “I think as a minister you do need to hear the views of your officials.”
Lord Heseltine: ‘The Treasury were against the poll tax’
Lord Heseltine was an MP from 1966-2001. He served in many ministerial roles over three decades including secretary of state for environment and for defence and deputy prime minister. He joined the House of Lords as a Conservative peer in 2001.
Tory grandee Lord Heseltine reveals that his first secretary-of-state role saw him hand his new permanent secretary at the Department of Environment a 10-point plan written on non-standard notepaper when he took office in 1979.
“I remember giving my permanent secretary a list on an envelope of 10 things and saying, ‘this is the agenda’,” he says.
Selling off council houses “must have been one”, he admits, while dusting off plans to regenerate London’s South Bank, created in an earlier government stint, and refocusing them on Docklands would have been another.
“My permanent secretary gave the list back to me when I left three years later and most of it was done,” Heseltine remembers.
Particularly famed as a politician who applied his entrepreneurial learnings from property and publishing to national politics, Heseltine has clear messages for “getting things done” in Whitehall.
“The first thing is to know exactly what you want to get done and to articulate it clearly; second is to find out what your department is doing because that’s not easy,” he says.
“There is no management information system which will enable you to know in detail what departments are doing. You only have to look at the promotion processes for officials to realise that they zig zag across departments. They have great strengths but these do not include the working knowledge of the shop floor of their trade, so to speak.”
Heseltine recalls the introducing a business information system for the department, which became MINIS [a management information system for ministers], and which won interest from then prime minister Margaret Thatcher, but failed to galvanise interest among cabinet colleagues. “Management systems are boring,” he says. “Whenever I left a department, quite soon the systems disappeared.”
Elsewhere, Heseltine remembers the lack of opposition from within Whitehall that accompanied the decision to scrap the poll tax. “It was a monumental disaster and I had made it clear all the way through the late '80s that I was against it,” he says.
“When the leadership challenge took place, I said I would get rid of the poll tax. Frankly, the feeling in the party was so strong, that John [Major] and Douglas [Hurd] both came in and said we are also getting rid of the poll tax. I mean, they had every reason to follow my lead. So there was no difficulty about Whitehall. I don’t think they thought it was a particularly good scheme. The Treasury were also against it.”
Heseltine says he created its replacement, council tax, after bailing out early from a “boring” European Council meeting in Paris.
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In his interview, Heseltine mentions being impressed as a junior minister with the modus operandi of his then-boss as environment secretary Peter Walker, particularly in relation to his daily political meeting, from which civil servants were excluded.
“The civil servants hated Peter’s political meeting, they made great efforts to get a civil servant in there and Peter wouldn’t have it,” Heseltine says. “Peter told me that his permanent secretary would say, ‘secretary of state, we understand you wish to have private discussions, but if we can’t be in the meeting how can we know what you’ve decided?’ To which Peter replied, ‘I’ll tell you.’ They didn’t like that.”
Heseltine recalled that eventually Walker agreed to allow a civil servant into the meetings on the condition that he was allowed to send a ministerial representative to perm secs meetings. “The matter was never raised again,” he says.
Baroness Warsi: 'I had to hold civil servants to account'
Baroness Warsi was made Conservative Party chair and minister without portfolio in 2010, becoming the first Muslim woman to serve in Cabinet. From 2012-14 she was minister of state for faith and communities and senior minister of state for the Foreign Office.
Baroness Warsi says that she had to hold her civil servants to account and that they “overwhelmed me with lots of paperwork” when she moved to the Foreign Office.
“Civil servants have a set idea of what’s going to happen. I remember when I went into the Foreign Office, they gave me all these briefings, overwhelmed me with lots of paperwork, told me what the priorities were, told me what I wanted to do.
