Did your views of the civil service change during your time in office?
Borne out of 13 years in Opposition there was a tendency to regard them from the outside as part of our Opposition. However, their professionalism in adapting to serve a completely new master, notwithstanding a few ‘landmines’ left behind by the previous administration, was impressive. I never doubted officials’ dedication to do the best job for you.
What challenges did you face in working with civil servants?
The biggest was their apparent inability to tell you exactly why they thought you were wrong so you could have a ‘full and frank’ debate on the merits of your proposals, without them couching their cautions in terms like ‘full and frank.’
Another annoyance was the failure to acknowledge the need to spend some time in Parliament and that the only reason you were there was because of your constituents who also needed to see you occasionally.
A minor annoyance, though an important one for the DfE, was the frequent grammatical mauling of the English language not least in letters and answers to Parliamentary questions. At one stage I was rejecting more letters than I signed until I sent my PO on an English grammar crash course.
If you were Cabinet Office minister, how would you change the civil service?
It should be compulsory for senior officials to spend time on the frontline with professionals whose work they regulate and scrutinise. I was alarmed at how little time civil servants had spent out in the field with real live social workers dealing with real live child protection cases yet we were trying to overhaul the way they did their job. That’s why I always took time out in the summer recess to shadow social workers and other professionals
Can you tell us a story that reveals something about the civil service?
A few weeks in a mid-ranking official timorously came up to me in the lift prefacing his comments with ‘I’m not sure I’m allowed to approach you like this.’ There was a huge gulf between the minsters on the 7th floor and the ‘shopfloor.’ Officials were summoned and meetings had to be formally diarised when all you wanted was a quick chat. Having spent most of my career in open-plan offices having to give my PS the slip to visit the ‘lower’ floors to seek out officials in person with a quick query, this was deemed beyond radical!