Donnelly: Officials must win ministers’ trust to be ‘taken seriously’

Civil servants should win and maintain ministers’ trust to ensure their advice is “taken seriously”, according to Martin Donnelly, permanent secretary at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

By Winnie.Agbonlahor

02 Jul 2014

Gaining and maintaining this trust is a “key challenge for policy officials”, but also a “precondition of impartial advice”, Donnelly argued in a speech at the Institute for Government (IfG) on Monday 30 June.

In a speech on ‘positive neutrality, trust and the policy role of a permanent civil service’, Donnelly said that while ministers can “expect their work to be taken seriously” because they are elected into government, officials do not have that kind of democratic legitimacy.

Civil servants must therefore accept that they are there to support ministers, who “must have the last word”, he said.

He also said that “those who are not comfortable with this reality do not have a place as permanent policy civil servants”, adding that society shouldn’t “expect officials to be a brake on the delivery of contentious political decisions supported by the democratic process”.

Donnelly (pictured) set out three themes to guide official behaviour. First, he argued, officials must treat all ministers the same, regardless of their political colour. “Rubbishing the opposition is not the function of permanent officials,” he said.

He also called on civil servants to always give a full and realistic picture when advising ministers, in order to “avoid having to answer the question: ‘Why wasn’t I told that this might happen?’”

Third, he said officials shouldn’t hesitate to give “advice that is not accepted”.

Click here full coverage of Donnelly’s speech and the discussion afterwards


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