‘Treat them with respect’: Ex-government leaders share advice on building good minister-civil service relations

Institute for Government's latest podcast reveals insights into how ministers and officials work together – from those with experience
Justine Greening. Photo: Lee Thomas/Alamy

By Tim Gibson

22 Aug 2023

The civil service delivers a professional job to ministers, is properly impartial and contains significant expertise to shape policy delivery. To get the best from it, ministers need to build effective relationships and open lines of communication with their officials, clearly setting out what they want to achieve and how it will be measured.

These are the insights about the relations between ministers and the civil service that emerge from episode three of the IfG’s “Becoming a minister” podcast series, entitled “Working with the civil service”.

In the series, ex-ministers and senior civil servants share their reflections on the working relationship between officials and political leaders. Here are some of the key insights from the podcast.

Respect and openness

Effective communication is crucial in ensuring civil servants support ministers in delivering their policy agenda.

“It is daunting for civil servants, especially junior ones, to come into the minister’s office,” says former environment secretary George Eustice. “You need to treat them with respect and create an atmosphere where you draw the best out of them. Then, if something’s wrong, they don’t mind airing it.”

Dame Una O’Brien, former permanent secretary at the Department of Health, offers a similar reflection from an official’s perspective: “The dream minister is the one with a willingness to reserve judgment if he or she feels uncomfortable or doesn’t like what they’re hearing. They can raise it if things don’t go well, but they should go with the range and diversity of opinion the department will offer, and be open with their permanent secretary and private secretary when they’re not happy.”

Such was former education secretary Justine Greening’s commitment to open communication, she had a “bring out your dead” period at the start of her tenure in a new department.

“For the first three months, I asked my officials to tell me what needed fixing,” she says. “I would be open to taking decisions that needed to be taken … but they needed to raise problems or I couldn’t do it.”

Building relationships

Good communication between ministers and officials isn’t only about work-focused discussions.

As Estelle Morris, former education secretary, observes: “You can’t cross the political boundary. But your officials often spend more time with you than with their families. So you have to make the relationship work. It’s the little courtesies, asking about their children’s pantomime or parents’ evening. Take time to remember they have lives.”

Morris’s advice is echoed by another former minister, Andrea Leadsom, who tells the podcast: “A good minister in my opinion will be somebody who gets to know those they work with. Include the whole team when discussing an area that’s of interest to them, and communicate the why, not just the what, of your direction of travel. Private secretaries and policy teams will work harder for you this way.”

A sense of direction

Few officials would argue with Leadsom’s sentiment. Civil servants like their ministers to set a clear agenda, so they know the metrics of success.

O’Brien gives the example of one minister who arrived in their department and gave a clear statement of their four key priorities for their time in office.

“At first it was a really big surprise,” she says. “It was interesting to have to reorient the secretary of state’s diary, but it turned out to be incredibly effective. Nobody in the department was ever in any doubt about the four things the minister was going to be measuring his and our performance against.”

Trust in the private office

One way to ensure relations remain positive between ministers and officials is to have a well-functioning private office, says O’Brien.

“Good ministers should really make use of the fabulous team in their private office to check if they’ve understood things right. Use the people around you who you can trust to give context for an issue.

Blacklaws adds a piece of advice on managing this important relationship: “The private office works as the hinge between the minister and the rest of the department. It is important that it works well and organises the minister’s working week how they want. Lots of first-time ministers don’t know they can change the way their private office works. But they should ask for what they want.”

Clear advice

Former Scottish secretary Jim Murphy summarises the insights of the podcast in a pithy set of instructions for ministers.

“Have an agenda. Be clear on what you want to achieve. Be challenging but realistic. Always be respectful. Engage with the civil service in a way that appreciates they are the greatest enabler of your policy. The most important thing is to be intellectually curious.”


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