Perm secs “sucking up” to secretaries of state and Spending Review turf wars: Ministers share their frank views of the civil service

Newly-released interviews by the Institute for Government offer a fascinating insight into politicians’ views of the Whitehall machine. They ain’t all that flattering, finds Suzannah Brecknell...

By Suzannah Brecknell

09 Feb 2017

It took months of wrangling over civil service values and a very discreet fight between the Cabinet Office and the Civil Service Commission to establish Extended Ministerial Offices as a mechanism for ministers to bring outside advisers into their private offices. 

And it took just a quiet revision of the Ministerial Code to end the experiment. The threat EMOs posed to civil service impartiality has been removed, but the problem they were seeking to address – the requirement for ministers to get specialist advice outside the service – still remains. 

It’s an issue that has been brought clearly to life in the latest batch of interviews with former ministers released by the Institute for Government. 

The new additions to the IfG’s ‘Ministers Reflect’ series include Conservative ministers who served under both the coalition government and David Cameron’s 2015-16 administration. 

Just one of them had an EMO – Nicky Morgan as education secretary – and, while positive about it, she reveals that she wasn’t especially keen to have one in the first place.  

“David Cameron was very keen on that. I think because he’d been a special adviser,” she says. “I didn’t have a particular view but I was happy to give it a go, and actually I think it worked very well.” 

Other former ministers may not have had access to EMOs, but several suggest that they would have found it useful to get advice from experts outside the civil service.  

Theresa Villiers – a transport minister and later Northern Ireland secretary – complains several times of the difficulty of getting advice from outside the service. Her rather gloomy conclusion reflects her initial suspicion of civil servants. 

“When I first arrived at DfT, I found it very difficult because I had no spads, so no political advice and no ability to take sensible advice from external experts because I wasn’t allowed to show them any of the documents. So I was very dependent on civil servants and that continued. But you just get used to it and you work out that actually some of them can give you good advice.” 

Meanwhile Lord Freud – a work and pensions minister who worked for six years on welfare reforms and was much more positive about the service overall – notes that: “Because of the way it’s been so difficult to get outsiders into the civil service, when you get advice you tend to find it hard to get outside views onto your desk.”

“That’s why I always liked to have the stakeholders and the specialists in, because they would tell you things that were very difficult to get any other way,” he adds. “If you’re asking the department for research on something, they will give you ‘our research’, but it will be quite hard to get global research and views on it."

Meanwhile George Freeman, who was first an adviser on, and then a minister for life sciences, points out even when outsiders are consulted, sometimes the people who do have time to talk to government are not the best placed to advise on industry needs – government can end up relying on the wrong people.

“That’s typically either people who are not busy enough in the sector, who have got the time to wander the corridors of government, or the old companies who have a historic franchise over communication with government. A lot of the most exciting small players and innovators just don’t have that sophisticated conduit and conversation with government,” he tells the IfG.

In praise of spads 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a fair amount of praise for special advisers who perform roles that the civil service cannot. 

Former culture secretary John Whittingdale, who had been a spad himself under the last Tory government, noted that the role of special advisers had “transformed” since the 1990s. Now, he said, spads provide an important network for inter-departmental communications. 

“If you want to get agreement from another government department or you want to sound out the view of another government department you can do it through private office, but it’s a very formal procedure,” he says. 

“Whereas when you do it through special advisers, it’s much more informal, they all work together, they know each other and they’ll ring each other – and the civil service recognise that.”  

Former culture minister Ed Vaizey is, he says, frustrated by the “whole debate about special advisers".

While he has “nothing against civil servants” and values their advice, he says: “You do, with a special adviser, have someone who is more in tune with you politically and thinks more widely about how you can make your policies have greater impact.

"So, I wouldn’t have a problem with future governments employing more special advisers. I’m not saying there should be 100 special advisers in a department, but I think each minister should have a special adviser.”

Vaizey also makes a bid for more official focus on junior ministers – and advises new ministers to ensure they are meeting perm secs regularly.

“A new minister should come in and say to their permanent secretary: ‘I would like to have a meeting with you once a month, because I know you will just spend all your time sucking up to the secretary of state,’” he says.

Others note that officials – outside private offices – tend to ignore junior ministers most of the time.

For example, former Cabinet Office minister and David Cameron’s Mr Fix it, Oliver Letwin, argues that departmental civil servants don’t really pay any attention to anyone except the secretary of state.  

“They are totally focused on the secretary of state and in fact, legally speaking, I suppose the rest of the ministers don’t exist. If there’s a junior minister that matters, the junior minister matters because the junior minister has the confidence of the secretary of state.”

This isn’t only a bane for junior ministers – Freeman thinks it is anyone with an unusual role. He said that he thought he would have influence as a government adviser, because he had been appointed by the PM. The reality was rather different.

“What was fascinating was that I had a lot of influence in Number 10 and 11, and with ministers, but as a non-minister I was effectively invisible to the civil service,” he says.

“I used to go to meetings and Whitehall civil servants – because I wasn’t a minister – literally looked through me, didn’t feel it necessary to include me on papers. It was very strange! So that’s the first thing. The system is really only set up to handle two types of people: ministers and officials.” 

Silos frustrate ministers as much as everyone else 

Freeman had a unique position to view the limitations of Whitehall's silos, with a brief stretching across the health and business departments. True cross-departmental working is still a distant dream, he suggests – giving as evidence his experience during the 2016 Spending Review process. 

“It was weirdly dysfunctional: my BIS officials said they couldn’t show me BIS CSR [Comprehensive Spending Review] documents, because I was also a minister in the Department of Health. And vice-versa.” 

The health department agreed a major digital health investment programme and he couldn’t join discussions, he says, despite being the minister for digital health.  

“That’s how tribal the CSR turf war and territorialism on funding is and it makes it almost impossible to do the job, because the truth is that central to the strategy was the more efficient allocation of resource in pursuit of a national policy strategy set by the PM.” 

Alongside these insights, the interviews throw up many themes which are familiar from previous "Ministers Reflect" interviews. Ministers speak of frustration at being asked to work with and lead teams of officials whom they cannot directly appoint or promote; though some recall finding ways to influence civil service HR processes and get the people they wanted into jobs. 

Hugo Swire, former Foreign Office minister, recounts being given just one candidate – whom he didn’t rate – when trying to replace his outgoing private secretary, and then a few weeks later being offered just one other who was also, in his view, undesirable. In the end he urged an official whom he had met and struck up a rapport with to consider joining his private office.  

“Had I not run into him in the corridor, I would not have had one of the most wonderful private secretaries,” Swire says. 

“So that was very frustrating – that the system had decided that these two were going there, so my advice to a minister is ‘Don’t put up with that bullshit.’” 

“Meaningless splurging”

Another common complaint is about literacy and numeracy. Former culture minister John Penrose complained that civil service advice “tends not to have many numbers in it”, while Theresa Villiers despaired at the draft correspondence produced by her department. 
Echoing remarks he made in a CSW interview last year, Letwin complained about the quality of civil service drafting, and the presence of “a huge amount of terrible guff, at huge, colossal, humongous length coming from some departments”. 

“Somewhere along the line the civil service had got used to splurge of the meaningless kind,” he continues, worrying that this sometimes happened when people just didn’t know what they were talking about: “Instead of finding out, they were splurging.”  

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