Five things civil servants should be doing before the election – and just after it

Words of advice from former senior officials, including ex-perm sec David Bell, on managing the transition period
Former Department for Education permanent secretary David Bell. Photo: IfG

By Tevye Markson

03 Jun 2024

We’re now more than a week into the pre-election period, but there is still more than a month to go until a new government comes in. In these periods, civil servants, especially those who joined more recently, will naturally wonder about what they should and shouldn’t be doing and how to prepare for a potential change of government.  

Last week, the Institute for Government brought together former senior officials, including an ex-permanent secretary who was in post during the 2010 election, to discuss exactly this. From how to judge what to avoid, to making a good impression with your new minister, to understanding an incoming government’s philosophy, here are five of the key takeaways from the event.

Use your own judgement where you can

With the pre-election period of sensitivity now in place, civil servants will need to carefully consider what they can and cannot do. How should they go about making those decisions?

David Bell, a former permanent secretary at the Department for Education, told the webinar that one of the key messages he would give to civil servants is to exercise their own judgement on when, for example, an event can go ahead or a tweet can be published.

Asked how restrictions are enforced, he said: “Don’t come at this thinking 'there is a set of guidance that is going to tell me exactly how I should behave in this situation'. It's about you, it's about your individual job. So the first enforcement mechanism is civil servants applying their own judgement and exercising discretion… and holding fast particularly to the civil service value of impartiality. The guidance can't cover every possible scenario. It is on you to apply your judgement.”

“Don’t come at this thinking 'there is a set of guidance that is going to tell me exactly how I should behave in this situation'. It's about your individual job"

For potentially contentious and controversial judgements, this is when you should talk to your line manager, Bell said. This can then be escalated to the department’s permanent secretary and, if they are unsure, to the cabinet secretary for a final decision. With election campaigns in swing, “you can expect controversial things to be escalated very, very quickly,” Bell added.

While the cab sec is the last line of enforcement, Bell said that “like so many things in the British constitution, if a minister – and ultimately the prime minister – really wants to do something, there's not a lot of civil servants can do other than point to the guidance”.

One area that can be particularly difficult is deciding whether civil service learning events and roundtable discussions involving senior officials should go ahead. Asked specifically about this, Alex Thomas, the programme director for the IfG’s work on the civil service, says the majority of public-facing events should be postponed, but most private events should still take place, “particularly if they are about the capability of the civil service”.

“I think it is completely reasonable for the civil service to continue – in fact, essential in some cases... to continue with private activity, discussions with particular groups, maybe preparing for what the outcome of the election might look like, as long as it is not a public intervention in the campaign, or a private event that is so sensitive that it might be leaked or caused problems in other circumstances,” he said.

Catherine Haddon, who runs the IfG Academy, which trains civil servants, ministers and special advisers on how to prepare for transitions, added that officials also need to pay specific attention to ensuring that government resources are not used for anything to do with election campaigns, whether that’s using a government car to get to a campaign event or using government resources an election speech.

Don’t wait for manifestos

Civil servants will be preparing for what the next government might have in store and awaiting manifestos to find out their detailed list of commitments.

But Bell, who was DfE perm sec during the 2010 transition, said officials shouldn’t “hang around waiting to see what the manifesto says because you might be disappointed, there might not be a lot there”.

“I think we assumed, rightly, that it would take us a good few days for the manifestos to appear and we weren’t going to sit around waiting for the manifestos,” he said. “I think we all knew... that each of the political parties had been saying things already through ministerial or opposition speeches. There was a rich source base ahead of the manifestos.”

Bell said the 2010 manifestos were, for example, “relatively thin in content when it came to education”. There was also quite a lot of overlap between them, “because everyone was in favour, for example, of the pupil premium”.

First impressions matter

As the election draws closer, civil servants will be thinking about how they can make an impression on their new ministers.

“This is the moment where first impressions count,” Bell said. “It's human nature to make a quick judgement about the people that you meet if you're a new minister.

"It's human nature to make a quick judgement about the people that you meet if you're a new minister"

“So I think all permanent secretaries and senior colleagues across the civil service will be thinking, ‘How do they create that strong, positive impression with whichever secretary of state, whichever ministers, cross the threshold on the fifth of July'?”

Civil servants should also be aware that “ministers will arrive in the department, provided it's a clear cut to the election result, absolutely knackered”, Bell added.

Mind you language and think about philosophy

The panellists said civil servants should also put serious thought into what the new government’s ideology and philosophy will be, and particularly what language to use.  

