'You’ve got to establish yourself as credible. That doesn’t always involve saying yes': How to build relationships with new ministers

CSW convenes an expert panel to discuss how the civil service can prepare for what's going to happen after the election

By Civil Service World

24 Jun 2024

What’s going to happen after the election – and what could we expect from a new administration? These are the questions civil servants are increasingly asking themselves, which is why CSW – in partnership with consultancy Baringa – decided to convene a webinar on this very topic back in late April. Little did we know that the election would be called one month later, and our discussion would prove even more timely than we’d hoped.

The combined expertise of our panel led to an informed discussion, offering attendees pearls of wisdom and practical tips for navigating a change of governing party.

Sharing their insights were Alex Thomas, programme director at the Institute for Government and a former senior civil servant; Jonathan Slater, former permanent secretary at the Department for Education and visiting professor at King’s College London; and Kavian Brown, partner in Baringa’s government and public sector team.

Jonathan Slater headshot
Jonathan Slater

Given Labour’s decisive lead in the polls and the party’s recent victories in the local and mayoral elections, most of the conversation was devoted to what a majority Labour government could mean for the civil service. However, the IfG’s Alex Thomas also sounded a cautionary note for civil servants, stressing the importance of not appearing to favour one outcome over another for reputational reasons.

Jonathan Slater also pointed out that in the run-up to the 2010 election, officials were largely unprepared for the outcome. Most civil servants were getting on with their jobs, and only a small number of people at senior levels were planning for the election – and “none of them came up with the right answer”. Officials should therefore not make assumptions and need to be ready for unexpected results, the panel agreed.

They also agreed that a change of administration – whatever its political makeup – could provide an opportunity to rethink and improve how the civil service works. For Kavian Brown, the Labour party’s focus on missions offered the chance to work in “a quite radically different way” that would ultimately improve outcomes. “To deliver lasting and ambitious change, teams need to unite behind a common purpose that flows from senior policy officials through to working-level operational leads. This helps teams pull together behind shared goals, therefore increasing the chance of delivery success,” he said.

While this potential lies further into a new administration, for Slater, the key opportunity would be to establish the sort of relationships with new ministers that allow for honest advice to be given and heard. It was to this topic that the discussion turned first.

Establishing new working relationships

The panel began by addressing the question of how officials would cope with political masters who either hadn’t been in power for 14 years or – in most cases – had never been in power.

Alex Thomas headshot
Alex Thomas

“Generally, and without wishing to depress anybody, not very well,” was Slater’s rather downbeat response when this question was posed. Historically, some of the biggest government blunders occur precisely when there is a change of governing party, he said.

“And that’s because the politicians in charge haven’t ever been in charge. So they’re completely new. They’ve spent quite a lot of time thinking about what they would like to do, but without the benefit of any advice from civil servants. Because that’s how the system works.

“And new ministers are very enthusiastic – so how likely are we to say, ‘Well, I’m afraid that’s an extremely poor idea’ to people we’ve never met before? We’re trying to build trust. We’re trying to get them to feel like we’re on their side. [...] We’ve spent so long working for the other side,  we worry that they might not be that keen on our advice. So we try to be as helpful as possible. Then before you know it, you’ve engaged in a comprehensive restructuring of the NHS which is a total disaster – to take one example.”

Slater went on to point out that a change in governing party is actually a once-every-15-years event: most officials only get one of these in their careers, so why should they expect to be any good at navigating it?

“Therefore, we need to be on alert,” he said. “Clearly it is your job as civil servants to build the confidence and trust of your new political bosses. And you should be trying to lean in, to encourage them to see you as people who know what you’re talking about. But at the same time, do guard against not offering your objective advice. It is your job, and it is in the law. And this is the time when it’s needed most of all.

“I don’t know Keir Starmer or Rachel Reeves or any of these people, but they seem like reasonably intelligent, thoughtful people who you could imagine having a conversation with. That’s been true of most of the secretaries of state I’ve worked for. So make the most of that opportunity and don’t hold back. Because you’ll soon find that if you do, it’s too late.”

Kavian Brown headshot
Kavian Brown

Thomas agreed with Slater about officials’ desire to please incoming ministers, and how important it was to develop trusting relationships. Officials should also not position themselves as naysayers or cynics, he said.

“But at the same time – and this is easy to say but hard to do – you’ve also got to establish yourself as credible. And being credible doesn’t always involve saying ‘yes’. It involves sometimes saying ‘no’, or ‘yes, but’ or ‘I hear the outcome you want to achieve. Have you thought about achieving it in this way instead of that way?’”

It was also worth remembering, Thomas went on, that some in the current shadow cabinet had actually served as ministers. He name-checked Hilary Benn, Ed Miliband, Pat McFadden, Yvette Cooper and John Healey. “I don’t want to overplay that, because a lot of potential ministers and junior ministers won’t have had government experience. And the civil service and government have changed quite a lot in the last 14 years. But there is some experience around that table,” he said.

Baringa’s Kavian Brown, who was a grade seven civil servant in the Department for Communities and Local Government in 2010, shared his memories of getting a secretary of state from a different party.

“We got an email from Peter Housden – the permanent secretary at the time – saying, ‘Everybody down to the atrium, we’re going to clap the minister in as he arrives.’ And an hour or so later, Eric Pickles arrives at the door and we all stand in the atrium and clap him in, half expecting a big rousing speech. To be fair to him, he probably didn’t anticipate that there would be a few hundred officials standing waiting for him to give a speech, but he just very simply said, ‘Thank you. Time to get on with it.’ And he got in the lift and went straight up to his ministerial office. And that kind of set the tone for us as a department, actually. And, as a team of officials, we went back to our desks and thought, ‘Right, it’s the business’.”

