Ministers 'too often make it harder for civil servants to do their job', Gauke says

Ministers who are confrontational don't have "reputation for being terribly effective", ex-justice secretary says
David Gauke. Photo: : SOPA Images/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

15 May 2023

Minister have “too often” made it harder for civil servants to do their jobs by being confrontational and ignoring the complexity of issues, former secretary of state David Gauke has said.

Speaking at the FDA union’s annual conference, Gauke warned that failing to build trusting relationships with civil servants "will not encourage the openness needed to ensure that bad news is brought to the attention of ministers".

His comments come after Dominic Raab’s resignation as deputy prime minister and justice secretary last month following an independent investigation which found he had bullied officials, including intimidating them in meetings.

Gauke, a fellow former justice secretary, warned that this approach is counterproductive.

“On one level, ministers need to be tough in the sense of setting high expectations, pushing the department to deliver and asking hard questions of officials,” Gauke said.

“But too often, the view of what 'tough' means is a confrontational approach in meetings, a constant desire to establish dominance, and a dismissal of any opinion that challenges the minister's assumptions.

“I'm not convinced that those who favour this approach necessarily have a reputation for being terribly effective as ministers.”

Gauke said he was especially frustrated about the bullying case – which involved several complaints from Raab's private-office staff – given the "unbelievable privilege" of having a private office.

"Lots of problems get solved for you. It’s terrific," he said. 

"The boring stuff that is looked after, but also stuff that you're really interested in that will really help you to do what you want to do. You have a number of very bright, very enthusiastic, young people, who come into work with the objective of making your day easier. What an unbelievable privilege that is. Why on earth would you find yourself disgruntled?"

Gauke said the most effective ministers he worked with were those whose response to a problem was to ask “how do we solve this?" rather than "which idiot is to blame?”.

“Good ministers make it easier for civil servants do their job, not harder – just as good civil servants, by being open and honest and not trying to deny a trade-off, make it easier for ministers to do theirs,” he said.

By failing to give officials the confidence to be honest, ministers may miss out on the advice they need most, Gauke warned.

“It was often the case also that in a meeting with officials, the advice that a minister most needed to hear came from the most junior official in the room that the minister had barely met before,” he said.

“That was the official who might be most nervous about expressing their opinion, but was in the room because they knew more about the subject than anyone else. Creating an environment in which that official is comfortable enough to speak is part of the minister's job.”

But he said it is “easier said than done" for officials to speak honestly when in response "they are accused of being negative or destructive and – in the case of Tom Scholar last year – removed from post”.

In September, Scholar was sacked as Treasury permanent secretary as part of then-prime minister Liz Truss’s attempt to break with “Treasury orthodoxy”. Truss's administration lasted just 44 days after her uncosted plans for sweeping tax cuts triggered economic turmoil.

Scholar’s replacement, James Bowler, has made clear that officials “set out the right advice” before the so-called "mini-budget". But Gauke said ministers would “only have themselves to blame” if subsequently “not every consequence of a high risk fiscal strategy was set out to them by the civil service”.

Reflecting on his time as minister, Gauke said: “I wanted to know if policies were not working, however politically uncomfortable that might be.

“I did not want to learn a problem from the media or the opposition. Wherever possible, I expected my officials to anticipate problems and to know about problems before they reach the public domain.”

Ministers should be held to account for Brexit failure, not civil servants

Gauke also slammed claims from ex-ministers that civil servants have thwarted Brexit.

Former ministers Raab and Jacob Rees-Mogg last week blamed civil servants for the government’s failure to axe thousands of EU regulations. The government had committed to getting rid of 4,000 EU laws by the end of this year, but has managed just 600 so far and has now scrapped the pledge.

“A similar argument was heard in my time in government about delivering Brexit, that officials do not believe in it and are merely focused on damage limitation – and that civil service caution was holding us back from delivering the deal,” Gauke said.

Gauke said this excuse is “a refusal to accept complexity and the need for trade-offs” on issues like the relationship between regulatory autonomy and market access to the EU and difficulties relating to the Northern Ireland border.

“Complexity simply cannot be wished away,” Gauke said.

“There is a remarkable correlation between those who fail to understand the details and those who have been most critical of the civil service,” he added.

Gauke said levelling up and reforming social care are further examples where “the electorate was provided with great promises for what could be delivered by politicians who had no idea of the practicalities or how to deliver them”.

This is also a case of wrongly blaming civil servants for decisions taken by ministers, Gauke said.

“For the most part, the issues here are not about operational methods, in which ministers are not directly involved,” he said.

“When it comes to negotiating the terms of our exit of the EU, or our immigration policy, or our approach to post-Brexit regulation, it is ministers who decide and it is ministers who should be held to account.”

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