Lord Willetts is President of the Resolution Foundation. He is a former Minister for Universities and Science. He served as a civil servant in the Treasury and No 10 before entering politics.
Dominic Raab’s departure and his searing article in the Daily Telegraph open up important issues about how ministers and civil servants operate. How can that crucial relationship function better?
Politics is a high-stress business. It can get to people. Sometimes Ministers behave badly. Gordon Brown’s temper tantrums were notorious. Ministerial bad behaviour is probably less tolerated than it was. Overall, that is a good thing.
Margaret Thatcher used to test her advisers’ knowledge of key facts before being willing to consider their advice, and was supposed to have reduced one senior official to tears when he couldn’t answer basic questions about the steel industry at a meeting on whether to close steel plants.
But equally, officials can make mistakes and get their ministers into trouble. A Minister might end up giving evasive answers to difficult questions in the Commons to avoid saying “my officials didn’t warn me about this until it was too late.” Sometimes ministers feel they end up taking the blame for mistakes by their officials, and are never sure if there are any consequences at all for people who have got them into a mess.
The contract between ministers and officials has to be based on mutual support, not mutual recrimination. This does not require personal friendship between them. On this, I’m one of the traditionalists who think it best for officials in a department not to refer ministers by their Christian names because they are serving the post, not the person.
The relationship rests not necessarily on friendship (though that can emerge and flourish after leaving office) but something which in Government is even deeper – the belief that officials and ministers are part of a shared enterprise of public service in which both have essential and complementary roles.
Sometimes officials have to bring bad news, and how one takes that is one of the key tasks of a minister. If the reaction is a tantrum then there is a risk that you don’t get so much uncomfortable but important information in the future.
Officials may advise against a course of action and there will be times when ministers override this advice – and rightly. David Cameron told us at one Cabinet meeting that we were all getting advice warning of the risks of a legal challenge to some course of action. He did not want us to reject options early because there was a risk of a court challenge. Ultimately, the courts would decide. But he would understand if, after properly considering it, we tried something and then lost a court challenge.
I do not believe there are conspiracies by officials to stop this or any other Government from getting on with its business. But there are deep-seated problems in how government works. Here are three issues that need to be tackled.
First, the centre has become too strong relative to departments. Levels of Number 10 and Cabinet Office scrutiny have steadily increased. As well as setting the strategy there is more micro-management. Processes such as appointments take too long.
Ministerial write-rounds are much more centrally managed than they were. Clearance of announcements can take a long time too: there was one key decision on funding during a crisis when the Whitehall process for creating the budget and allocating the funding was shorter than the time Number 10 took to find a slot in the grid to make the announcement.
Political strategists want all announcements to tie into a single political message. But the sprawling business of Government cannot all be organised like that. Departments must be able to carry on announcing the stuff they are doing even when it isn’t a political priority.
During one of our flooding crises, an exasperated Number 10 asked why there had never been any publicity for the investment we had put in over the years. The responsible minister rightly replied that he had never been able to get any statement about flood protection measures onto the Number 10 grid as it never matched their political strategy and key issues to focus on.
Second, frequent changes of ministers weaken their capacity to drive policy. Most officials would much rather work for a strong effective minister trying to get things done in a job that they want to stick with rather than one who expects to be in the job for a short time, and is just trying to get some good publicity and favour with Number 10 so they can get promoted quickly.
The problem of ministerial churn is increasingly matched by official churn as well. There is much less scope than there was for officials-building departmental expertise. They too are looking to move on and move up. That is now much more likely to involve moving to an altogether different policy area. But a key official with deep expertise on a subject is absolute gold dust, and they should be recognised and rewarded for staying where they are.
Third, the process is getting in the way of doing stuff as officials lose expertise and move around to a wider range of different roles. They instead become experts on the process and on reorganising things or how the centre works. More and more advice to ministers is about handling.
Indeed, real advice on actual substance is increasingly handed over to outside experts. A single prestigious external adviser can at the right time have quite extraordinary power over both ministers and officials without any of the discipline and scrutiny which either civil servants or ministers get.
These are some of the real challenges which need to be tackled to improve the functioning of Government.