Brown then shared his recollections from his time in Whitehall and the frustration that can arise on both sides at the start of the official-ministerial relationship– before civil servants have had time to establish a minister’s preferred way of working and understand the particular constraints under which politicians operate.

He added that, notwithstanding the need to build relationships, officials had been quite good at telling new ministers that their ideas weren’t going to work following the 2010 election. “And this could be perceived by the minister as, ‘Well you’re just blocking me, aren’t you?’”. In order to dispel this perception, Brown said it was more important than ever that current civil servants start to think about implementation in a different way and about generating ideas and proposals for how a minister’s ideas could be implemented.

A mission-led government

In light of Labour’s statements about wanting to take a long-term approach (“a decade of national renewal”, as Starmer has frequently put it) and the party’s “five missions for Britain”, the panel discussed what a mission-led, longer-term approach to government could mean for officials.

Slater welcomed the talk of longer-term thinking as being a “jolly good thing” for civil servants – although he added that it was not something they had much experience of, thanks to the turbulence of the last few years. A mission-led approach would also require a “really quite serious mindset shift” away from “inputs” and towards thinking about long-term outcomes, he said.

“People should be spending a lot of time thinking about: ‘Well, if you were going to take 10 or 15 years to do something, rather than before a new prime minister gets elected in 12 months’ time, or 49 days’ time, what would that mean?’ Because it would be quite significantly different,” Slater said.

“Now, the good news is that the civil service can do this, and has done it. You know, Universal Credit is quite an interesting example of that. It went badly wrong at first, but then went really quite well.”

Slater added that missions would also mean working from the point of view of citizens and the public, not from the perspective of the department. “Now, goodness me, we are really bad at that!” he said. He was quick to point out, however, that it has been done – he cited the Sure Start programme – and said that working towards long-term outcomes instead of inputs was, in fact, the most satisfying work civil servants could do, so they should not waste the opportunity.

Sticking with the theme of a mission-based approach, Brown cited a few key things he thought would have big implications for the civil service, including the need to be “really clear on the purpose and the outcomes being delivered, particularly when you are delivering across multiple teams, multiple departments, in multiple sectors”.

This was because things would inevitably change along the way.

“Crises will come along; there will be reshuffles; there will be delivery challenges,” Brown said. “And the nuances that you see at the start – for example, one team thinking the purpose and the outcome is one thing and another team thinking something slightly different – they will be small differences today, but they will be very large differences in three-to-five years’ time when you are much further down the road on the delivery of that mission.”

He also pointed out that there couldn’t be a one-size-fits-all approach to missions. Some would have very clear boundaries and stakeholders, but with others – such as the one relating to access to opportunity – there would be a very varied and wide set of citizens impacted by the mission. A huge amount of creativity would therefore be required to find the different ways of approaching their design and their implementation.

“And some of that will be about the skills and capabilities that the civil servantsand the broader teams around them have. But some of it is just about the approach to actually developing the policy and to moving forward. So taking a much more open approach, taking an approach that is much more data-driven and insight-led and open to that challenge from the outset, I think will be really critical to the implementation of missions.”

The machinery of government

How the civil service chooses to organise itself around missions also entered into the discussion. Brown said he thought the civil service shouldn’t “fall reflexively” into machinery of government changes as these could bake in a lack of flexibility as things change over time.

“How do we start to coalesce and structure ourselves around these missions and work in potentially a quite radically different way, compared to how we have done things in the past?” he asked. “I think there’s real opportunity in there… we just need to think quite creatively about it.”

When asked whether he thought Labour was actively considering any machinery of government changes, Thomas said he thought senior opposition figures hadn’t yet made up their minds about exactly how they might want to organise things.

“So let’s not speculate too much when even the principal actors don’t know,” he said. He added that there was probably “a presumption against too much organisational change”, which comes from having a party leader who – thanks to his hinterland as director of public prosecutions – was familiar with the disruption that big organisational changes cause. Rather, Labour in power might tend more towards “under-the-bonnet stuff”.

Like Brown, Thomas also discussed how different missions would require different approaches in government. “I think there are some really interesting questions about the mixing of ideas that will come from the civil service about how to use cabinet committees and taskforces or ministerial groups or anything else, and how those could be applied to what are really quite different missions,” he said. “Some of them are conducive to a neat cabinet committee.

Others really aren’t. The other thing I’ll be looking out for is accounting officers and whether mission-led government actually changes some of the underpinning wiring in departments about accounting officers, and whether Labour, as they come in, have ideas for resolving some of those internal tensions that inhibit cross-departmental working. Because if you don’t look at how the money flows, then I suspect those people pushing mission government will always be swimming against the tide.”

Asked for their concluding thoughts, the panel offered a variety of reflections for civil servants to mull as the election approaches.

Thomas warned that while excitement and energy often come from a potential change of government, civil servants should also prepare themselves for a period of inactivity.

“If you don’t happen to be in the area that an incoming minister lights on straight away, the system actually can take quite a long time to get into gear [...] and to get the policy programmes moving again and so on. So don’t be surprised if in the short term you find things a little bit under-stimulating, even in the immediate aftermath of an election. It will take a while for things to settle down.”

Brown used his closing comments to reiterate his points about how civil servants need to be ready to seize the opportunity presented by a mission-led approach.

“There is a chance to think about: how do we, in the civil service, in the broader public sector and the partners who support them, do this a bit differently so that we can deliver the intended outcomes?”

Meanwhile Slater reiterated his plea that truth must be spoken to power. “Go into your time with new ministers saying what you think. Say so with respect, say so thoughtfully,” he told attendees.

“But please, say what you think.”

This article first appeared in the summer issue of Civil Service World. Read the digital magazine in full 

Read the most recent articles written by Civil Service World - Read the summer 2024 issue of Civil Service World


Share this page