‘Never underestimate the importance of your diary manager’, ex-minister warns

Nick Hurd says most junior member of private office team has key role in system geared up to “waste ministerial time”
Nick Hurd. Photo: PA

By Jim Dunton

25 Aug 2021

Former policing minister Nick Hurd has warned of the risk members of the government run if they fail to recognise the importance of the diary manager in their private office team.

Hurd’s observations come in the latest tranche of interviews in the Institute for Government’s Ministers Reflect series of chats with politicians who are now out of government – and in Hurd’s case, also out of parliament. 

Hurd served in five different departments, beginning his ministerial career in the Cabinet Office under Francis Maude in 2010 and ending it in the Northern Ireland Office under Julian Smith in 2019. He stood down in the December 2019 general election.

Hurd told his IfG interviewers that it is crucial for ministers to value their private office and to ask for any team members to be changed if there are “doubts” about their abilities.

“That machine is what keeps you going, is your eyes and ears, is so much of the difference between you being a success or failure in the role. Do not underestimate the importance of that,” Hurd said.

“Within that [is] the importance of the diary manager, who is often the most junior person in the team. In a new team, I say the most important person in the room is the diary manager because management of your time as a minister is absolutely critical, I think. The system wastes so much of your time in meetings and the instinct is to fill your time.”

Hurd said one bit of advice he received from his father, Conservative Party grandee Lord Douglas Hurd – home secretary and foreign secretary under Margaret Thatcher and foreign secretary in the government of Sir John Major – was to insist on being given thinking time.

“They don’t [do that] because there’s always people outside who want your time,” Hurd told the IfG. “Very early in the Cabinet Office, I handwrote a large sign – displayed it prominently – with the words ‘What is the point of this meeting?’. And at every meeting, I used to point at it.

“If people couldn’t explain this, it was a short meeting. It’s that discipline of managing your time. You may be in a post – as I sometimes was – for less than a year. Do not waste that time. Do not waste that time. Be clear about what is expected of you.”

Hurd said in his interview, which was conducted in January but published this month, that he had also found it is critical for a new minister to “communicate some enthusiasm” to their team of officials.

“Civil servants respond very well to ministers who are genuinely committed and care about the brief because, on the whole, they tend to be specialists. They’ve committed to that area,” he said.

“Now, the reality sometimes is new ministers will go in and not want to be there.”

Hurd admitted he had needed to be “gently persuaded” to move to the Home Office as policing minister from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in 2017. But he said he “ended up loving it” at Marsham Street.

He said new ministers need to recognise that their every move is being watched by departmental officials keen to get a sense of their interests and passions.

“Those early signals are important,” he said. “You will get most out of the machine under you if you demonstrate and persuade them of your commitment and your genuine interest and hopefully passion for the subject.”

‘I very, very rarely felt I worked with a really duff set of officials’

Hurd was largely positive about his experience of working with civil servants in his government roles, which spanned the course of almost a decade.

“I very, very rarely felt I worked with a really duff set of officials and, on the whole, I felt genuinely well-supported,” he said.

“On two occasions – the ‘Big Society’ and then the Grenfell role – I felt brilliantly supported. Persistently, my private offices were great. I may have just got lucky. But they were consistently brilliant, and they matter so much.”

Hurd was moved to the Home Office following then-prime minister Theresa May’s tactically disastrous snap general election in June 2017 and took up office one day before the Grenfell Tower fire, which claimed 72 lives.

His role as minister for Grenfell victims saw him tasked with building a relationship of trust and engagement between the government, fire survivors and families of the bereaved.

Hurd said the brief, where he worked with a team from the Department of Communities and Local Government, was “undoubtedly” his most challenging.

“This was a challenge that they would never have expected to work on joining the civil service. There was no playbook and there was nothing to tell them what to do. We were having to sort of create it as we went, sort of, build it as we went along. And they were brilliant.

“I was just incredibly lucky I had people with the right emotional intelligence, the right levels of commitment.”

Despite his general praise for civil servants, Hurd was not entirely complimentary about all of the Cabinet Office officials he encountered on first becoming a minister in 2010.

“They had an idea of what we wanted to do, and we were pretty clear about it. There were some big flagships like the National Citizen Service,” Hurd said. “What I found was commitment and enthusiasm and very variable levels of quality in the civil service.

“Where there were problems of quality – I’m thinking of one specific area of really important policymaking where it was quite clear the civil servants weren’t up to it – we eventually got the changes in people, but it is a slightly painstaking process to rearrange personnel.”

Hurd did not specify the area of his brief where the officials had not been “up to it”.

No.10 ‘was wary’ on climate change

Hurd also told his IfG interviewers that 10 Downing Street was wary on the green energy debate in the early stages of May’s premiership, as arguments raged behind closed doors about the potential negative impact of higher power costs on households and industry.

“There were occasional bumps in the road,” Hurd said. “Actually it was the same bump. It was concern about the cost of what we needed to do on climate change in terms of cost to consumers and cost to businesses and what that might mean for competitors. The industrial strategy was in many ways about sharpening the competitive edge of the UK.”

Hurd added: “I never felt we had the full throttled support of No.10 at that time. It wasn’t necessarily the prime minister. I don’t think it was her issue, but the advisers.

“It certainly wasn’t kind of the full steam ahead that we’re seeing at the moment.”

However, he said debate about the pace at which the UK economy should be decarbonised and the pros and cons for industry had been “entirely rational” and noted that by the time she left office in 2019, May had committed the UK to becoming a net-zero carbon emissions economy by 2050.

“David Cameron was hugging a husky at the start and Theresa was embracing net zero at the end, but there were bumps on the road in between and part of our job was to manage one of those bumps,” he said.

“In time, we did ratify the Paris Agreement. It was an internal debate. It was never external, obviously. It was an internal debate.”

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