In the last few weeks Labour shadows began meeting with permanent secretaries to discuss their plans for government. The prime minister has also given permission for the SNP and Liberal Democrats to hold them as well – the first time this has happened. The parties will only manage a few meetings, given the pressures of a hectic campaign. But access talks represent a tricky challenge for the civil service. How do you make sure you are ready to deliver from the off, no matter what government is returned after the election?
Access talks are a quite unusual, and little-known, feature of UK general elections. Normally there are few instances when opposition parties get that kind of access to the civil service. But they are also extremely sensible and very necessary. Their origins speak to this. They began because Alec Douglas Home, prime minister at the 1964 election, thought Labour should talk to the civil service about plans for a new Department for Economic Affairs. They have since become a mainstay of elections, regulated by rules about what can and can’t be talked about.
The talks usually happen away from departments – civil servants should not let them interfere with continuing to serve the government. What gets discussed can vary hugely. Some shadows will bring detailed policy plans and even draft legislation, as the Conservatives did for the academies programme in 2010. Others might be more of a getting-to-know-you exercise.
The civil service are restricted in what they say. They can’t share insights into current government plans, nor give policy advice. Permanent secretaries are supposed to be in “listening mode” And as they continue to serve ministers, they also have to be careful about how the talks are perceived. In 1997, anticipating a Labour victory, one permanent secretary alienated his existing minister over the amount of work the department enthusiastically did to prepare.
Despite the restrictions, permanent secretaries can get a lot from the talks. They are a chance to see what kind of person the shadow is, get a sense of the objectives behind policies and talk about which policies matter most. These are crucial for thinking about how staff, money and priorities would have to be shifted in the department if there is a new government.
“In 1997, anticipating a Labour victory, one permanent secretary alienated his existing minister over the amount of work the department enthusiastically
And shadows benefit also – although speaking to previous participants suggests the civil service are generally more positive about the talks than politicians. The talks help them start to see the civil service differently, get to know top officials and to focus their minds on what they want to do in office. They can also be a chance to get a sense of what else the department is up to, beyond what the shadows have planned. But they only help so far – nothing compares to the enormity of talking on a ministerial post for the first time.
The challenge for the civil service this time is two-fold. One is the sheer uncertainty of the result and the range of possible outcomes – coalitions may be off most parties’ agendas, but confidence and supply relationships could be very likely. The other challenge is the scale of what the main parties seem to be proposing. Large infrastructure projects, huge reforms, big public spending pledges, and then Brexit. Some of the proposals will take years. But the pressure will be on permanent secretaries to show that their departments are ready to deliver, while making sure they have learnt the lessons of major projects – such as Universal Credit and NHS IT reform – and can deliver an early dose of realism. Access talks are their chance to start having those conversations.