Coping with a reshuffle: what's it like on the inside?

As the dust settles on David Cameron's first post-election reshuffle, Dunstan Hadley – a former private office official in the Department for Education  reflects on the chaos and excitement of change at the top

By Dunstan Hadley

13 May 2015

During my time in private office I was involved in quite a few reshuffles (the Blair government was addicted to them). Two were prompted by resignations – last minute, unplanned, late at night and quite chaotic – and some were expected (and still chaotic), such as those after an election. As the prime minister creates his new government, private offices across Whitehall will now be working incredibly hard over the next few days and weeks. Here are some personal reflections on coping with reshuffles.

Do NOT believe any reshuffle gossip:

Reshuffle rumours are contagious. The press speculate and so do departments. Someone will claim they heard a minister drop a hint they’re off and it gets spread around the private offices – who then gossip with each other. Next, a ministerial driver will pop into the office and say one of their mates, who has been trained in evasive driving, is being teed-up to drive minister X – which means they must be off to the Home Office or Foreign Office or somewhere with security risks etc.

In my experience and contrary to received wisdom, the drivers were no more clued up than anyone else – they were just convincing bullshitters.  Before you know it, whole reshuffles have been fixed in people’s imagination – and they’re almost always 100% wrong. I made it a rule not to believe anything until I’d heard from either the permanent secretary, principal private secretary or sometimes Sky News (though I suspect I’d rely on Twitter now).

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Prepare to get physical:

Once you’ve got a new minister there’s often a panic when you’re told they’ll be arriving in 20 minutes. Things now get brutal because, regardless of how much you liked your previous minister, your job is to erase all traces of them from the office. This can mean dumping their books/papers/personal effects in a crate, taking down their family photos and purging them from existence. I remember one reshuffle where the new minister was in the lift up to the office while someone was hurriedly unscrewing the previous minister’s nameplates off the door.

Become a stalker:

With all trace of the previous minister erased, your thoughts need to turn to the new one. The first thing I used to do was start Googling like hell. I wanted to find out as much as possible about my new boss to get some insight into them before they arrived. This could range from the obvious – previous jobs in government, where their constituency was, whether they’d said anything about the policies they were now responsible for – to things that might make initial conversations easier e.g. did they have any interests, family, hobbies? I wanted something I could use to break the ice in that first conversation.

In some cases your new minister may be well known and so this research is less important. If you are lucky your minister may have written books/policy papers/articles about their new area or political issues. I used to spend the first few weeks trying to read up everything they’d said in the past so I could better understand them – and help steer policy officials early on.

Hope you get someone who knows what they’re doing:

There is no training for ministers, they often have no experience of doing a ministerial role and usually zero experience of running a big organisation or budget. Life is so much easier if your minister understands the job. Not in terms of making better policy – but purely in terms of getting decisions made. New ministers are bombarded with information and told they’ve got to make important decisions straight away. If they’ve got no executive experience they can take time to work out their preferred pattern for a working day, how they best make decisions, how they like policy submissions written, if they have a preferred style for correspondence and, crucially, how they best receive and respond to the day-to-day churn of information.

There is no right or wrong way – it has to be whatever works for the minister. Amid all the other upheaval of a reshuffle, it’s good to a have minister who’s worked those things out already so you can get cracking on reconfiguring the office and systems straight away.

It’s emotional:

Despite stories of ministers clashing with civil servants (some true and some not) there are often close working relationships between ministers and their private offices. There are exceptions I can think of –some ministers whose offices whooped with joy when they were reshuffled – but usually a close bond develops between ministers and their team. Losing a minister, especially if it’s sudden, can be emotional for an office. You will be sad your minister is leaving but, in addition, you may well have got to know their constituency team, their family, spads, their political friends, their PPS – and suddenly they’re gone and you’ve got to build all those relationships again.

In some cases you can lose staff from the office. It’s not uncommon (or wrong) for ministers to want to bring over someone trusted from their previous role but that means the incumbent private secretary or diary manager needs to find another job. Seeing a popular member of staff get shuffled off suddenly adds to the already stressed feeling and emotions.

It’s disorientating:

Good private offices have good systems, aligned to the minister’s working pattern. They act as an interface between the minister and the department, No 10, and other departments to ensure that information flows to and from the minister effectively. Their strength derives from understanding their minister and helping other civil servants present the information and get decisions made.

This insight instantly disappears during a reshuffle. Private office suddenly know no more about the minister than anyone else. The very moment when the whole department is asking questions about ministerial preferences or demanding urgent ministerial decisions, is precisely the moment that private office has least idea what they’re doing. This can be compounded if there’s a been some re-jigging of policy portfolios – so you suddenly find yourself also unable to answer ministerial policy questions.  It can take time to figure this all out.

I once put some routine correspondence to a new minister for clearance – letters that would have been signed off by their predecessor – and received the following comments: “no, this is wrong”; “NO! This is hopeless”; “awful”; and “BULLSHIT!!” A swift meeting followed, the minister told us what he wanted and it was fine – but it was a useful reminder that everything you think you know may be wrong.

It’s hard work:

Finally – it’s just bloody hard work. On top of dealing with all the things mentioned above you’ve also got to keep departmental business ticking over – getting parliamentary business done, responding to correspondence, submissions, Freedom of Information requests). It’s worse for diary secretaries. They have to try and mesh two diaries together, work out which meetings, speeches or events have to be cancelled, which will go ahead, what constituency business the new minister has already agreed to – and that’s before all the new invitations and requests for meetings with the new minister arrive too.

People should be wary of upsetting diary managers during a reshuffle. I remember quite a few organisations phoning the office, two hours after the minister had been appointed, to check if the minister would honour a speaking invitation for an event 10 months away. We didn’t have a clue what the minister would be doing in 10 days’ time, let alone whether they’d agree to say some “warm words” at a parliamentary reception the following year. Anyone making such calls were guaranteed short thrift (and no ministerial attendance).

Reshuffles are stressful, emotional and tiring. They’re also exciting and fun – and if done well – very rewarding. 

Read the most recent articles written by Dunstan Hadley - What's it really like for civil servants when departments are broken up?


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