By Suzannah Brecknell

23 Mar 2016

A lack of challenging advice, no control over important appointments and poor management information are among the frustrations voiced by David Laws, Greg Barker, Ken Clarke, Stephen Hammond and Baroness Kramer speaking in the latest interviews under the Institute for Government's 'Ministers Reflect' series

David Laws wanted civil servants to challenge ministers more, Greg Barker wanted to have more meetings, Baroness Kramer wanted to box her officials round the ears, and Ken Clarke is concerned about civil service pay restraint.

The latest set of interviews published by the Institute for Government as part of its Ministers Reflect project offer a mix of political anecdotes and operational reflections on the highs and lows of life as a coalition minister.

As well as recalling crises and achievements in office, Tory and Lib Dem ministers share their frustrations with the civil service, including the concern that officials are not confident enough to challenge ministers’ ideas, or suggest new ones.

"There were not many 'Yes, Minister' experiences" – Former minister Richard Caborn rates the civil service
Coalition ministers open up about the "terrible" Cabinet Office, Whitehall churn – and reforming the "Rolls Royce" civil service
The official view: Tim Loughton
The official view: Norman Baker

David Laws, the Lib Dem who served as chief secretary to the Treasury, and later as a junior minister in the education department, noted that far from trying to “stamp” on ministerial agendas, “too often my concern was that [the civil service] was too passive in the face of a general ministerial direction and therefore afraid of serving up things that it didn’t think would be welcome".

In both of the departments he worked in, Laws said, “what was missing were people who you felt were strong enough that they were not only good civil servants and could give good advice on things they were asked for, but who could potentially lead policy debates.”
Particularly under a strong Secretary of State, he added, “there was a slight worry in my mind that some of the people had been pushed into an overly compliant mode where they were definitely aware of what was expected and what was in fashion and out of fashion and they were sort of doing whatever they were told".
His concerns were reflected by Baroness Kramer, minister of state for Transport from 2013 to 2015.  “A few civil servants who were enthusiastic would come up with ideas, but an awful lot of them just wait to be told,” she recalled.
“I do think there is a real fear within the civil service that they mustn’t suggest, that they mustn’t come up with ideas, that they mustn’t propose initiating and they are there just there to provide you with information or to deliver what you’ve decided on,” she continued.
“I really wanted to box some people around the ears on a couple of occasions because I thought within your head is so much knowledge and if you sat down and thought about this, you would come up with solutions.”

Spads “can play devil’s advocate"
Stephen Hammond, transport minister from 2012 to 2014, also reflected on the advice given to ministers, but he pointed to accessing external expertise as a big challenge. “We’re going to have to think quite carefully, given the complexity of modern government and the need to make sure you’re giving the very best advice. I would personally, although it would be a cost and everybody would shout at it, I would personally give everybody a special adviser.”

Spads, he added, “can sometimes play devil’s advocate in a way that it is very difficult for the civil service to do.”

For Greg Barker (pictured), energy minister from 2010 to 2014, a major frustration was his inability to control who was in charge of key projects in his department. As minister “it was very clear that I carried the can for policy”, he said, but he “had little say over the resource or the naming of particular individuals who were responsible for delivering that policy”.
Appointment to important roles “was totally in the gift really of the senior civil servants and I think that’s wrong”, he said, adding: “if ministers are going to be held accountable for the delivery of policy, which is absolutely right that they should be, then I think we need to recognise that the management of that policy is a critical part of its delivery.”
Barker was also frustrated with an attitude that meetings must be long and formal to be effective. Rather than giving feedback via notes in a red box, he preferred to have short meeting with relevant officials. “The challenge then became to convince officials that actually a five-minute meeting or a quick pop-in was actually useful and just because you had a meeting it didn’t have to last a certain period to be a respectable meeting time. And I found it slightly frustrating that you couldn’t just, I still don’t know why, you can’t just call people up and just say ‘what about this’ as you would do in a company.”

Treasury "frightfully bright and not one of them capable of running anything"

Other ministers also made unfavourable comparisons with private sector companies. Laws, for example, was struck by the poor quality of management information in the Cabinet Office and Department for Education compared to his experience in the finance sector. He acknowledges that it's easier to measure profit, loss and risk than government’s multiple policy objectives, but was still frustrated by “the lack of management information that really focused on the things that were most important."
One minister who did not compare Whitehall with the private sector was Ken Clarke – given his long career in a number of ministerial positions he was able to compare departments instead.

The Treasury was “the best department I ever worked in”, he says, because officials were so bright and prepared to debate policy with him. 

"I used to say they were just like an Oxbridge College," he adds, "frightfully bright and not one of them capable of running anything.” At the Home Office, in contrast, most senior officials stayed silent in meetings because, he eventually learnt, only the perm sec was allowed to offer ministerial advice.
He also gave a long-term view of the civil service – mainly positive but with a warning over pay restraint.

“[The civil service] has got much less traditional," he says. "I mean, it has got better. I think the intellectual calibre has remained the same. It gets more difficult in some departments. The turnover in the Treasury is far too high, because pay restraint is beginning to be a problem with high fliers.”
Clarke suggests that elements of government have changed for the worse, however. He noted that between leaving office as chancellor under John Major, and 2010 when he returned to government as justice secretary, the role of Number 10 had grown significantly, with a large staff of people who “regard themselves as the setters of policy in a lot of subjects, in considerable detail”.
He also sounds a note of caution for incoming ministers presented with seemingly innocuous papers. “Don’t sign the documents the permanent secretary will bring to you in the first week, saying ‘Secretary of state your predecessor was just about to clear this before you arrived, we needn’t bother about it too much, it is perfectly straightforward, just if you would authorise it’. They have been trying to sell that to every secretary of state they have had walk through the door for some time and it is probably dangerous. Find out what it is about.”

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