Giving an example, Bell said: “It was made very clear to us that the 'D word', the ‘delivery’ word, would not be used in the presence of an incoming Conservative government. And so we spent a lot of time as civil servants thinking about which other word can be used. Then, I think we settled on 'implementation' rather than 'delivery', but it was both a trivial and quite serious point. Because if you had gone in and said, ‘Well, what are your delivery chains going to be, minister?’, you would have immediately generated an allergic reaction.”

With parties in the UK often in power for long periods – the last three power holds have lasted an average of 15 years – Bell said it can be difficult for civil servants to adapt as “you start to intuit how a particular party will talk, how they'll think, what they will do and so on”.

He said he “underestimated the extent to which we didn't quite get ourselves into the philosophical mindset that it had shifted” in 2010. "We’d been at a high watermark of government intervention or activity – it was an activist government in education,” Bell said. He said he was “fairly clear” that, under Michael Gove as education secretary, there was going to be a withdrawal from activism in quite a lot of policy areas. He added that “we misjudged the extent to which civil servants would get that.”

He recounted civil servants, on a few occasions being “bewildered when a minister or the secretary of state said 'We’re not interested in that, and what's the government doing in that business anyway?'”

“So I think there is something about trying to understand: how is the government going to think about ideology and philosophy without being political? Because I think that's where some of those missteps happen, when you just don't quite get the judgement right about how you say something or what you're assuming a minister will think when they’re making a decision,” he added.

"There is something about trying to understand: how is the government going to think about ideology and philosophy without being political? That's where some of those missteps happen"

Adding to this point, Haddon said that in 2010, she saw examples of ministers getting advice that felt like it would have been given to Labour and that “it clashed for them”. She said she has also heard stories of “a new minister going off to do a scheduled speech that was in the calendar for the previous administration, and being given the speech that was obviously for their predecessor”.

Thomas agreed with Bell’s point on getting in tune with a government’s philosophical thinking, and added that one of the challenges for civil servants in the early days will be getting the reactive-proactive balance right. “So you do need to look at the manifestos and you need to listen really carefully to what incoming ministers are saying that they want to achieve and then respond to that,” he said.

“But I also suspect there will be an expectation, particularly if it is a Labour government and a more activist Labour government, that they want policy ideas and an interpretation of their policy from the civil service.”

Speak truth to power

While civil servants will want to make a good impression with new ministers, this cannot mean avoiding their duty to provide frank advice, the panellists warned.

“You have to challenge and you have to provide good, frank and open advice to ministers,” Bell said. “If it's clear that the elected government of the day wants to produce a particular policy, you are duty bound as a civil servant to prepare the necessary materials, but those necessary materials should include the potential pitfalls”.

Bell picked out the cancellation of the Building Schools for the Future programme [to rebuild or refurbish secondary schools] in the early days of the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government’s austerity programme as an example from his time at DfE where he has regrets. Gove later described the decision to scrap the programme as one of his worst mistakes in office. Bell said: “I do remember that conversation, ‘we're going to make a mistake, we're going to make a mistake’, because everything was happening so quickly. But of course it was all under the George Osborne instruction that £6bn worth of cuts had to be identified before the recess. I couldn't influence that at the macro level. But I just wonder if we’d said we’re going to make a mistake more forcibly, we might have bought ourselves just a few days.”

"Please, please, please… do provide the frankness of advice. If you don't do it from the beginning, it's going to be much harder as time goes on”

Bell said he has always told civil servants to not “just say no, because that's the road to ruin with new ministers”. Instead, officials should give ministers policy options and provide fair and frank advice. If ministers then decide to go ahead with their plan, “that’s absolutely reasonable that they do so,” he added. “But please, please, please… do provide the frankness of advice because actually, if you don't do it from the beginning, it's going to be much, much harder as time goes on.”

This can be a difficult balancing act, however. Bell recalled how, in the early days after the 2010 coalition government was formed, he sat in every meeting that Gove had, to see how ministers and officials were interacting. “And actually, you could be too assertive and that didn't necessarily work well, but if you sat there quietly, when you knew there was a piece of information, or there was a perspective you should bring to the debate, that was a problem,” he said.

Thomas said a good way to get the right balance is to “show that you get the objective that the minister is trying to achieve” so that they understand that you are “coming from a good place in saying ‘I don't think this will work in that way, I think you might consider doing it in another way'".

But he added that officials should not try to show that they are an “ideological fellow traveller or anything”.

“Ministers find that uncomfortable because that's not what you're there to do as a civil servant," he said. "But they do want to show that you've really absorbed the thing that they're trying to achieve. And then that opens up a whole set of other conversations that you can have.”

Read the most recent articles written by Tevye Markson - Labour confirms HMRC funding and border-security command in surprise-free manifesto

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