Opinion: How civil service advice should adapt to the UK’s fraught politics

Written by Tim Durrant on 11 September 2019 in Opinion
Opinion

The weeks ahead will likely be dominated by politics, not policy. Private offices should play a key role in helping officials understand what is driving ministers’ decisions, says Tim Durrant

Photo: PA

This has been a political summer. The new prime minister and his cabinet have been setting out their priorities; officials have been working on spending decisions for the new chancellor’s first big event; and just before parliament was due to return, the government announced it would be prorogued for up to five weeks in September and October. MPs have now headed off again ahead of for what is shaping up to be an even more tumultuous autumn than this time last year. In this context, it’s more important than ever to understand the politics of the moment, and how it affects the work of the civil service.

Even in so-called ‘normal’ times, one of the biggest gripes of ministers about their officials is that they don’t grasp just how important politics, and relationships in parliament, are to getting their jobs done well. The Institute for Government’s Ministers Reflect archive, which contains interviews with over 100 ministers from recent administrations, includes numerous examples of ministerial frustration over a lack of political ‘nous’ among civil servants.


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Damian Green, who served in various ministerial roles under David Cameron and Theresa May, including secretary of state for the Department for Work and Pensions, told us that one of the things that most surprised him about working with the civil service was “how little knowledge of and worry about parliament there was”. Jo Swinson, who was a junior minister in the coalition government before she became leader of the Liberal Democrats, recognised that this lack of understanding went both ways, saying: “I really think there’s a gap in parliament understanding the civil service, but I absolutely found the exact same in the civil service in terms of parliament.”

Even if parliament itself isn’t the site of the political battles over the next few weeks, it will be political debate that dominates ministers’ time. This will not be a normal recess, when ministers find time to focus on departmental priorities instead of spending so much time in the House. Instead, as Brexit continues to dominate politicians’ time, the bandwidth of ministers to deal with ‘business as usual’ matters will inevitably be squeezed. This may not make for good government, but it is likely to become the new normal as the attempts to either stop or see through a no deal exit reach their apex.

So what does this mean for civil servants? The need to understand the political implications of government decisions as well as the relationships that matter – within the Conservative Party and across the Commons – is greater than ever.  Private offices have a special responsibility to help the rest of their department understand the political imperatives that their ministers are facing, and act as a link with ministers’ parliamentary teams and their constituencies. Former Labour secretary of state Alan Johnson told us how his principal private secretary “insisted that the whole private office come up to Hull [his constituency] to meet the people who worked for me there”. This meant that his departmental private office had a closer relationship with their counterparts in his constituency and a better understanding of his political motives.

“The bandwidth of ministers to deal with ‘business as usual’ matters will inevitably be squeezed. This may not make for good government, but it is likely to become the new normal”

Of course, it is not going to be possible for every private office in Whitehall to travel to their ministers’ constituencies over the next few weeks, but strengthening those relationships will be helpful for both private office and the wider department in ensuring that they are advising their ministers in a politically astute way.

So even if parliament is shuttered for the next four weeks, the politics will not stop – and will dominate the work of governing the country with increasing intensity. While this can inevitably be frustrating for those officials who face delays to key decisions or encounter a lack of ministerial interest in important projects, it looks unlikely to change any time soon. Understanding the political factors that ministers take into consideration when taking decisions can only make for better advice from officials – and this is more important now than ever.

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Tim Durrant
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Tim Durrant is a senior researcher at the Institute for Government

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