The new chancellor Gordon Brown is greeted by the permanent secretary to the Treasury Sir Terry Burns as he arrives at the Treasury following Labour's overwhelming majority win in the 1997 general election. Photo: PA
This article was republished on 8 January 2018 ahead of prime minister Theresa May's government reshuffle
In its own low-key way, the civil service is going through one of the more minor acts of the British constitution: the arrival of new ministers to their departments. The entrance of any new minister provokes uncertainty, Whitehall’s least comfortable sensation. But the welcome party usually provides comfort through familiarity.
A group is initially formed to put together the “Day One Pack” for a new minister, a task which should be a straightforward one. A quick flick through the manifestos and past speeches, a five-page primer on what the department does and who is in it, and a list of phone numbers for senior officials.
The problem is, these things are never actually on the stocks before the minister arrives, because no department has implemented a knowledge management system that didn’t require making explicit threats or bribes of staff to use it. More importantly, this small but perfectly formed package doesn’t create nearly enough work to share around. If one considers the length of time a minister is likely to devote to reading it, creating an up-to-date factual briefing on the department’s business is a matter of a day or two. This, clearly, won’t do, and when I had the dubious honour of joining a department’s briefing pack team in 2010, we elected, without really thinking about it, to create the mother of all factual briefing packs.
This remains the longest publication I’ve ever been involved in. The first draft ran to over 400 pages. We drained multiple printers. Still the department wrote. The file got too big to send on the email system. 500 pages. The one policy team who we failed to commission content from got very angry indeed, memorably describing their omission as a ‘putsch’ against them. 600 pages. A single paragraph of text received 18 comments. Still they wrote. It was too tempting an opportunity to pass up. In the end, there were 700 pages for that new minister to get their teeth into.
Then, shortly after a name is announced, the permanent secretary is ready. Standing a little stiffly in an unusually clean reception area, surrounded by coterie of board members, they warmly greet their new master. As a pair, they walk up to meet the private office team that will be the minister’s eyes and ears for the foreseeable future (“Oh, for many, many years, I’m sure minister”). After exchanging a few pleasantries, minister and department swap manifestos: the politician recounting the three minutes of steers they have just received in haste from No. 10, the officials gently placing that encyclopedic day one briefing pack on the table. Both sides listen politely to the other, each secretly thinking their counterpart is bound to lose heart in the more eccentric parts of their respective agendas. These are arguments for another day.
Experienced ministers who know the drill may go off the script at this point. The astute ones that have been expecting the prime minister’s call will have already spent several months talking unofficially to trusted senior civil servants to get the true lie of the land. They will already have a sense of the rising stars, and those with backchannels to the Treasury and No. 10. They will also have half an eye on the person everyone says has been sat on the department’s board contributing underbaked waffle for several years. They politely agree to read the day one briefing pack, before asking the permanent secretary to deliver a two-page “bring out your dead” note baldly detailing all the topics that are most likely to lose them their job. The permanent secretary chuckles with equal politeness at the very thought such a thing might be required, before smoothly drawing out a pre-prepared note from their desk drawer with exactly these details.
After the exchange of paperwork, the rollcall of meetings begins. These are carefully orchestrated by the private office, with introductions effected according to rank. At these moments, directors general earn their money.
New ministers bring new energy into government. What these senior civil servants need to determine quite quickly is what sort of energy their new boss brings. It could be nuclear: excellent in principle, but potentially accompanied by dark and catastrophic consequences. Or solar: intense, intermittent and expensive. It may be limitless wind.
“Experienced ministers may go off the script. The astute ones that have been expecting the prime minister’s call will have already spent several months getting the true lie of the land”
Working out where this energy will be directed is an especially high stakes game after an election. During a parliament, a change of minister may bring a shift in emphasis and new ways of working with them.
However, reshuffles tend not to herald dramatic policy shifts. In a fresh government, new faces generally come in with new ideas. A certain type of civil servant believes that nothing could be more mortifying than finding a minister who has an idea they hadn’t thought of, analysed exhaustively, and dismissed in advance as unwise. That risk is never greater than just after an election. The emotion the senior civil service dreads most on meeting their new boss is surprise.
Lower down the pecking order, meanwhile, daily business plods on. The exception to this rule is if you happen to be in the policy team drawn into the new minister’s spotlight. Ugly ducklings under a previous administration can suddenly be thrust on to centre stage. Grade 7s find DGs can remember their names. Being in the right place at the right time with a new minister can be career-changing for junior civil servants. In both directions.
By the end of their first week, ministers will have completed another element of the standard welcoming routine: the all-staff note. This never says much. Some words about how impressed they have been with what they’ve seen so far, how much hard work lies ahead, perhaps a plea for pithy, clear submissions (which is ignored). Although the content is familiar, these notes can act as a subtle indicator of how institutionalised a minister is likely to become. If the email has clearly come from the keyboard of the principal private secretary, the department has found a minister that behaves in a pleasingly predictable fashion. If the drafting conveys a little personality, a different prospect beckons.
Before long, most of the rituals draw to a close. Relationships begin to form on the basis of personalities rather than roles. The rhythms of governing inexorably return. And the timeless protocols and processes of welcome go back into the cupboard, ready for the next reshuffle.