Ministers reveal five biggest civil service bugbears

Written by Jim Dunton on 2 March 2017 in News

New Institute for Government report highlights key frictions between political leaders and Whitehall, including poor drafting and a lack of understanding of parliament

Former ministers’ key irritations with the civil service fall into five core areas, according to a new report on effective political leadership, published by the Institute for Government.

While the study, based on interviews similar to the think-tank’s “ministers reflect” series, emphasises ministers' fundamental respect for the education and commitment of departmental staff, the frustrations it identifies are telling.

Top of the list is poor quality drafting of reports, followed by a failure to appreciate that ministers also have parliamentary and constituency obligations. 

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Other gripes in the report, by IfG research manager Nicola Hughes, include the difficulty of holding officials responsible for gaffes, an overly cautious approach to policy development, and an unconstructive reliance on hierarchical structures.

Former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers and Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin both let rip on the quality of reports and writing provided by their officials.

Villiers said she was “forever doing quite significant re-writes of correspondence”, while Letwin railed about officials’ propensity to write “a huge amount of terrible guff, at huge, colossal, humungous length”.

A recurring theme in Hughes’ report is the difficulty faced by ministers in balancing departmental workloads with their role as democratically-elected MPs.

Tim Loughton, who served as children’s minister during the early years of the coalition government, said officials were “completely oblivious” to the fact that ministers were MPs who were also responsible for 90,000 constituents  and “exceedingly poorly versed on how the House of Commons works”.

On the topic of accountability, the report identified New Labour home secretary and health secretary Alan Johnson as having broached the “difficulty” he had in arguing that NHS managers responsible for the Stafford Hospital scandal should be sacked.

Concerns about the civil service being overly hierarchial included the observation that ministers were often not briefed by departmental policy experts who had the greatest knowledge of a subject area, because they were too junior to interact with ministers.

Former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith – architect of Universal Credit – was quoted on this issue, and observed that the deferential attitude towards ministers meant “everybody is being almost far too nice to you” at the expense of expert-level debate.

Elsewhere, the report noted a degree of irritation from former ministers that Whitehall placed insufficient focus on policy-implementation in comparison with policy development, and was hampered by a high turnover of staff.

Letwin observed that complexity of modern government, the constant churn of ministers and the information technology revolution have widened the gulf between ministers and delivery, resulting in a situation where “the people who are doing the thing have no idea of what it is that the original minister was trying to do”.

Report author Hughes noted that former ministers held staff at HM Treasury and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in particularly high regard, believing they had the “brightest and best staff”.

She added that it was “striking” how little ministers spoke about senior officials, including permanent secretaries.

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Jim Dunton
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Submitted on 2 March, 2017 - 14:01
It’s not so much a lack of skills in the Civil Service that is the problem, but a surplus of people with the wrong skills. The fact of the matter is that innovation and new ways of working will only come after the headcount has been cut, not before! @JagPatel3 on twitter

Russell Denman (not verified)

Submitted on 2 March, 2017 - 14:33
They need to give us the proper tools to do the job including IT systems that work. For example, I cannot delete a room booking on Outlook that I have recently made but have had to add a line that the room is no longer needed. This is what happens when you pay peanuts.

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