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There is a new team entering Downing Street. Ahead of them is an ambitious agenda and some viciously complex challenges. As someone who has seen government from multiple angles over 20 years, I thought it would be helpful to offer some thoughts to politicians and their advisors on how to get stuff done in government.
- Prepare: Knowing nothing on day one is OK. Being content to know nothing on an enduring basis is not. The civil service will have a process of education for new ministers. It is not an attempt to make you “go native” or to indoctrinate them in their predecessor’s policy. It is simply a way to get you up to speed.
Of course, all the content can be questioned – but it cannot be ignored. No matter who you are or what your background, you do not know more about the department you now lead than the civil servants that staff it. Be bookish, be nerdy, ask and ask and ask again, submerge yourself in the concerns of the department and its history and come out of that process as someone who can be respected as custodian of that department, its people and the citizens it serves.
- Set and communicate clear outcomes: “I want to do more with less” does not wash. What are the specifics of your ambitions for the department, what are the measures of success and how are they being tracked and delivered?
Take your time to consult with your wider team and to formulate the exact ambitions for the department. Be specific, be measurable, put yourself and your team on the hook. This is one area where I would be wary of advice from civil servants. To protect you, they will discourage you from exposing yourself in this way. But, if the change is well-thought-out and important to you, you mustn’t be afraid to commit yourself and your team to its delivery.
In a department that successfully delivers change, every civil servant of every grade knows what their political masters are trying to achieve and what their role is in delivering it. This means, posters, emails, town halls and myriad other tedious low-rent, low-profile internal communications stuff that politicians hate. Suck it up, walk the floors, put the yards in and get the message out there.
- Consult beyond your immediate team but be sceptical of “silver bullet” solutions: There is, of course, the risk of “group-think” within senior officials. However, be cautious. My guess is that in 99% of the times a politician has accused officials of “group-think” it has simply turned out that the politician was wrong and the people that have studied the problem in more depth for more years were, in fact, grouped around the correct position.
However, this shouldn’t stop you from consulting outside of the immediate and obvious advisors. Holding industry days, inviting-in academics and think-tankers, should all be encouraged and supported as part of your broader indoctrination to your brief. During this process, one or more individuals will charismatically and convincingly offer you a silver bullet to your central challenge. Whatever the challenge, whatever the proposed solution, I can promise you that it’s more complicated than that. Don’t make rash decisions, don’t make rash promises and use the full force of departmental scrutiny to protect your reputation and the public money you spend on our behalf.
- Prepare for the long haul and have endurance: Repeat after me, “There is no conspiracy of inertia”. In opposition, politicians can’t believe how freely the government spends public money. In government, politicians can’t believe the constraints.
The processes are painful and important. Procurement is boring and long-winded but keeps public money safe. Consultation takes forever but is critical in shaping good policy. Redundancies, departmental mergers, recruitment, property disposals – everything takes time and has seemingly impenetrable processes.
Stick with it, there are no shortcuts. In the end, you’re changing the machinery of our state which has the power to take away our children, lock us in jail and take our money. With the scale of those responsibilities, it is designed to be hard to change – and we should all be thankful for the fact that it is. Respect the reasons why, be confident in the processes that underpin government and be confident in your proposal’s ability to come through those processes improved.
- Lead by example and respect the position you hold and the people who report to you: Show me a minister who talks of “gripping the civil service” or “running their department like a business” or “remembering that none of them wants anything to change” and I’ll show you a minister who has (or will shortly) failed to deliver change in government.
The civil servants around you want you to succeed. They also want to be shown respect as professionals and to be led by an adult. Posturing, shouting and table-thumping makes anyone look like a toddler. And yet, it is frighteningly common behaviour for politicians and their advisors.
In general, it is a symptom of failing to the first four things in this list. If you are ill-prepared, haven’t communicated your aims and don’t understand the processes or context, then it’s inevitable that you’ll get frustrated. If you add to that frustration, inexperience in senior leadership positions and a view of professional behaviour developed exclusively from TV shows and movies, then it’s inevitable that these tantrums will happen.
Just remember that the civil service is a profession dedicated to detail, precision, consideration and stability. As such, your credibility with them will end the moment you raise your voice or your fist hits that table-top. Meeting rooms are not debating chambers, loud voices count for nothing. Data, analysis and detail count for everything.
It may be that this is the pinnacle of your political career or a stepping stone to something greater. Either way, treat the post with the respect it deserves. That means using the basics of good leadership to sustain your relationship with the people around you. Personally interact with all staff, at all levels, in all roles. Eat where they eat, have a go at the things they do (not just when there are cameras around), turn-up to meetings and workshops unannounced, take an interest in the complexity of the bureaucratic machinery around you.
Whitehall is hard to love but there is real beauty within our public sector. The people are astonishing, the responsibility is extraordinary and the capacity to change our nation cannot be found anywhere else. Embrace it, respect it, make it even better.
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