Braverman's missed PR move and 'terrifying' Sue Gray: Five things we learned at the IfG’s civil service impartiality summit

The home secretary missed a trick by skipping her speed-awareness course, while Gus O’Donnell fears a crony takeover of Whitehall
Braverman "could have done herself quite a lot of credit" by going on a speed-awareness course. Photo: Imageplotter/Alamy Live News

By Jim Dunton

24 May 2023

Institute for Government panel events can seem like the preserve of wonks and the most dedicated Whitehall afficionados. But this week’s session on civil service impartiality had a veritable selection box of anecdotes and words of wisdom that shed light on life in government behind the scenes.

Suella Braverman may have missed a trick by not trying to style out her recent speeding conviction.

Former Department for Trade and Industry press officer and Labour Party special adviser Ayesha Hazarika said the home secretary should have done the group speed-awareness course she was offered, rubbing shoulders with the great British public, rather than asking officials to try to arrange a VIP session instead.

“I just don’t understand why she didn’t just do the course,” said Hazarika, who is also a broadcaster and stand-up comedian.

“From a comms and reputational point of view, she could have done herself quite a lot of credit by saying: ‘Look, I am the home secretary, but I’m not above the law. I have to be subject to the same rules as you.’ It might have been a laugh. They might have quite liked her. She could have bonded with people. It seems like a missed opportunity.”

Civil servants were 'terrified' of Sue Gray – but respected her

Hazarika also paid tribute to recently departed Whitehall fixer Sue Gray for being the kind of civil servant departments need more of.

“Everybody was terrified of Sue Gray, basically,” Hazarika said. “You need to have a really top-flight level of very, very senior civil servants who are there and they are trusted by the prime minister and they are trusted by the cabinet secretary and they’re trusted by the permanent secretaries as well. They can go in and do a bit of trouble shooting.”

Gray is due to become chief of staff to Labour Party leader Keir Starmer, but her start date for the role is subject to the approval of appointments watchdog Acoba.

Also on the IfG panel was former cabinet secretary Lord Gus O’Donnell, who supported Hazarika’s assessment of Gray’s talents. He confided: “We’re all scared of Sue. Let’s be absolutely clear.”

The nation’s childcare needs aren't always what civil servants think

Free schools champion and former No.10 adviser Rachel Wolf cited her own experiences as a way of explaining what she perceives as a “diversity” mismatch exemplified by the experience of career-focused officials based in the capital making policy for people with markedly different lives.

“I have not met any senior civil servants or special advisers who do not genuinely believe that a lack of more generous childcare policy, funded through the state, is not one of the great blocks to the achievement of growth in this country,” she said.

“Yet, when you poll people [or] focus-group people around the country, it’s much less of an issue. And generally the kind of childcare they want is more likely to be grandparents, or informal, or they would quite like to work fewer hours themselves.

“What you don’t get is a policy that reflects the lives of people who just want their mum to do a few more hours a bit more cheaply so they could go part-time because they really hate their job.”

Politically driven civil service appointments could “reinforce confirmation bias” and accelerate churn

Star billing at Tuesday’s session went to former cab sec O’Donnell, who voiced concerns about calls for a more politicised civil service in the wake of Dominic Raab’s resignation as justice secretary.

Raab complained that “increasingly activist civil servants” had made it “almost impossible for ministers to deliver for the British people” after he was found to have intimidated staff working for him.

“I think there are real problems from going down this route,” Lord O'Donnell said. “Let’s just keep this in proportion and make sure we don’t end up with cronies, which doesn’t help ministers. They need to be challenged. If they’re not challenged by people inside, they’ll be challenged by people outside – when it may be too late.”

Elsewhere in the session, O’Donnell said members of the senior civil service are not paid enough to live on in London. IfG research earlier this year said the median salary for SCS members was £82,550. Median earnings for civil servants were given as £30,110.

Former environment secretary George Eustice played pranks on civil servants by choosing “bonkers” policy options

“I used to hate the so-called multiple-choice submission where there are three options: two of which were quite bonkers and then the middle one – the brackets, “recommended” option – that they wanted you to do,” he said. “I sometimes, just for fun, used to say ‘actually, bonkers option A is what I would like to do’ to provoke discussion.

“I used to favour bringing up a whole team of civil servants including the SEOs and HEOs and the grade sixes who had their head under the towel on a technical issue. And then have a discussion about it and arrive at a conclusion," he said, echoing his previous comments about seeking out junior officials to contribute to policymaking discussions.

Eustice said he later tried to bring officials from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affiars’ agencies and arm’s-length bodies into discussions, because they had less staff churn and so more residual technical knowledge on key issues.

“Good governance should really be about the relentless pursuit of quality technical knowledge and good decision-making, rather than abstract hierarchies,” he said.

Eustice also told the IfG session that the level of civil-servant churn that he experienced during his nine years at Defra was such that he was often the individual with the most institutional memory about policy issues.

“That’s quite an indictment of what’s happening in the civil service – that you need a here-today, gone-tomorrow minister to perform that function,” he said.

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