“I'm still in regular contact with a lot of my former civil servants”: Labour politician Sir Ian McCartney shares his reflections on Whitehall

What do ministers really think of their officials? We asked Sir Ian McCartney – a former trade minister – to appraise the civil service

By Civil Service World

27 Aug 2015

Did your views of the civil service change during your time in office?
I took the advice of my father, who was also an MP, who told me not to form an opinion about the civil service until meeting them for the first time. 

Overwhelmingly, I found people wanted to get things done, and do well by you. They wanted to display their skills, their knowledge, and they always gave me good advice. You did occasionally find people who were demotivated, and so it was about finding ways to motivate them, because there must be a reason for it. You don’t get up in the morning not wanting to do your best. 
What challenges did you face in working with civil servants?
It’s important that your private office and department directors clearly understand where you are coming from. In my post at the then Department for Trade and Industry – which got engaged in a great deal of politics – it was important for my civil service colleagues to know what this meant and how they fitted in. Once a year, whoever was working in my private office at the time came to the constituency for a couple of days to look at the types of activity we were doing as members of parliament – what the issues were and how the government fitted into those issues. 

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If you were Cabinet Office minister, how would you change the civil service?
The civil service is always changing in my view! On the face of it, it doesn’t look like it, but there have been some quite significant changes to departments and in the types of jobs that officials do.
The one area where I thought there should have been major changes – and still do – is the relationship the Cabinet Office has with Number 10 and the Treasury.
I have always advocated that the Cabinet Office should be far more transparent and approachable. It should be the intellectual support system for the prime minister, so it needs an effective way to attract people beyond the traditional civil service mould.  
A good career structure which results in fewer people leaving Whitehall is also key, because every two or three years the civil service ends up emptying out its institutional memory by replacing people. I find that quite destabilising for a minister dealing with difficult issues. 
Can you tell us a story that reveals something about the civil service?
The passing of the National Minimum Wage Act in 1998 was the civil service at its best. People went that extra mile and they had a sense of pride in what they had achieved. That was important. 
I had a very sad moment early on in government. The partner of one of the civil servants I worked with died, and he then committed suicide. I remember having to go to Highgate cemetery to bury this lad, and I was really sorry. He had been such a conscientious and diligent employee and he was a known expert. You get personally attached to people – I'm still in regular contact with a lot of my former civil servants – and that was really sad. 
Sir Ian McCartney was minister of the Department of Trade and Industry 1997–1999, when he became minister of state at the Cabinet Office. In 2001 he was appointed minister for pensions at the Department for Work and Pensions.



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