The official view: Former FCO minister Meg Munn rates the civil service

Meg Munn served as a minister for more than three years. Here she reflects on her time working with civil servants, including her attempts to get officials to ditch "baffling" jargon

By Civil Service World

02 Jun 2015

Did your views of the civil service change while you were in office?

I was a minister in three different departments and was surprised to see the differences in culture. The Department for Trade and Industry (now the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) had clear processes that led to quick decisions, perhaps reflecting the expectations of business. The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) loved bureaucracy – for example, a new programme to allocate funds to local authorities meant setting up a new bidding process, and extra work for local authorities. The Foreign Office were used to considering the needs of staff as they were posted overseas, and consequently were interested in ministers as people. I still have many contacts from my time there.

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What challenges did you face in working with civil servants?

Acronyms! Beloved by all organisations of course, but the civil service seems wedded to them at the expense of clear communication. I never signed a letter at the Foreign Office that contained “HMG” (Her Majesty’s Government). My ministerial offices were instructed to send back for redrafting any letters to MPs which contained more than the very common acronyms, such as UK and UN. Constituents who ultimately receive the letter would otherwise just be baffled. It took time to get change and I expect they changed back as soon as I left.

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

The loyalty of civil servants seems to be primarily to their department, with little sense that they work for the people of Britain collectively. Coming from local government I was used to working across departments for the benefit of a local area. Breaking down the silos between big departments is not easy but establishing more cross-departmental working groups focusing on the outcomes for citizens would be one way forward. 

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

I was being briefed to respond to a debate on housing by a Communities and Local Government housing specialist, an issue that I didn’t normally cover. I asked for detail on an aspect I thought might come up. The response was that this wasn’t their area of expertise. I found this frustrating as ministers need to have an appreciation of the whole landscape, and hearing that expertise in one issue was being used as an excuse for not looking at the bigger picture was annoying.

Meg Munn is the former Labour MP for Sheffield Heeley. She was an FCO minister from 2007 to 2008, a DCLG minister from 2006 to 2007, and at DTI from 2005-6

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