The official view: former government whip Baroness Northover rates the civil service

What do ministers really think of their officials? We asked Baroness Northover – a government whip during the coalition’s time in office – to appraise the civil service

By Civil Service World

19 Aug 2015

Did your views of the civil service change during your time in office?
I had rather imprecise views of the civil service before I became a minister. My time in office brought my understanding of the service into far greater focus. I was very grateful for their independence, meritocracy and application.

What challenges did you face in working with civil servants?
Although the top of the civil service had thought about what was required in coalition government, this thinking did not always permeate through the system. So I found some civil servants assumed that if Conservative ministers (in the majority, of course) had agreed something, then that meant the government as a whole had done so. That was a learning curve for all of us. 

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It was also not always understood that whips in the Lords are actually deputy ministers, dealing with debates, questions and legislation, and in the case of Lib Dems, no whipping at all.

Overall, I did find that there was variation in the calibre of people. Bill teams, private offices, and specialist units (and in Dfid, country offices) were remarkably good. Sometimes parliamentary liaison was less impressive, particularly in departments under financial pressure. What we needed departments to remember, as they focused on their policy areas, was that ministers are answerable to parliament, and that this includes the Lords, where the tone and detail required for debate and questions may be very different from that in the Commons. 

If you were Cabinet Office minister, how would you change the civil service?
It is important that we value the civil service, because we wish to attract and retain the best people. I was extremely impressed at people’s calibre, but wondered how long that would continue.

Can you tell us a story that reveals something about the civil service?
I spent one weekend going through a 500-page document in detail, scribbling comments on it for a colleague. I asked for this to be photocopied. I came back expecting to have the original and the copy, only to be told my original had instead been shredded, as the person to whom I had entrusted it to decided that it surely must be rubbish because of all the scribbles on it…  

Contrast that with being briefed at 8pm one night for a question the following day on neglected tropical diseases by an astonishing team of people who included an expert from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. I hope that I did them justice!

Baroness Lindsay Northover served as a government whip and spokesperson across a range of departments in the Lords between 2010 and 2014, and as a minister at the Department for International Development from 2014 to 2015. She is a Liberal Democrat peer

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