“I gathered the sort of grandees and they knew nothing… I could look up as much as they knew. But eventually, I found this lady and she knew it all. It was quite clear that they were trying to keep me away from her. She wasn’t ‘presentable’.”
These striking words were spoken by a former cabinet minister, as part of an interview for a Reform project exploring the barriers to Whitehall reform. The image of ministers struggling to get answers and having to seek out, against the wishes of senior mandarins, a junior official steeped in the detail, beautifully illustrates how a hierarchical culture gets in the way of good decision making.
Last week's comments by former environment secretary George Eustice, revealing that he deliberately sought out junior officials to reach better decisions, makes the same point – and suggests Whitehall needs to change. Actively making this happen would lead to better policymaking, quicker development for junior staff, and greater trust between politicians and officials.
First, while the civil service is dominated by generalists when it comes to policy, reflecting a system that incentivises staff to move around constantly to progress, junior civil servants may be the closest thing ministers have to experts. They’re the ones actually doing the research and developing the thinking the minister has requested.
Therefore, although ministers speaking to junior officials won’t fix “the whirligig” (as one former minister described the constant churn among civil servants), it can open the door to some deeper expertise. In fact, ministers should go further, directly engaging with analysts and operational staff at junior levels too.
"If you want to understand how to help economically inactive claimants back to work, a junior-grade work coach would be a good place to start. The permanent secretary or DG firefighting 100 other problems simply can’t provide that level of insight"
If you’re trying to unpick the nuances of border policy, the "expert" who can help you make the best decisions might be a lower-grade data cruncher or someone in an operations role. If you want to understand how to help economically inactive claimants back to work, a junior-grade work coach would be a good place to start. The permanent secretary or director general firefighting 100 other problems, at the same time as overseeing an entire department or directorate, simply can’t provide that level of insight.
Secondly, engaging with junior officials can unlock fresh thinking and new ideas. In the launch essay for Reform’s Reimagining Whitehall programme, we described the civil service as having a "power-hoarding bias" – defined by a rigid hierarchy and a low-trust culture. In this context, policy ideas generated by junior staff are especially unlikely to reach senior decision makers.
As one former politician told us, ministers rarely encounter fresh ideas, apart from those “managed and translated through the most senior levels”. There may be benefits to this – the ill-considered scheme proposed by an inexperienced junior official would probably benefit from vetting. But this also stops genuinely innovative ideas from cutting through.
This interacts with a second bias we identified: a tendency towards a "single mindset", reflecting Whitehall’s relative cognitive homogeneity. When ministers only engage with senior officials, they are especially likely to encounter a narrow set of views. As the Social Mobility Commission’s Navigating the Labyrinth report found back in 2021, while 43% of staff at AA/AO grade (the lowest in the civil service) are from low socioeconomic backgrounds, this falls to just 18% among the SCS – with a consistent decline in representation at every rung in between.
So, when ministers engage with junior staff, they aren’t just drawing in ideas from staff closer to the topic or closer to the frontline. They’re unlocking entirely different perspectives, bringing in views from officials (whether policy or operational) with a much more diverse set of backgrounds and who can offer alternative ways of thinking.
Finally, this approach is a small step towards a culture that embeds accountability, where those working in Whitehall feel genuinely responsible for their decisions.
The crux of this problem was summed up by a former permanent secretary we spoke to: “The big problem with Whitehall and its promotion systems is that everyone refers decisions up all the time.” This builds a culture where accountability is anathema. By the time civil servants reach senior levels, “they’ve never grown the muscles of proper decision making, taking accountability, owning the judgement, holding yourself responsible afterwards.”
This is a systemic problem – about a set of broken incentives. When those working in Whitehall are constantly moving around and constantly passing decisions upwards, it undermines the sense of responsibility for decisions made or advice given.
"If your advice as a junior official is discussed with the minister directly, challenged and tested by the person at the top of the department, you will naturally feel more invested in, and accountable for, it"
Fixing this accountability problem requires bigger changes to the system – former permanent secretary Jonathan Slater, one of Reform’s Reimagining Whitehall steering group members, has written about this for KCL’s Policy Institute. But connecting ministers with junior officials is a small step in the right direction.
If your advice as a junior official is discussed with the minister directly, challenged and tested by the person at the top of the department, you will naturally feel more invested in, and accountable for, it. The current system – where ideas are “managed and translated” through senior officials every time – offers nothing like this by comparison.
To the nervous mandarin, having junior officials in the room with ministers might be a source of stress. What might these inexperienced staff say? What ill-considered ideas or imprudent policies might they put forward?
But this is short-sighted. Junior officials can offer insights that drive better decisions and share perspectives from a broader range of backgrounds. That’s good for ministers and good for “the grandees”. Better government means using the person that "knows it all", no matter their grade.
James Sweetland (@jl_sweetland) is a senior researcher at Reform, where he works on the Reimagining Whitehall programme looking at the future of the civil service.