Brexit challenges what the civil service values most: continuity and certainty

Whitehall has retained its objectivity as beyond dispute since the referendum result. But in 2017, officials will need to help ministers manage public expectations of what Brexit will achieve

By Andrew Greenway

12 Dec 2016

As the country’s 400,000 or so civil servants take to their sofas on Christmas Day after an enlivening argument with the family, they might reflect on a taxing year. If we are to believe anecdote and murmur, a few permanent residents in the house of state will be using the festive period to do some professional soul-searching. Can they face more of this? And if so, what should their 2017 resolution be?

Psychologists dispute the exact stages of grief. Most agree on five: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. This summer and autumn, most of Whitehall has been in a state of profound grief over the EU referendum. Grief is a thick, viscous emotion. It sets like aspic. Officials now wade through it. They mourn certainties uprooted, progress thwarted. They mourn just one more bloody thing that makes it hard to do their job.

This grief is not, I think, simply because of the result. Sure, many officials will have voted to remain and feel aghast by what happened. Scanning the electoral demographics implies those in this group probably form a majority. That doesn’t matter. It has created no unprofessional recalcitrance. Whitehall has retained its objectivity as beyond dispute. Quite right too. Even the faintest vacillations would bring dogs to the door. 

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The grief comes from disturbing things that the civil service values most. Continuity and certainty.

In the weeks after the referendum squashed equilibrium, some civil service lifers remained immune. Those who have seen it all before have weathered the storm, protected from trauma by a warm cloak of cynicism. Elsewhere, the denial was palpable. The most bizarre form of this was the mass exodus of senior officials in August. 

Now, I know the summer holiday is sacred in Westminster. I’d be the last to say that permanent secretaries and DGs don’t need and deserve a good holiday. Nonetheless, this instinct to project leisure as usual did seem a little odd. August did not feel like a good time to have a pint in The Winchester and wait for all this to blow over.

Even if they had stuck around, departmental boards would have had an angry September. With the dust settling, many teams realised that months and years of hard graft could soon all be so much ink. Of course, having the limelight swiped is a professional hazard in Whitehall. Elections giveth, and elections taketh away. This was different. A team can plan for an election. Nobody had planned for this.

Inevitably, bargaining followed. Every man for himself. Jockeying for position in recast departments, gaming the spending review, assuming territory. Noble aims got trampled under the tactical onslaught.

After sharing out the buns, what then? The thing about bargaining in the throes of grief is that you can never get what you want. Those who stepped blinking in to their new directorships or departments often knew they had bought a car without any keys. What they hadn’t realised was that it was also stuck on train tracks. In such a situation, you have a choice. To go full Cleese, and lash out. Or sink to one’s haunches, staring into the middle distance.

Now, at the end of the year, some of the civil service is beginning to emerge from six months of grief. The question is what kind of organisation will emerge. Achieving acceptance is not a given, after all. 

One of the best ways of working through grief is to talk openly about what you are going through. It is all too tempting, too easy, to allow oneself to look inward and bottle thoughts up. This seems to be the current instinct around Westminster and Whitehall.

Although it is in keeping with this strange year, it still seems remarkable that the clearest insight the public has on the government’s biggest policy challenge comes via long-lens photography. Refusal to concede ignorance is one of the worst habits of clever people. In government, it is chronic. Pretending the perfect answer is just around the corner only stores up resentment. The Institute for Government has already called out the government for falling back on this kind of Kremlinology. It won’t end well.

So, for officials wrestling with how to move on in 2017, I hope that they opt for a healthier alternative. Being transparent and humble about what’s known and what isn’t will not harm the government’s credibility nearly as much as snatched photos of Brexit plans scribbled by parliamentary staffers. Social media reaction rejected the idea that the recent photo could be the official plan for Brexit, on the grounds that covers a full side of A4. Neither the government nor the civil service stand to fall much further in people’s estimation by conceding there’s work to do.

A dose of open humility is not just for ministers. Politicians will call the shots on the public narrative and private negotiations, carrying most of the can if it goes wrong. But it would be naive for senior civil servants to think that keeping the barriers up wouldn’t also rebound on them.

The electorate may or may not not be sick of experts. However, it is intolerant of professions who project an impression of all-knowingness only to repeatedly fall short of unrealistic expectations.

Next year, civil servants will need to help ministers manage those expectations. That won’t make officials popular. But it might bring a little more acceptance.

Read the most recent articles written by Andrew Greenway - Andrew Greenway: How GDS conquered the world

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