Heaton: Civil servants must push for more clarity from ministers

Some ministers are frustrated with civil servants who are slow to implement policies, Richard Heaton, the new permanent secretary of the Cabinet Office, has acknowledged. To overcome this, he said, civil servants must push for more clarity from ministers on whether they have made firm policy decisions, or whether they are waiting for more evidence before proceeding.

By Joshua.Chambers

17 Oct 2012

Speaking in an interview with CSW, Heaton said: “There is a frustration. To overcome frustration we need to demonstrate really clearly and consistently that we’re aligned politically with ministers, which we are; and when we say we’re going to do things, we get them done.”

“I’m not sure this happens very often [but] what is frustrating is if ministers make a clear decision, there is an agreement in the room that that is what will happen, and then it doesn’t happen,” he acknowledged.

To avoid problems in the future, ministers must be clearer with civil servants about the decisions they have made, Heaton added. “You can never have enough clarity about what you’re setting out to do. I think an area which has led to difficulty in the past has been where things have been left a little unclear. Is that a steer that’s been given? Is it a decision? Is it a decision which we have said we will deliver or does it need further study?”

The comments come after Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude made a speech earlier this month stating that some civil servants are deliberately blocking the implementation of government policy.

Heaton said: “There’s no-one, I think, who’s seeking to obstruct a ministerial decision, but if there is a lack of clarity in that room – if one person thinks that that’s an aspiration and another thinks you’ve got a decision – you’re heading for trouble.”

To ensure absolute clarity, civil servants must challenge ministers at meetings more, he said. “All ministers that I’ve come across are happy to accept challenge and advice. That’s what we’re here for, that’s what the civil service code requires us to do: give really honest, fearless and impartial advice to ministers.”

See Richard Heaton interview

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