Relationship goals: how ministers and civil servants can work together better

The relationship between ministers and civil servants is the most important in government. CSW sat down with one former minister and one former permanent secretary to find out how it works in practice
Photo: Buff Henry Photography / Alamy Stock Photo

By Civil Service World

25 Mar 2021

Caroline Flint was the Labour MP for Don Valley from 1997 to 2019, and held a host of ministerial and shadow ministerial positions, including minister for Europe, housing minister and employment minister. Philip Rycroft is a former permanent secretary at the Department for Exiting the EU, and has held other civil service roles including being head of the UK governance group in the Cabinet Office. He has also worked for the Scottish Government in a number of roles, including director general for education. In this exclusive interview, they discuss the relationship between ministers and the civil service. 

CSW: What is the first day as a minister like?

Caroline Flint: Exciting and daunting. If I go back to my first ministerial job, I was on a plane flying back from Kuwait, having been with the parliamentary armed forces scheme in Iraq in June 2003. 
We were on the plane with other parliamentary colleagues, and we knew there was a reshuffle going on, but we weren’t sure what was going to happen. I landed at Heathrow Airport, and I got a message from my husband to ring No.10, and get up there as quick as I could. I was wearing my chinos and my fatigues, having been with the army out in Iraq, and was carrying my rucksack.

So I was summoned to No.10. I walked down Downing Street and none of the media gathered there had a clue who I was, as I clearly wasn’t dressed for a new appointment. I remember them shouting out to [former Labour MP and defence minister] Ivor Caplin, ‘what do you think you’re going to get, Ivor?’. I got nothing like that, because obviously nobody recognised who I was. 

I met the prime minister, Tony Blair, in my chinos and my dusty jacket and he told me I was going to the Home Office. From there, I went and got tidied up and then you go straight into the department and start meeting your private office. People come through, obviously, your other colleagues on the ministerial team, and for me the secretary of state was David Blunkett. It was exciting. I was covering the brief of organized crime [and the interactions with] justice and home affairs in the European Union. 

It was daunting. In my first fortnight I had to deal with questions in the House of Commons, I had an adjournment debate and I also had to take over a bill in committee. So you have to hit the ground running. 

CSW: So what do ministers want from civil servants on their first day, and in those early weeks in the department?

CF: It’s hugely important to get to know your private office. They are your gatekeepers. They are the people you’re going to spend most time with as a minister and those early relationships are important. I think the other aspect which is incredibly useful is knowing what your secretary of state wants, and David Blunkett was brilliant at helping with this. David very quickly got all of us in the ministerial team together, and that was a regular activity. We would meet as a team of ministers with the permanent secretary, but also on our own politically too. And that is helpful because you need to have that sense of: what is it your goal, and what does the secretary of state, what does the prime minister want? That acts as a sort of compass for how you proceed. 

"Let me know if there’s a problem brewing earlier in the process, rather than when it’s all hitting the fan"

Then you’re working on your own a lot with officials, and they provide you with briefings on each of the areas you’re covering. So you get the headlines, and that helps you get on with the job quickly. One thing I made very clear early on was: if there’s something going wrong, please don’t wait until five to midnight to tell me. Let me know if there’s a problem brewing earlier in the process, rather than when it’s all hitting the fan. 

CSW: And how does the civil service prepare for new ministers?

Philip Rycroft: It depends quite a lot on the circumstances. So you can have ministers coming into government for the first time, or indeed, from a party that has never been in government before – I have experience of the SNP as a minority government in 2007 in Scotland. That’s a very different business than if you’re in a reshuffle context where somebody has been promoted, maybe from within the department, or come from another ministerial job, and they know the ropes and they know their way around. 

Ahead of an election, you’ve got time to think about it, with lots of work going on preparing the brief for incoming ministers. That’s part and parcel of what the civil service does. Sometimes, you get no time at all. So in my last job [as DExEU perm sec], I had a fairly rapid turnover among secretaries of state. And these were resignations, so not planned – people suspected they might be coming, but they couldn’t be certain they were coming. So an incoming secretary of state needed to be on top of the brief absolutely from day one – as Caroline said, this is very daunting stuff. Not only do you need to understand what’s going on in the department to be able to deal with ministerial colleagues, but you’re in front of the media pretty much from the moment you step into the job. 

The civil service responsibility in that space is to make sure that the minister or the secretary of state has got the right briefing at the right time. There’s a great temptation to throw everything at them, but that’s just impossible. A human understanding of what the minister is facing and what their priorities are is absolutely critical to getting that right. But the civil service can feel the tension a little bit in those first few days, as new ministers get their feet under the desk to get settled in.

