George Osborne: good ministers treat civil servants as part of the team

Former chancellor says British system is weakened by hierarchical divide between politician and officials 


By Suzannah Brecknell

22 Dec 2016

George Osborne has called for ministers to treat officials with respect when debating policy decisions.

In a lecture given to students in Kings College, London this month, the former chancellor shared his thoughts on the workings of the National Security Council – a mechanism established under David Cameron to co-ordinate policy decisions around national security.

Osborne reflected that the council, which met regularly and brought in ministers and officials from a number of departments, worked well because it “integrated everyone” who was in the room rather than relegating officials to an observer status.


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“It's a weakness of the British government, partly because it’s a parliamentary system, that all the meetings are with politicians and then the civil service sit largely in the back row,” he said.

“The National Security Council integrated everyone round the table and certainly, when I chaired meetings, I tried to get the civil servants round the table – it comes back to my point that [civil servants and politicians have] parallel careers of equal value."

Earlier in the lecture, Osborne explained how he had tried to build strong relationships with his own officials during his six years at the Treasury.

“I am not someone who for a moment subscribes to the idea that somehow the ministers are all brilliant and if it were only for a better bunch of civil servants things would all be extremely well-run in the country," he said.

“It’s true that civil service is inherently quite cautious and is not necessarily going to be the source of a lot of original thinking – but that isn't actually necessarily their job."

The former chancellor said he treated Treasury staff as part of a team rather than demanding a hierarchical relationship, believing it was important to recognise that they "have pursued their own careers of great distinction – which is just a parallel career to the one I was pursuing".

Osborne’s former ministerial colleague Oliver Letwin has also praised the National Security Council, describing it as the “most useful cabinet committee by far” because it brought together all relevant officials and ministers, and did not use pre-prepared speeches or a rigorous agenda but instead “actually tried to get to grips with the issues”.

Read the most recent articles written by Suzannah Brecknell - Bridge builders: How civil servants helped the nation mourn Queen Elizabeth II

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