What's it really like for civil servants when departments are broken up?

The policy and strategy arguments for reshaping Whitehall may be strong, says former senior official Dunstan Hadley, but the human upheaval and logistical nightmare should never be overlooked

By Dunstan Hadley

07 Feb 2023


Do you remember what you were doing on 28th June 2007? It was a momentous day in Whitehall. Gordon Brown had “kissed hands” the day before and was now forming his new government. Such days are rare: a new government, a new prime minister, a new way of doing things. But that’s not what sticks in my mind. I think of power cuts, chaos and sprinting.

Reshuffle days are always exciting and stressful but this one had that added delight — a machinery of government change involving my department. Normally on the morning of a reshuffle there’s a sense of calm before it all kicks off. Not so on that morning. We already knew our Department was going to be split – but we didn’t quite know how it would work, and we’d had no junior ministerial appointments so no one really knew what the hell was going on.

I would have taken this in my stride but for the House of Lords. That day a peer had secured a debate about skills policy and, reshuffle or not, it is not the done thing to keep our Lordships waiting.

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It fell to my minister to do the debate. As per usual practice we’d had a draft speech sent up by policy officials and the minister had made his comprehensive changes and comments, in hand, all over the speech and on other random other bits of paper. My job that morning was to interpret the scrawls, corrections and comments, and type up a final version ready for the minister.

I sat down at my computer to get to work and then everything went dead. The power had gone. Reshuffles are tough enough, as are machinery of government changes — you really don’t need a power cut thrown into the mix.

"I sat down at my computer to get to work and then everything went dead. The power had gone"

I managed to find a laptop with just enough power left and started typing up the speech from scratch. Once finished, I realised I couldn’t print it in the office and, without any wifi, I couldn’t email it to someone. I saved it onto a USB stick and literally ran over to the House of Lords. I wandered up the Lords’ ministerial corridor, knocking on doors, hoping that just one of them would answer and let me use their computer and printer. 

Finally, the government whips took pity on me and I got the speech printed. As I stood at the printer, sweating and trying to catch my breath, it dawned on me that this speech was for a minister who may not even have his job by the time the debate started, on a policy that would not be our responsibility for much longer and for a department that I knew didn’t actually exist anymore. It was quite a thought.

After dashing back to the office I went to speak to my line manager to check what news was coming from Number 10. She wasn’t at her desk, so I popped into the kitchen to see if she was there. No luck. I went over to one of her colleagues and was told quite bluntly that she no longer worked for our department. 

"My colleagues who moved department that day still talk of the horror of the weeks that followed"

I’d only spoken to her two hours before and now she’d left our office and was based in another building, in a makeshift office, trying to create a whole new team of private offices. Such is the reality of a machinery government change.

The Institute for Government and others have written in much greater detail on the wisdom (or not) of changing departments. The Blair/Brown years saw a plethora of them. In the space of ten years my own Department was, in order, the DfEE, DFES, DCSF and DfE. David Cameron’s government was more wary of them. The new government has already made considerable changes to the structure of Whitehall.

The arguments in terms of policy and strategy may be strong, but the human upheaval and logistical nightmare should never be overlooked.

My colleagues who moved department that day still talk of the horror of the weeks that followed. There was no proper office space, new computers had to be found, new email addresses created, policy teams had to be reformed, new staff had to be drafted in to help form private offices. Divisions, private offices and press teams were split up. Long-term colleagues were suddenly no longer colleagues. For a while some ministers were dotted around Whitehall based in different buildings. All this while trying to meet and greet new ministers and get them up to speed. The business of government didn’t stop – the letters still came, the parliamentary questions were still asked, legislation continued and media bids were still taken.

But I definitely saw the human cost of these changes. People were upset. Staff weren’t sure what would happen to their jobs and I think, even if it’s a bit of a first world problem, many felt aggrieved to leave a nice office in a modern building to move to a makeshift space somewhere else. I know in the great scheme of things these are not huge problems — but they are real and have a genuine impact on staff, however resilient they are.

That was just the immediate challenge. Longer-term, new staff recruited needed to be recruited, new contracts drawn up, pay negotiated — all the other human resources and business functions needed for a government department to function.

Thanks to the professionalism of staff, these barriers were overcome — but these were all things that distracted from the core business of the department and delivering for ministers.

As I followed the news of last week’s reshuffle, I thought of the civil servants, special advisers and ministers going through those same problems and finding makeshift solutions. I thought of the upheaval and moments of madness that will ensue. I just hope that they don’t have to deal with a power cut, a dodgy laptop  — or find themselves having to rely on the kindness of the Lord’s whips office.

This article was first published on 28 June 2016 and has been republished following the news of Rishi Sunak's reorganisation of government departments today


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