CSW: Do you feel that you had that kind of support and working relationship established fairly early in the department?

CF: Phil’s absolutely right that you need information on the need to know basis. If they just pile everything on you, you would have a nervous breakdown. So the way you get information has to be customised to the individual. I always used to say I want 10 killer facts, something that is tangible that I can refer to in each of the areas of my portfolio. 

I was a minister who didn’t live in London, I lived in Doncaster in my constituency. So I would arrive on a Monday and go back to Doncaster every Thursday, and I did that pretty much all through my ministerial career. So early on people used to pile up stuff for Thursday for me to either take home to Doncaster or have a box delivered on the weekend. And I had to make clear that, I wanted to work long hours, definitely, Monday to Thursday, but I couldn’t have all the submissions piled up on for Thursday lunchtime to take away with me. I didn’t think that was a good use of my time. So I did say early on that, for the routine submissions – signing parliamentary question answers, signing letters – I wanted to get everything cleared before I left for Doncaster on a Thursday and only the really urgent stuff would I deal with over a weekend. 

PR: The civil service could sometimes be more sensitive early on, so that they don’t have to be told how to work with a minister sensibly. Everything piling up on a Thursday or Friday afternoon is for the convenience of the people producing it. They want it off their desk at the weekend, they don’t think about the poor minister or permanent secretary – who is also often at the receiving end and has to wade through it on a Friday night. 

I also never stayed in London, I was always commuting from Scotland in my 10 years down in Whitehall. So I had the advantage of a Friday night four-hour journey home where I knew I could get through stuff. The team understood that but I’d say to them that if I’ve not done it by the time I get into Dunbar station on a Friday night, I’m not looking at it until I get on the train again on a Sunday evening. You’ve got to have that strength of mind to be disciplined, or to require that discipline of the civil service, otherwise your good nature as a minister will maybe get stretched a little bit.

CSW: Did private offices work similarly across departments?

CF: There are norms across the civil service, but every department is like another country in terms of its culture and how it works. So there is a civil service, but it is maybe quite different from one department to another. When I went to the Foreign Office, I inherited a private office in which the experience of being in a private office was very limited. That was because within the Foreign Office at that time, it might have changed since, there were rules about how long you could stay in a post in the UK, as opposed to overseas, so it was a quite a large turnover. You want fresh ideas coming in, but understanding about the role of private office, and the relationship to parliament, does require experience. 

I was at the Department of Health as public health minister for two years, but when I moved to what was then the Department for Communities and Local Government, there was a vacancy for a diary secretary and I wanted my diary secretary from health to come with me. I actually succeeded in encouraging that to happen. However, by the time that was done, I was then being moved on to the FCO. So DCLG inherited this wonderful woman who still works in the civil service, she’s in No.10 now. I felt I’d done my best for DCLG and then lost a very good support person moving to the FCO. 

PR: From a permanent secretary point of view, knowing that you’ve got really smart people in a private offices is a very good investment of your time. Good private secretaries are absolutely critical as the oil in the machine to help it all work together. It’s a brilliant training ground. A lot of senior civil servants who get how ministers work, if you look back in their careers, you’ll find they had a stint at some point in a ministerial private office, because it gives you just such a great insight into that nexus between the political world and the world of the civil service. 

DExEU had a lot of a lot of ministers, comparative to the size of the department, and we had quite a rapid turnover. So almost every two or three months, I was having to get to know incoming new ministers as well as the secretary of state. But I made it a priority to be pretty much first in the office with a private secretary to say: “Hello, I’m here. Here’s my phone number, this is what I do and we’re here to help”. And to also say that we know this is a tough agenda, and we know the politics is really, really difficult around this, we understand that and we’re on your side. I think is just absolutely central to the role of the permanent secretary, the instinct to understand where ministers coming from, and how they can support that agenda.

CSW: How does the relationship with special advisers fit into the rest of the department?

CF: I had a special advisor when I was housing minister and she came with me to the Foreign Office after that. At their best, special advisors can actually spend some time with your officials to actually talk through some of the policy areas, and help the officials understanding what the minister or the secretary of state wants to achieve. I think that sort of insight is really helpful for the civil service. Likewise, I think it allows the special adviser to see what are the pressures are on the civil service to deliver and help to manage that process.

