'Some departments have been colonised by the sectors they sponsor' - former health secretary Andrew Lansley on working with the civil service

Former health secretary (2010-12) Andrew Lansley talks to Civil Service World about his best and worst experiences of working with the civil service

By Civil Service World

31 Mar 2015

Did your views of the civil service change during your time in office?

I am a former civil servant myself (a principal private secretary in Private Office), so I thought I knew what to expect. The changes since the late 1980s, however, were significant; much more intrusive judicial oversight, demand for instant press reactions, and a much greater dependence on process and stakeholder influences and input (for good or ill), yielding a more private space in which to develop policy over time.

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What challenges did you face in working with civil servants?

I came with seven years' direct knowledge of the policy area; few departmental officials had the same policy memory, so there were some issues with the conventional concept of all-knowing officials guiding the minister. Nor was I aware of how far some departments have been colonised by the sectors they sponsor; it is important for civil servants to be impartial, not only politically, but in relation to competing interests.

If you were Cabinet Office minister, how would you change the civil service?

I would make the Senior Civil Service subject to open competition, with selection panels drawn externally, including more private sector assessors and input. I would also look for core policy teams, responding to ministers, who would act as an internal challenge to those with line policy responsibilities.

Can you tell a story that reveals something about the civil service?

The look of surprise when I said I wanted to see one in fifty of replies to the public (the 'lucky dip'), but then the quality of the responses I saw. I know people often say they’re being fobbed off by government departments, but I could see how hard the department worked to get a good answer each time. 

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