Churn and diary management: Former ministers recall biggest frustrations working with civil servants

Latest episode of the IfG’s “Becoming a minister” podcast series includes politicians’ occasional frustrations with civil service – and advice on how to deal with them
Andrea Leadsom. Photo: Ian Davidson/Alamy

By Tim Gibson

24 Aug 2023

Have you ever wondered what most frustrates ministers about working with the civil service?

The latest episode of the Institute for Government’s podcast series aimed at new and aspiring ministers provides some illumination.

Becoming a minister” features interviews from several former ministers from across the political spectrum, giving an insight into the pinch points of working with officials.

“One of my frustrations was that I was very aware of the contrast between the say an MP has over the team working for them and the say a minister has over a team working with them,” says Andrea Leadsom.

“MPs choose their own team and give them appraisals. When [you’re] a minister, the civil servants are their own team. To give an example, you can be working closely with eight to 10 people in your private office. Then a senior private secretary will say someone’s leaving tomorrow, when you were quite looking forward to working with them [on a project]. That sort of dislocation [can be difficult]. It’s not intended to leave you out of things, but I just think the civil service has its own pay and rations, its own reporting lines. Tasks are set by someone other than the minister.”

This speaks of Leadsom’s other frustration, which is the level of churn in the civil service – especially among junior officials.

“Theoretically, the civil service provides corporate memory and expertise, and the minister provides political judgment,” she says. “But in reality, civil servants often have to move [departments] to get promotion. The turnover of civil servants is enormous, so there is actually no corporate memory in the team. That’s my biggest frustration of all.”

Further insight was offered from IfG Academy researcher Dr Nicola Blacklaws, who distilled feedback from several former ministers that the IfG draws on to help ministers and civil servants work more effectively. 

“On an everyday level, some ministers find the way their private office manages their diary to be frustrating,” Blacklaws says. “They find their days full up with meetings, not all of which seem important, with no room to recalibrate between them and enormous cast lists.”

Another common complaint from ministers is that civil servants don’t understand parliament. “They don’t acknowledge the importance of it,” says Blacklaws, “or leave enough room to fulfil that aspect of the job. [Ministers say] there is not the depth of knowledge about how parliament functions that would help them do their job.”

Finally, Blacklaws reports that ministers often find the quality of written advice from civil servants to be below par. “In terms of how it’s written, it isn’t very good: either too long or not focused enough, or not getting factual details right. [Some say the same] about the quality of correspondence written on their behalf.”

For all these frustrations, Blacklaws says ministers can take a lead in changing how their officials work with them. “There are things they can do to change how the civil service approaches [the relationship]. Frustrations can be solved. [You just] need good relations [between ministers and officials].”

Moreover, the former ministers interviewed for the podcast were generally positive about the civil service and its capabilities. Former secretary of state for Scotland Jim Murphy said: “You quickly understand the civil service is there to do a professional job.”

Former education secretary Justine Greening was more effusive. “I really enjoyed working with officials, more than I anticipated,” she said. “Once I met the people, the reality was better than my expectations. I loved working with the civil service.”

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