Theresa May questions quality of civil service advice

Written by Jim Dunton on 8 December 2016 in News

Prime minister suggests civil servants are reluctant to speak their own minds to her and blames Whitehall for creating the acronym “JAMs”

Theresa May has urged civil servants to improve the quality of advice she receives, voicing concerns that Whitehall is reluctant to properly brief her.

The prime minister also blamed civil servants for creating the acronym “JAMs” – signifying “just about managing” households on below average incomes – that her Conservative government is keen to recognise and retain the support of.

May’s comments, published in The Spectator on the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Cabinet Office, make her the latest prime minister to express frustration at the civil service. But they have also drawn fire from FDA general secretary Dave Penman, who said they showed questionable judgement on the part of the PM.

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In 2011, May's predecessor David Cameron described the civil service as “enemies of enterprise” for what he described as an unacceptable propensity to load costs onto business, while Tony Blair said in 1999 that civil service opposition to his reforms had left “scars on my back”. 

Coming just under five months into her tenure as premier, May’s latest comments represent a speedier willingness to criticise Whitehall than either Blair or Cameron. However, with the inclusion of her time as home secretary, May has now spent six-and-a-half years in government.

In the broad-ranging interview with The Spectator, May broached the potential offered by Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential elections, her government’s focus on cabinet sub-committees for policy development, and her Christmas plans.

But her comments on the civil service – and the suggestion that it created the acronym JAMs and foisted it upon the prime minister – are likely to rankle in SW1.

May told the magazine: “Honestly, I get a bit frustrated when the system wants to box everything in and produce an acronym that they can use.

“I’m talking about ordinary working people, for whom life is a bit of a struggle. They may be holding down two or three jobs in order to make ends meet. In a job, but worried about job security. Owning a home, but worried about paying the mortgage… you can’t just box them into a simple descriptor category. Which is why I get frustrated when Whitehall tries to do that.”

May also said she believed senior officials were reluctant to speak truth unto power, and instead maintained “a tendency in the system to try to interpret what they think you want, and to deliver that”.

“It should be civil servants’ duty to speak their mind,” she said. “From the officials’ point of view, what they owe to the minister, and what the minister expects, is the best possible advice.

“Don’t try to tell me what you think I want to hear. I want your advice, I want the options. Then politicians make the decisions.”

Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union, said May’s words could “hardly be called constructive” for the minister ultimately responsible for the civil service, and who was supposed to show leadership to her staff.

“By publicly detailing her frustrations in this way, Theresa May has become one of many ministers and prime ministers who chose to discuss these issues with the press rather than in private,” he said. 

“I can’t imagine she’d stand for civil servants publicly appraising their ministers in such a way.

“Neither civil servants nor politicians are infallible, but it’s hard to see how creating headlines that attack civil servants can lead to the improved relationship that the prime minister says she wants.”

Elsewhere, The Spectator's Quentin Letts published a list of the 75 “most annoying people of 2016”, which included cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood. No explanation for the inclusion was given. Letts has been a frequent critic of Heywood.

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Jim Dunton
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Anonymous (not verified)

Submitted on 8 December, 2016 - 16:25
She's always been quick to blame the Civil Service for her own shortcomings Nice to see that hasn't changed now she's PM


Submitted on 12 December, 2016 - 12:36
The actual article in Spectator implies the problem is that the civil service created the acronym and assigned an official definition to what was quite a broad term (just about managing). I can understand the frustration, because £18-21k is very narrow and in some parts of the country would be not even managing, whereas in others it might be managing ok. Not to mention the differences between whether or not you have to provide for children. What was a phrase intended to define a broader state has become a narrowly defined income bracket with an acronym.

Sandra Wilson (not verified)

Submitted on 12 December, 2016 - 14:53
I question her so called intelligence..she's just came and enjoys flaunting her wealth..pass the sick bag

MarkC (not verified)

Submitted on 15 December, 2016 - 14:06
“I’m talking about ordinary working people, for whom life is a bit of a struggle. They may be holding down two or three jobs in order to make ends meet. In a job, but worried about job security. Owning a home, but worried about paying the mortgage… you can’t just box them into a simple descriptor category'. The PM could be talking about a lot of civil servants and she is quite happy to 'box them into a simple descriptor category'!

Bob (not verified)

Submitted on 16 December, 2016 - 18:04
Not for the first time a PM blmes the civil service for their incompetence. The civil service has seen frequest attacks on pay, pension, terms and conditions including the civil service compensation scheme sonce 2010. What a disgraceful way for the Government to attack its own employees!!

Bob (not verified)

Submitted on 16 December, 2016 - 18:06
Disgraceful attacks on the civil service since 2010 on pay, conditions, pensions and civil setvice compensation scheme.

Bob (not verified)

Submitted on 16 December, 2016 - 18:09
Penman? Oh yes he sold us down the river about the Civil Service Compensation Scheme!

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