Nick Boles: ‘I’ve had very positive experiences with the civil service’
Former planning and skills minister reflects on life in government and ‘too vague’ David Cameron
Former Conservative minister Nick Boles has admitted that while he has deep-seated issues with the way Whitehall manages its own civil servants, his interaction with officials has been “very positive”.
Boles, who was planning minister in the coalition government before being shifted to a skills brief split between the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Education from 2014-16, is one of the latest batch of interviewees in the Institute for Government’s Ministers Reflect series.
The Policy Exchange founder talks about his mission to “put a bomb under” the planning system in his first ministerial role and explains how he went over the heads of both Sajid Javid and Nicky Morgan to pitch his proposals for the apprenticeship levy to David Cameron and George Osborne.
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But his lengthy interview is full of respect for the civil service as he found it.
“I have many criticisms of the way the civil service manages civil servants, manages their careers, manages their compensation, and manages failure. I’m hugely critical of all of that,” he says.
“But as a group of individuals to implement a democratically-elected politician’s will, I’ve had very positive experiences.
“I basically found a bunch of very bright people who were willing to engage and do the work and, in both cases, really wanted to deliver my ideas of reform.
“I’m aware that there are lots of people who would not say that that was their experience. I have often asked myself, and continue to ask myself, ‘Was I just lucky?’ Because all you need is six or eight people to be pretty good, pretty switched on, pretty willing. Was I just lucky that in both jobs I had that? Or was there something about the way I was doing things that meant that I was able to get more out of civil servants than perhaps other ministers have with other civil servants?”
Boles cannot be certain, but believes that in both ministerial roles he had the advantage of carrying a clear idea of what he wanted to do, in planning from “the word go” and in skills from his reappointment after the 2015 general election.
“It was quite bold and particularly in the skills, quite radical and they were all quite excited. In a sense, I recruited them to a cause that they could get enthusiastic about,” he says. “I think that helped.”
Boles pulls no punches in his assessment of his political seniors.
“I’m broadly speaking a huge fan of David Cameron, but in my view, he did not give people clear enough instructions,” Boles says of the former prime minister.
“You got a very broad sense of, in one sentence, ‘I want you to go in there and get some houses built’, or something like that. But what you didn’t have was, ‘these are your top three objectives and these are the time scales that I’m looking at,’ or anything like that.
“I don’t think I was unique in that – I don’t think anybody ever did and I didn’t get it the next time either.”
Former communities secretary Sir Eric Pickles emerges as a positive and dynamic “chief executive” of DCLG in Boles’ recollections, particularly in relation of the way he ran the department’s weekly meetings.
“By a country mile, Eric uses the weekly meeting to run the show more effectively than anybody else,” he says.
“As a chief executive of a department, and a policy agenda and a political agenda, Eric was peerless and he did it through the weekly meeting. It was extraordinary.”
By contrast, Boles says Michael Gove – who he served as political private secretary in the Department for Education – used his weekly meetings as “random walks through his mind while he ate his lunch”. Nevertheless, Boles concedes that as a deliverer of change and reform Gove was “streets ahead” of the other secretaries of state he served under.
His full interview with the IfG can be found here.
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