What I learned when I made the leap from Whitehall to Westminster
Steve O'Neil went from being a civil servant in the Department for Education to helping the Liberal Democrats draw up their 2015 manifesto as the party's deputy head of policy. He tells CSW what he learned on the journey – and why he believes good policymaking requires both public consent and rigorous planning
I’m part of a club with few members, having worked both in the impartial civil service and as a member of staff for a political party. Moving from Whitehall to Westminster is somewhat of a controversial step. But, looking back, it gives me an insight into two mindsets that seldom find themselves in the same head, and so perhaps into some lessons each can learn from the other. Let me try to illustrate how I experienced each one.
Westminster Palace is a rabbit warren of corridors and tiny offices, occasionally opening out into grand halls, splendid dining rooms and the odd bar. It's messy and confusing – a bit like the world of those who inhabit it.
When, for example, something like the “free school meals controversy” erupts in the media, your mind is already skittishly preoccupied with how your position is being perceived. There are already three think tank pamphlets on your desk about it, each with its own axe to grind. More funding for school meals may seem like good policy – but that doesn't mean the public don’t hate it, so you need to consult your pollsters. And if you're an MP, you may even know what your constituents think. After all, it's they who will decide if you keep your job in a few years time.
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You'll also be listening to the opposition. Are they painting you as playing "fast and loose" with taxpayer's money, or saying the amount you're committing is a "drop in the ocean"? Your messages will go through the prism of the press and social media and will rebound off the many interest and lobby groups who have also have a stake in the issue. Your statements may be twisted and your intentions questioned. You need to work out how all of this will play.
Come autumn you'll also be at conference to face your activists, the people who you hope will be delivering leaflets for you at election time. You wonder how spending £1bn on free school meals will go down with those austerity hawks, or with those who have been demanding handouts for their own favourite causes.
If you're a government minister or special adviser, all this is swirling around your head when you ask civil servants for recommendations. It better not take as long as last time – you need to respond while this is still in the media’s gaze. When ready, you hope they won't come back with the same tired objections to your policy. And if you’re lucky they will do more than tell you what they think you want to hear.
These days, government departments are characterised less by grand buildings and more by modern, open plan offices with their ordered rows of desks. Such surroundings resemble how the civil service would like to think about policy.
A request lands on your desk: What are the options for providing free school meals? You’ve been taught to be objective and dispassionately analyse the problem. You consider whether the evidence shows that providing free school meals improves learning. What food standards are required? Does regulation need to change?
Then, you consider how to deliver the plan. What payment system should you use? Will schools need to upgrade their kitchens? And you'll also need to understand how to assess whether the policy is effective, and whether it provides value for money.
All this will take time to get right – but time is something you don’t have. The minister wants to announce something right away. You must "handle" his or her expectations in order to get a decision made. Do you push back on the feasibility of the plan, or just write what he or she wants to hear? Neither are appealing options, but you must decide before your advice is sent "upstairs" to private office.
Sometimes, all of this can feel like a distraction from what’s important, at best an obstacle to implementing what you believe to be the best policy and at worst an example of politics being put before the interests of the public. The decision may end up being something you (quietly) resent.
What I learned
Of course these are somewhat exaggerated descriptions of what goes on in Whitehall and Westminster. Civil servants think far more about the political context than I have given credit for, and politicians and political staff do engage in much detailed policy discussion. I certainly did in each of my roles. However, the thought processes I’ve described will resonate with many, and I believe they can help us learn lessons on either side.
"To get more out of civil service advice, ministers and their political staff should better appreciate the complexity involved in delivering their promises"
To get more out of civil service advice, ministers and their political staff should better appreciate the complexity involved in delivering their promises. This would not only make for better policy, but it would also save the pain of a u-turn in the cold light of day. It would further help in setting more reasonable expectations when asking for work to be done.
Civil servants could, in turn, be more acutely mindful of how their ministers are accountable to the public, and the scrutiny and time pressure which that brings. Public consent matters, and the roles and foibles of elected politicians reflect that.
Officials should also pay much more attention to ideas and debates outside of their buildings. I never once saw a think tank report when I was in Whitehall, but in Westminster my desk was covered in them. This would allow civil servants to be both more in-tune with the arguments their ministers are hearing from other sources, and to be more creative in finding solutions themselves.
If nothing else, swapping Whitehall for Westminster helped me to appreciate that both of these mindsets are an important part of how we make public policy. We need both public consent and rigorous plans. Put simply, both politicians and civil servants should have more appreciation of where the other is coming from.
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