Lib Dem former minister Simon Hughes rates the civil service

What do ministers really think of their civil servants? We asked Liberal Democrat former justice minister Simon Hughes to appraise the civil service

By Civil Service World

06 Aug 2015

Did your views of the civil service change during your time in office?
Like many other ministers, my answer is yes. I came to government having watched civil servants from opposition benches and sometimes at closer quarters, including when I was on the Labour-Liberal Democrat joint cabinet committee some years ago, when I was briefed on Privy Council terms, or when dealing with the deputy prime minister or other ministers while Liberal Democrat deputy leader. 

But exposure at close quarters, first to a private office and then to a very large number of people in my department and others, predictably changed my understanding and educated me. Many years ago, I had been a trainee in the European Commission and in the Council of Europe and these were always two interesting bases for comparison. 

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What challenges did you face in working with civil servants?
The most difficult challenges to overcome were the relatively frequent changes of personnel in my private office – even in my period of just 17 months in government – and the fairly frequent changes in other members of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) team. 

Receiving paperwork in sufficient time to digest it before meetings or decision or responses was a regular challenge of life – although I know that civil service colleagues will probably say that receiving timely responses back for some things was a challenge for them too! 

At the beginning, it took a while to make sure letters were written as I wanted them, with short words, plain English, no foreign languages, and – at least one thing shared with Michael Gove – the wish to avoid the word "ensure"! And it was a perpetual battle to make sure that correspondence came to ministers quickly for answer and that parliamentary questions were answered quickly too. Whatever the problems, parliamentary colleagues are entitled to speedy replies. 

If you were Cabinet Office minister, how would you change the civil service?
It is sensible to have the Cabinet Office responsible for general policy and performance across government. Nobody should have to spend time attending training and courses that do not add significant value, but many civil servants could benefit from seeing the things which Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish colleagues do best, as well as seeing how other civil servants work in efficient and progressive administrations across Europe. 

Can you tell us a story that reveals something about the civil service?
Many of the people I worked with in the MoJ were of the highest quality and commitment. Ministers held a "thank you" party in the MoJ Atrium for all those involved in implementing the Transforming Rehabilitation programme. However controversial this might have been outside government, it was strongly supported across government. It was a real pleasure to hear how many individuals said with obvious honesty that it had been the most rewarding work they had done so far in their lives. Being part of a team delivering big public service change is rightfully a job well worth doing.

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