What ministers want: advice for civil servants about to meet the new boss

Written by Tim Durrant on 18 July 2019 in Opinion
Opinion

The only certainty in the Conservative leadership race is that some civil servants will get a new boss, says the Institute for Government’s Tim Durrant

MoD perm sec Stephen Lovegrove meets then-defence secretary Gavin Williamson and Treasury perm sec Sir Terry Burns greets ex-chancellor Gordon Brown on the respective ministers first days. Photos: PA

A new prime minister will mean new ministers across Whitehall. The exact scale of the change of personnel is unclear, but we know there will be some new – or returning – faces. Some of those will have experience of being in government; some will not.

The civil service is well practised at managing the arrival of new ministers. This, of course, goes beyond changing the nameplate on the office door. First impressions matter and getting the relationship off to a good start is essential: ministers need to be able to trust their officials and officials need to get clear direction from their ministers. A poor start to the relationship could jeopardise both of these things.

Here are three things officials should remember when preparing for their new political masters – according to former ministers themselves.


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Number one: your job is to tell it how it is. Civil servants understandably want to establish rapport and credibility with their new ministers. And new ministers will want officials to get on with their priorities immediately – the first few weeks of a new government set the tone for its duration. In combination, these pressures can lead to civil servants being too eager to please their new bosses, rather than being honest about the difficulties of a particular idea. This is rarely what ministers actually want from their officials.

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, a minister during the coalition government, told the Institute for Government that civil servants “find it really hard to say no”, but that she would have preferred officials to say “I don’t agree with you and I’m not going to do it” rather than put things off.

Similarly, Justine Greening, who held several secretary of state roles, talked about the importance of a “bring out your dead” process at the start of her tenure in each new department. She wanted to know about the problems the department was facing up front, rather than “suddenly being told that something is way off track” after six months in the job.

“For those new ministers who haven’t been in government before, Whitehall can be a baffling place with its own language”

Secondly, however, civil servants need to be aware of the politics. A frequent complaint of ministers is that civil servants don’t fully grasp the political context they operate in and, in particular, the importance of parliament and their relationships there. Former work and pensions secretary Damian Green told us that one of his biggest surprises on becoming a minister was “how little knowledge of… parliament” officials had, despite it being “hugely important” for ministers.

This is even more significant given that the arrival of a new prime minister won’t change the parliamentary arithmetic: they will still be running a minority government facing significant division over how to resolve the UK’s exit from the EU. So civil servants need to recognise that while they will want ministers to focus on departmental issues, the biggest challenge in their political masters’ minds will be the balance of votes in parliament.

Finally, many ministers will be doing a job for the first time. For those who haven’t been in government before, Whitehall can be a baffling place with its own language of submissions and write-rounds – and as many of our interviewees have said, there is no formal induction on how that all works. So civil servants need to remember that their new minister may not be fully versed in their world.

A large part of this work falls to private offices. As Caroline Spelman, environment secretary at the start of the coalition, said: “One of the things the principal private secretary had to do in the early days and weeks was actually explain what we [as ministers] had to do, because no-one had explained that to us.” But civil servants across departments will need to bear in mind that their ministers will be getting up to speed.

Even those who have served as ministers before will need to adjust to new roles. Patrick McLoughlin talked to us about the difference between being a junior minister and a cabinet minister, saying that the “recognition that, actually, as secretary of state, you decide what the government’s policy is… was quite an eye opener to me”.

The incoming prime minister may not bring a completely new cabinet with them, but there will undoubtedly be some changes of personnel. Those new ministers are human too, and if officials can give them the right support, the new government will be more likely to hit the ground running.

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Tim Durrant
About the author

Tim Durrant is a senior researcher at the Institute for Government. Interview quotes in this article are drawn from the IfG’s Ministers Reflect archive

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