George Eustice has revealed how speaking to mid-ranking and junior officials had a “powerful” impact on policymaking in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
In the latest wave of the Institute for Government’s Ministers Reflect series, the environment secretary said that early on in his ministerial career, he learned that doing the job effectively meant asking the right questions of civil servants at every level.
“Where I might have agreed to something I’d regretted, I would always regret that I hadn’t asked a particular question that might have made me more cautious,” said the MP, who left cabinet last September after two and a half years as environment secretary.
Eustice said he therefore made a habit of scheduling meetings with SEOs, HEOs and grade 6 and 7 civil servants as well as deputy directors and other senior officials, “so that you had the people who were actually sleeves rolled-up doing the policy detail, and you could really drill down into that detail”.
“For me, opening up my door to the junior ranks… was quite powerful, so that I could be exposed to and interrogate the actual experts, rather than just be expected to tick a box on a submission,” he said.
Eustice said he had tried to move away from the use of submissions in Defra – which he said “would usually have what I called multiple choice recommendations: usually there would be three options, two of which would be rather bonkers and you wouldn’t do, and then the middle one would be the recommended one that they wanted you to do” – in favour of interrogating all the potential solutions to a problem.
“What you needed to do was to get everyone who’d had their head in the detail – whether it was a technical expert on oysters in Natural England, or whether it was the grade 7s, the SEO, or even the HEO, who’d done all the hard graft to understand an issue – you wanted to get them in the room with the secretary of state and then challenge the thinking,” he said.
Eustice said he had encountered “quite a bit of aversion” to this approach from civil servants, who he said “like to offer you solutions rather than problems”.
“And I think they fear what might happen if a minister is set loose on an issue and, as they would see it, jumps to conclusions without being guided down a particular funnel. But, actually, with some of these complex issues, you can save a lot of time; and in my view you get better quality decision making,” he added.
Eustice noted that the widespread introduction of Zoom meetings, following the onset of the Covid pandemic in early 2020, made this process easier “because whether they were in a Natural England office in Bristol, or APHA [the Animal and Plant Health Agency] in Carlisle, wherever these people were, you could plug them into the discussion”.
This approach to decision making was one of several ways Eustice, who was also an agriculture minister from 2013 to 2019, said he tried to improve the running of Defra.
“Having been in the department long enough, I had a pretty good sense of what needed to be done and I’d been around several arguments on multiple occasions,” he said.
“I wanted to try and shorten the processes: shorten consultations, spend less time scoping and thinking about what principles we were bringing to certain things. There’s a tendency, unless there’s a strong ministerial steer, for the civil service to keep going around comfortable loops – to talk about strategies and processes and what our stance should be, and so on. Often that’s an excuse for dodging difficult issues that you just need to grasp.”
Defra officials 'a good-natured bunch'
As well as sharing his frustrations with officials’ approach to the policymaking process, Eustice reflected on the strengths of civil servants in the department – including technical expertise he described as “second to none”.
“I can’t think of any other department that would have the breadth of expertise that you have in Defra and the family of agencies around it – whether it’s talking about some bizarre issue around the lifecycle of an oyster or the nervous physiology of a lobster, to agriculture policy and how you promote pollinators and habitats and soils and all the rest of it,” he said.
He also said the departments’ staff tend to be “quite a good-natured bunch of people”.
“If you’re somebody who joins Defra it tends to be because you’ve got a passion for those issues already, you care about the environment or agriculture or some of these other issues,” he said.
“More so than some other departments, this particular connection with the portfolio that they’re dealing with gives them quite a good nature, whereas my experience in some other government departments is you get more highly ambitious, swaggering types who want to climb up the ladder and are less good natured to deal with, to put it that way.”