‘Officials would say, we’ll do that, then it didn’t get done’: ex-ministers criticise risk aversion

Interviews also highlight civil service’s ‘inappropriate’ attitude to the media, driven by determination to only share good news
Baroness Fairhead (picture UK government) and Margot James (picture Chris McAndrew CC BY 3.0)

By Richard Johnstone

24 Aug 2021

Former ministers have raised concerns about a lack of honesty in the civil service over project delivery and dealings with parliamentarians in the latest batch of interviews from the Institute for Government’s Ministers Reflect series.

Interviews with former international trade minister Baroness Fairhead, who held the post from 2017-19, and Margot James, who held two ministerial post between 2016 and 2019, both highlighted some concerns with how the civil service works.

Among Fairhead’s advice to government ministers was to “make sure you get the team that you need for you and around you in the civil service, because if you get the right team, the civil service is great”, she also highlighted a reluctance from officials to say no to ministers.

“I discovered early on that sometimes if things were slow, it was because I had a different point of view to one of the other ministers. That was the thing that I found  that some of the civil service didn’t want to say ‘There’s a conflict here’,” she said.

“They would just say 'Yes, yes, we’ll do that' and then it didn’t get done. And then you’d ask again. It was helping people understand because I was a different beast, my political career wasn’t at stake if I disagreed with somebody. For me, it was just, 'Put me together with them, let me know what the issues are, and we’ll solve it and ultimately we’ll work out  the way we’ll go forward.' There is a little bit of risk aversion, is what I would say.”

In her comments, James – who served as a minister in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy from 2016 to 2018, and then digital in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport from 2018 to 2019 – said the civil service was disdainful of the parliamentary work that ministers had to undertake.

Although she said “I don't have many criticisms of the civil service”, she did highlight poor understanding of parliamentary work as an issue among officials.

“There is a degree of disdain, I think, that the civil service hold quite a lot of parliament in,” she said. “Parliament is a bit of a nuisance, you know, it gets in the way of what the minister should be doing… but parliament is a huge source of intelligence.”

James also highlighted what she called the civil service’s “inappropriate” attitude to the media. Although she said that department press offices “can have some very good people in them”, they are constrained by what she called an “attitude [of] one-sided communication”.

She added: “It’s what the government wants to put across, what the government wants to say, what the government wants to announce. And if the answer to those questions is the government either doesn't have anything to say, doesn't have any good news to impart or, worse still, horror of horrors, something’s gone wrong, then their attitude is ‘Absolutely don't give an interview, just say no’.”

However, James said she “always had good contacts with the media throughout my parliamentary career and so a lot of journalists had my private mobile number”, meaning that “when they were frustrated by the department’s press office continuing to say “No, the minister has no comment” or hasn't got time or whatever, they used to come, in the end, via text, to me and I would invariably do an interview”.

“I believe that the government should be accountable to the public for the delivery of policy and that includes when it goes wrong,” she said. “I find it incredible that people don't realise that the public are only going to be even more annoyed if they're fobbed off.”

James highlighted that when she was in DCMS there was a policy area that was going badly wrong – age verification for online access, particularly in respect of young people accessing pornography online. “It was a policy which was fraught with no end of technical and other difficulties, and it was really going haywire and, of course, the news media got a sniff of it and wanted to know what’s going on. That was a classic case of the department saying ‘No, no, no, the minister hasn't got time at all for this’.

“And then, when I insisted on speaking to the media, a great degree of nervousness then flowed from that decision. But it was okay because the reasons it had gone wrong were very explainable. It was a bit embarrassing, but it was completely comprehensible. In fact, really, it would be quite surprising if it had gone smoothly.”

Asked whether this was because the civil service was inherently cautious or is it because they're worried about political damage, James highlighted the political rather than official leadership in government.

“It's a combination of the two, but there's no doubt that it comes from the top in the end,” she said. “It comes from the leadership team around the prime minister, whoever that prime minister is, and their desire for a constant stream of good news or no news. I think it is also a product of our very male political culture – which, I'm sorry to say, still exists – and a sense that, politics is a sort of combative sport and you've got to be winning all the time. I'm afraid when you get a lot of men together you get more of that. Sensible, more moderate, more reflective male voices will often be drowned out by the dominant sort of tribal instinct and I think that's got a lot to do with it as well.”

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