PR: I absolutely agree with that. I'm a fan of special advisers, and a really critical part system, particularly around that interpretation and the politics. In times of crisis, if you had a little media storm blowing up, then the special advisers’ judgment on the political handling of that can just cut through a whole lot of stuff to get a pretty immediate response out.

One example of a special advisor relationship working, in my view, really, really well: I was very involved in on the civil service side in the handling of the Scottish referendum through 2012, to 2014. There was a couple of special advisers in No.10 who were handling that on behalf of the prime minister and the chancellor, and having good relationships with those two special advisers was fundamental to the efficiency and effectiveness of the operation of, in our case, the civil service supporting the UK government to make its case in that referendum. It was a sort of an example of the relationship will work in at its best, because what they brought to the table was the confidence of the prime minister and the chancellor. So if they said this is what the prime minister thinks, we knew that was we could trust that. But they also brought that political acumen and the political contacts in a way that we civil servants obviously couldn't, but then could inform our work. And also challenge our work, as Caroline said, to make we were giving the best advice and best support.

I'd say the vast majority of special advisers I worked with were very good at the job they had to do. Once or twice you find people who were a little bit self obsessed, they were already thinking they were going to be a secretary of state or prime minister one day, but for the most part, these were people who understood the importance of the relationship with the civil service and worked hard to make sure it was a good one.

CF: I think where some special advisers lose the plot is when they get too involved in some of the politicking across government – briefings against other ministers because they think it's going to help their minister. That is completely unhelpful.

PF: I agree with that. From a civil service perspective, those very destabilising, because your primary loyalty is to the secretary of state or to the department, but that is in the context of loyalty to the government as a whole, and you're very conscious of wanting the departments that succeed in the context of the government succeeding.

When you get this destabilization within the government, lose your bearings,  and it actually becomes harder to give your own ministers sensible advice when the politics has just gone a bit a bit haywire. I think it's probably a matter of public record that it got really rather difficult through the Brexit time, when you have such differences of views as a senior level in government, and it makes it very hard then for the civil service to engage confidently, knowing that they've put in the right advice into the right place.

CSW: Where do the PM and No.10  fit into this relationship?

CF: Both at the Home Office and health, I used to do quarterly reports to the prime minister and his officials and political advisers in No.10 about a new strategy we had between the Home Office and health to tackle acquisitive crime for drug use – we developed a strategy about getting people into treatment earlier. It was an exciting programme.

At these quarterly meetings, we’d have our statistics about how we were doing, with all those traffic lights and indicators. It was daunting, but I enjoyed it for two reasons. One, it said to me the prime minister thinks this work was important enough to spend time on, and second it allowed us to develop some of those relationships with some of the people in No.10, both political advisers and officials, that could help us with some of the problems we were having, as well as sharing the good outcomes. 

As I said earlier, knowing what your boss’s view is on something – whether it’s your secretary of state or the prime minister – is really important, and I didn’t find that sort of contact intrusive or wearing, I found it really positive. What you don’t want is a situation where you think you’ve got some direction from No.10, and maybe it doesn’t go quite as well as expected, and then they act like they didn’t know what was going on, and you’re on your own. That happened on a couple of occasions, and that really isn’t the best in terms of your relationship. 

“No.10 is ever watchful, ever present, and you never quite know when they’re going to come in and demand something” 

PR: A big part of the job is supporting the secretary of state and ministers in navigating those relationships, particularly if they’re newer to the department than you. Some secretaries of state would do their best to work with the grain of No.10, some would sometimes find No.10 a bit arbitrary in its decisions. 

Sometimes the No.10 grid [for scheduling government announcements] could be a bit of a tyrant stopping them doing what they wanted to do. There were one or two secretaries of state to whom I’d have to say, you can’t announce that, because it’s not on the grid and No.10 has said no. And they would say “yeah, well, maybe, but what are they going to do about it, if I do announce it?” It is important to know what the limits are of that sort of behaviour and how you could manage that, trying to get the best of both worlds. But what you can’t do is ignore No.10,and allow your department to slip out of view, even if that’s what the secretary of state thought was best for them. Because No.10 is ever watchful, ever present, and you never quite know when they’re going to come in and demand something or comment on something, or try and divert attention in a particular direction. 

This interview was conducted in partnership with Dods Training. Dods specialises in policy development and parliamentary training, including communications and leadership skills related to those topics. 

Good policy making improves outcomes for citizens and Dods works to help civil servants develop the skills they need to deliver better outcomes for citizens. 

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