Civil servants forced to "play the game" to make career progress, claims ex-minister Oliver Letwin

Written by Civil Service World on 23 February 2017 in News

Tory former Cabinet Office heavyweight heaps praise on staff at the centre of government – but hits out at civil service churn, the quality of advice, and the skills valued in line departments

Too many civil servants rely on "unclear, jargon-ridden and ill-evidenced papers" and have to "play the game" to rise through the ranks, according to the Tory former Cabinet Office insider Sir Oliver Letwin.

In a written submission to parliament's public administration committee Letwin – who served as a key behind-the-scenes figure in the Cameron governments, first as minister for government policy, and then as a Cabinet Office minister – heaps praise on officials for being "invariably helpful, cooperative, politically impartial, courteous, intelligent, hard-working and conscientious".

But he warns that staff "outside the centre" of government in line departments often suffer from "significant deficiencies" in their training, meaning many officials in junior positions find it "difficult to write clearly".

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"On probing the causes of the unclear, jargon-ridden and ill-evidenced papers that too frequently came my way, I often found that the problem was not just a stylistic inelegance, but rather an inability to think clearly about whether a proposition being put forward actually corresponded with the facts," he writes.

The former Cabinet Office minister, who last year spoke to CSW about his frustration at the use of "distracting management speak" in the civil service, told the committee that, in his experience, officials frequently sent recommendations to ministers "without knowing the essential facts".

"It is, of course, very often difficult in government to discover what is actually happening on the ground. The statistics can be horribly delayed; there may be conflicting reports about what is happening from apparently reputable sources; and much of what is at stake is complicated and subtle, so that it is not immediately obvious which facts are really relevant. 

"But my impression was that departments had a strong inclination in too many cases to avoid the hard work of examining facts at first hand, and were all too willing to resort instead to prolixity and jargon as a way of disguising the lack of factual basis for their advice."

"By the time I had been in my own post for 6 years, I frequently knew more about the history of the issues with which we were dealing than the supposedly ‘permanent’ civil servants" – Oliver Letwin

Letwin's submission to the committee also takes aim at what he sees as the tendency for some civil servants to focus on the day-to-day running of their departments than the delivery of manifesto commitments.

"So far as the culture was concerned, I was alarmed to discover that departments seemed frequently to place more emphasis on the ability and enthusiasm of their officials to participate in the ‘leadership’ of the department itself than on the ability of officials to help ministers implement government policy efficiently and effectively," he writes.

"I got the sense that promotions too often depended on the willingness of individual civil servants to ‘play the game’ rather than on the quality of the work done by individual civil servants on behalf of the government and the citizen."

And the former government policy chief also warns of "mania" of frequent churn in key civil service roles, saying the "desire to move people around over the course of a career" is preventing officials from staying in their jobs "for long enough to acquire a deep knowledge of the issues and facts".

"The effect was that, by the time I had been in my own post for 6 years, I frequently knew more about the history of the issues with which we were dealing than the supposedly ‘permanent’ civil servants who were meant to be providing me with expert advice," he adds.

Letwin's submission, which will be scrutinised by the committee as it continues its wide-ranging inquiry into the state of Whitehall, meanwhile pours scorn on the "heresy" of civil service roles being divided up into "policy advice", "technical advice" and "operational management", describing this split as "arrant nonsense".

"In practice, what is needed to conceive, elaborate and implement a complicated policy effectively is a single, persisting team of people who combine an understanding of the policy issues, the technical issues and the operational issues. 

"One member of the team may have much more of a background in one domain than another – but all of them need to understand one another and to work as a single team. This culture, of unified, persisting project teams seemed to be almost absent."  

While Letwin's submission to the committee also includes warm words for the "fine, impartial and conscientious people" he worked directly alongside, the majority of his praise appears reserved for the "exceptionally capable civil servants" at the traditional centre of government.

Out in the departments, he argues, officials are not encouraged to gain a "real and solid understanding of facts, policy issues, technical issues and operational issues", but by "‘managing’ increasing numbers of other officials and by focussing on jargon-ridden ‘leadership’ of the department" – a situation he warns is resulting in public service outcomes that "are too frequently sub-optimal".

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Poacher (not verified)

Submitted on 23 February, 2017 - 13:15
The Civil Service promotion system relies almost entirely on the ability of staff to write brilliant summaries of often rather ordinary work.

Jane Platts (not verified)

Submitted on 23 February, 2017 - 13:34
Thank you to Sir Oliver Letwin It's about time someone took an interest in the jargon riddled information that comes our way constantly, colleagues waste so much time trying to decipher what the point is that they are trying to get across. The government constantly put out papers that say they want us all to us plain simple English to avoid confusion and not give someone the option of interpreting information into what they want it to mean thus causing confusion and wasting valuable time. I think it’s because they don’t know the nitty gritty of what they are talking about it's a case of 'talking the talk but not being able to walk the walk. I also agree about the staff moves, you don’t have the time to become an expert in any field, you become a jack of all trades and a master of none.

Secret One (not verified)

Submitted on 23 February, 2017 - 17:21
Jargon riddled? You get a lot of that in HMRC. It won't stop though, its a chronic problem and a way of making untrained inadequately performing managers feel important. Plain English, less of the unproductive non-jobs ('champions' for this, that and the other etc) and a focus on actually collecting tax would be a sensible prescription for sorting out the mess they're in. How about HMRC become a ministerial department with a responsible minister in the Cabinet?

Anonymous (not verified)

Submitted on 25 February, 2017 - 02:10
Blame the system but don't blame those like me who participate in it. I too 'play the game'. What about me? I want to get ahead.

Susan2 (not verified)

Submitted on 27 February, 2017 - 15:51
Anon. I'm not including you in this, but I've seen quite a few instances where people have 'played the game' and got promotion, but it was clearly a case of 'talking a good job' but 'doing a good job' they weren't. Selling yourself on paper, and proving yourself in the job don't necessarily go hand in hand, often resulting in not getting the right person for the job.

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