“I thought fine, and I did that for about six weeks. Then I sat everybody down and said, 'That’s really nice, it’s really kind of you, now let me tell you what we are really going to do.' Then I lay out my priorities and whilst the answer often was, “Yes, minister, no, minister, three bags full, minister”, they didn’t necessarily change their priorities! It makes you think, 'What’s the point of having ministers?' – what is the point of individuals and the uniqueness they bring as a minister, being in that job, if actually all civil servants want is someone to stick a paw print on a document at the end of the day.”
Warsi says that she knows of ministers who were really well liked in government “because they never ever went against civil service advice and always just did as they were told”.
However, she says she had to hold civil servants to account by getting them to send one page documents of summaries from meetings.
“I used to call in everybody that was relevant to the delivery of my priorities, I kept a diary and extensive notes and would hold people to account against what was agreed and what progress had been made between meetings. They knew this meeting would take place on a weekly basis.
“But it was hard work. At times I felt frustrated because we were all supposed to be on the same team, so why were we wasting energy on fighting each other, when we should have just been getting on with the job?”
She says she preferred civil servants coming along saying, “I don’t agree with you and I’m not going to do it”, rather than putting things off. “That’s the other thing; civil servants find it really hard to say no.”
Areas where it was harder to get civil servants to make progress included human rights, while she adds: “DCLG as a department seemed to attract less-able civil servants”.
“It was almost as if there was a ranking of the departments people wanted to work in and DCLG were pretty much towards the bottom. I was acutely aware of this, because I had been in the Foreign Office with all these super all-singing, all-dancing, firing-on-all-cylinders civil servants. Then I would meet civil servants in DCLG and they sent me briefing papers with obvious statements or advice in, like ‘Christmas is a Christian festival’, it was very frustrating.”
Harriet Harman: 'Nobody throws the door open and says, ‘Blimey, that is a good idea’'
Harriet Harman has held many government roles including secretary of state for social security (1997-98), shadow deputy prime minister (2011-15) and leader of the opposition (2010; 2015). She was also the first minister for women (1997-98; again 2007-10).
Harman recalls both her time in government and preparing as a shadow cabinet member for possibly entering government after the 2015 general election.
She describes the work of getting things done in Whitehall as having to “fight your way through brambles”.
“One of the things that is disappointing about being a minister is if you have an idea for something thoroughly good to do, nobody throws the door open and says, 'Blimey, that is a good idea, let’s all help you do it.'
"No, you have to toil away, the sweat has to pop off your brow, you have to fight your way through brambles. I can’t believe there isn’t a better way of doing it. Especially because the things that I argued for, like the Equality Act , are now regarded by everybody as a sensible and righteous thing to do. Yet every single department argued that the duties not to discriminate would be far too onerous on local government. The Department of Health would say, 'Unless we can carry on discriminating against older people, it would be far too expensive, so we can’t possibly do that.' I mean, literally every department had a reason why they couldn’t do it. And it turned out actually they could. But it took such a long time.”
Asked by interviewer Daniel Thornton if she had encountered some resistance from the civil service, in terms of the women and equality agenda, Harman says that “the whole of government looked down on it” when the Women and Equality Unit was created by the Labour government in 1997.
“Our sense was this was incredibly important. It was really part of the renewal of Britain that government would deliver for women, as well as men, and public policy would understand women’s lives. It was incredibly transformative and important. But within the civil service, it was regarded as just something to be pushed around. Instead of working out that it was really at the heart of a lot of what we wanted to do, it was just regarded as an annoyance. My own department regarded it as something I needed to be protected from.”
However, after returning to the post of minister for women and equality, she says this had “changed beyond all recognition”.
“Ten years later, I was back in that same seat. At that point, there were a whole load of civil servants who were committed to it. They actually wanted to go into it – they weren’t just people who had been pushed out of other government departments. There were a whole load of special advisers who were committed to that agenda and who had worked their way up the system. There were a whole load of women ministers in other government departments – every department had ministers at senior and junior level. The whole structure of government had evolved so much.”
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