"There were not many 'Yes, Minister' experiences" – Former minister Richard Caborn rates the civil service

Richard Caborn spent a decade as a minister in the last Labour government. Here he shares his insights on working with officials – and explains why, on one occasion, the civil service went to the dogs...

By Civil Service World

14 Oct 2015

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

Yes – over the 10 years as a minister I was privileged to work with people who were dedicated, creative and proud to work for the civil service. This was not the public perception of the civil service and was not mine when I walked into my first ministerial office in May 1997. Work on three different projects – bringing the Regional Development Agencies to the English regions at the Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions, setting up UK Trade and Industry, and working on the bid team for the London 2012 Olympics at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport – showed me the positive and creative qualities of the civil service. There were not many “Yes, Minister” experiences.

What challenges did you face in working with civil servants?

Making sure they understood what I wanted, and the department understood what was required. Clear leadership is important. Ministers are agents of change, not managers, and I found civil servants both respected and delivered under clear leadership. Although there were some times they forgot, and needed to be reminded that the minister answers to the House of Commons. 

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

There are many issues about pay and grading that need to be sorted. Grading should be designed to encourage staff to move around the various departments of state. Furthermore, a two-way exchange of personnel between the civil service, at all levels, and the world outside Whitehall, including a strong regional dimension should be positively encouraged.

This type of two-way career development and experience would be both beneficial to the civil service personnel but also to the recipients of government actions and legislation.

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

It was May 1997, and I was minister at the DETR under a new Labour government. After a couple of months, many of the ministers were rewarding their hard working staff by taking them out for lunch or dinner.

I thought a different experience for these mainly middle class, well-educated, southern-born civil servants would be good. So, in keeping with my northern roots, we had a night at the dogs! Not one person had been to a greyhound meeting before, so Walthamstow on a Tuesday night was a night to rememberthe rest is history.

On leaving the DETR to move to Department of Trade and Industry, the staff gave me a very nice pen which had engraved on the barrel: “To everybody’s favourite minister – from all at your DETR office 1999”.

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