BIS officials to role-play gaining ministers’ trust

Winnie Agbonlahor hears business department perm sec Martin Donnelly explain the value of ‘positive neutrality’ 

Charity Commission chief executive Paula Sussex photographed for CSW

By Winnie.Agbonlahor

18 Jul 2014

Officials in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) are to engage in role-plays with a former minister to “practice” gaining ministers’ trust in the run-up to the general election next year, BIS permanent secretary Martin Donnelly said at an event hosted by the Institute for Government (IfG) on 30 June.

In a speech on ‘positive neutrality, trust and the policy role of a permanent civil service’, Donnelly said that civil servants should win and maintain ministers’ trust to ensure their advice is “taken seriously”.

Asked by members of the audience how officials can gain trust in this way, he replied that it’s about being competent as well as “clear and confident [about] what we have to offer, without being complacent.” He later added that he’s asked a former minister to “help us role-play incoming ministers in the run-up to the election, because we need to practice”.

Ministers, he said, “vary very much in their approaches and we have to be able to deal with that professionally and effectively”.

In his speech, Donnelly set out three themes to “guide official behaviour”, arguing that officials must treat all ministers equally, regardless of political colour; always give a full and realistic picture in advice; and not hesitate to give “advice that is not accepted”.

However, Bernard Jenkin, chair of the Public Administration Select Committee, said from the audience that “there is something missing from the totality of it, because trying to discuss trust is very personal.” 

Jenkin suggested that Donnelly’s call for officials to challenge ministers “sounded a bit manipulative”. But Donnelly responded that “we don’t need to be ministers’ best friends, and we don’t need to like each other”: his advice for policy officials to challenge ministers was designed “more to help ministers decide, than to show that we were macho when it comes to advice”.

Asked by IfG deputy director Julian McCrae if “having to defend policy advice in public would drive quality”, Donnelly said that “there is a need for a private space in government for decision-making” and that giving honest advice “under the glare of publicity is not going to work”. 


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