You’ve got mail: how a network of civil servants and MPs’ staff is improving Whitehall to Westminster correspondence

Written by Suzannah Brecknell on 7 August 2018 in Feature
Feature

A group established to improve correspondence between Parliament and the civil service shows that all processes can be improved by building human connections

Andrew Paterson (left) and Thomas Fieldhouse, of the Parliamentary and Civil Service Correspondence Group. Photo: PA

“It’s a massive, and quite a faceless part of government… a huge machine, with hundreds of staff, and it is partly about efficiency, just getting stuff done in the timeframes.”

Andrew Paterson, head of the prime minister’s private office support team in No 10, is talking about the correspondence functions across government, but his words could apply to many parts of the Whitehall machine – and so, too, could his advice on how to improve it.

“It can be quite pressurised with a temptation to just ‘service the machine’,” he continues, but something happens when you stop and build human connections across the system. “When you humanise that and start to build relationships and friendships it improves massively.”

Paterson knows this because he co-chairs a unique network, the Parliamentary and Civil Service Correspondence Group, which aims to build connections between that huge Whitehall correspondence machine and one of their key customer groups – MPs and their staff.


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The group’s other co-chair is Thomas Fieldhouse, senior parliamentary assistant to Oliver Letwin, who co-founded the group in 2015. He says the initial idea arose from conversations he had with private office staff when Letwin was a Cabinet Office minister. They noted then that – although there is a huge and constant stream of correspondence between Whitehall and Parliament, and a civil service network sharing good practice and policies for correspondence – there was no way for civil servants and MPs' staff to share challenges and ideas about the general process of correspondence.  

So, together with Paterson’s predecessor in No 10, Tina Sampson, he established the Correspondence Group to act as a “bridge” between the two sides. Since the group began meeting, Fieldhouse says, there have been “various successes large and small” – for example amending one departmental letter template so that it didn’t include contact details for officials.

“That [template] makes sense if you view this as correspondence between the minister's office and the MPs office,” Fieldhouse says, but actually most correspondence ultimately will be sent to constituents. So including individual contact details was simply creating work for MPs’ staff, who had to subsequently redact them.

“Once that was brought to the attention of the relevant department they adapted their template and within two days the issue had disappeared,” he says. “That was a neat example of a very small thing, but when you extrapolate that into all the different MPs' offices that department was writing to, it was actually quite a big thing”.

This example also illustrates one of the key benefits of the group, which has been to help focus individuals and teams on the ultimate customer of their work: not just MPs but their constituents. Paterson believes it is the fact that customers are involved which has enabled this group to add value above the existing civil service network. That group provides a valuable way to share good practice and process, as well as raising concerns across government. But Paterson says many of the challenges that correspondence units face come about because “we didn't necessarily understand the customer, so to be able to sit down and say ‘this is why we do certain things’ or ‘this is what we don't understand’ was hugely valuable for us”.

He continues that the creation of working relationships and genuine friendships across the groups not only humanises that massive machine but helped to build trust so that, for example, correspondence teams felt confident to set out contact details for MPs teams in a way which met the customer need rather than making extra work.

Best practice

Details of correspondence heads for different departments and the devolved administrations are now available on Parliament’s intranet site, along with a best practice guide that the group as created to share the “accumulating knowledge and insight” which the network was building.

Initially, there was some resistance to putting personal contact details in this semi-public place, says Paterson. “People were very concerned about encouraging people to phone [them].” Fieldhouse suggests that the regular meetings helped pave the way for this: “You realise that, actually, everyone in this room is sensible, and [our] conversations were constructive and they were well natured,” which helped people understand that more conversations would be a good thing.

The best practice guide was released in May, but both men are clear that it’s not a final product, rather a first iteration. “It is intended to be a living document so we will keep reviewing it and improving it and changing it to make it as useful and relevant as possible,” Fieldhouse says.

The guide includes flow charts to help MPs’ staff understand how correspondence moves around and between departments, and lots of simple tips such as sending emails wherever possible – saving “days of security clearances” and not duplicating this with a hard copy. It explains how staff can decide where to send their correspondence. For example, it explains that anything with casework, such as an individual passport concern, should go to the agency rather than the minister who deals with the policy concerns – such as where passports should be made.

The guide is not an official civil service document, nor a Parliamentary estate product, but it has forewords from both cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood and speaker John Bercow, and this senior support has been a real boon.

“One of the challenges on the civil service side is that correspondence isn't always one of the most glamorous areas,” Paterson says. “So actually getting engagement with private office or the deputy directors is sometimes challenging, but having a product that is a focus point and seen as very clearly having a benefit has also allowed to get buy in.”

The guide brought a momentum to the group, he says, as well as drawing in more organisations – while in the past the meetings may have had 20 or 30 attendees, recent meetings had over 40. This, he explains, has led to “more robust, more interesting and relevant conversations, and we started having some of the agencies coming along. Passport and immigration people that aren't even normally considered are all of a sudden not only considered, but they are at the table”.

Having a whole breadth of government organisations present has helped with one of the key benefits for the group – correcting the mistaken assumption on both sides that the other side was a uniform, faceless bloc.

“It’s a massive, and quite a faceless part of government… a huge machine, with hundreds of staff, and it is partly about efficiency, just getting stuff done in the timeframes.”

On civil service side, structure of correspondence varies widely, as Paterson explains: “The Department of Health, for example, have 40 people in a centralised drafting unit [who] write everything – obviously with policy input – and they take it through the clearance process. Then you’ve got places like the MoD [Minstry of Defence] where policy officials at their desks will write the correspondence and the correspondence unit is much more of an enabling function: it works to get things cleared and manage the process. In between there’s every variation of that.”

This can be an eye opener for MPs’ staff, while on the civil service side, Andrew continues, many attendees used to the huge support systems and process in their own offices had no notion that each parliamentary office is “its own empire with no inductions or training in this area”.

More than the letter

Paterson has also been thinking about how to harness the momentum from the guide and group to help staff in correspondence teams. “They are often the most junior staff in the civil service,” he says, with many people using the role as an entry point into the civil service.

“What I'm trying to do actually off the back of this work is say, it might still be an entry route, but what more can we do to make it a better career start or even a longer-term job?”

One step will be to hold a conference – planned to happen in late summer or early autumn – for correspondence offices across government. Alongside interactive sessions, Paterson hopes to have talks from a minister, a senior civil servant and an MP.

“The junior staff that manage this process, they don't see customers – obviously not the public, but they also don't even see the ministers,” he says. By hearing first-hand from people that sign off the correspondence, as well as those who receive it or are pushing for an answer, correspondence teams will be able “to recognise they are also delivering a service to a customer, who is often, ultimately, the constituent".

“Good correspondence is about understanding both your process but also the people and systems you interact with,” Paterson continues. “The best correspondence officers understand how other government departments work, how different ministers work, and deliver a service tailored to that."

Correspondence isn't just about writing a letter, he adds, "it is about managing people as well as the process, and often it means bringing people together to reach a solution”.

Both Paterson and Fieldhouse are clearly proud of the work that the group is doing to support the people working in all parts of the correspondence process, as well as the people who benefit from MPs' letters. “It is gradually creating a dynamic which didn't exist before,” says Fieldhouse. “Previously parliamentary staff might know the private office staff quite well if their MP became a minister, but beyond that there was little contact. So this is a very valuable interface to get people speaking and thinking about the ultimate customer which is the constituent, not the MP. It is building a mindset that – whether you work here or across the road – you are all public servants together.”

About the author

Suzannah Brecknell is acting editor of Civil Service World and tweets @SuzannahCSW

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