Giving Advice to Ministers

[Follow this link for general advice on working with Minsters.]

When the Minister/Official partnership works well, the civil servant is like the left-hand side of the brain, emphasising the logical, analytical and objective dimensions of an issue, while the Minister provides the right-hand strengths of being intuitive, politically aware and subjective.

Be careful, therefore, to give due weight to intuition - whether the intuition of your Minister or of an experienced colleague. Respected psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer teaches this rule of thumb:

If an experienced person with a good track record has a strong hunch about a decision, then listen to that person - and don't demand that they justify the hunch with facts. That is the point about hunches: they operate at a level inaccessible to the conscious mind of the person who has them.

But Ministers vary greatly in the way in which they work with their Ministerial colleagues, the public, the media and their officials. The best civil servants are therefore very good at putting themselves in their Ministers’ shoes, and understanding their fears, ambitions and pressures.

We understand that Ministers are employed on precarious short term contracts, and are constantly trying to balance a number of conflicting pressures, living as they do in up to six different environments: their department, Cabinet, Parliament, political party, constituency and home. Ministers need to know that civil servants understand that they are under immense pressure. If this does not come naturally, then set some time aside to reflect on why Ministers took that unexpected decision, or said or wrote that unexpected thing. There is always a reason, even if you would not always agree that it is a good one.

Sir Geoffrey Holland's lecture "Alas! Sir Humphrey, I Knew Him Well" contains an excellent description of the pressures on Ministers - see pp 40-42.

Indeed, try not to be too judgmental when Ministers' politics do not agree with your own. Political analysts since Plato have recognised that no human society can be simultaneously fair, free and equal. If it is fair, people who work harder will accumulate more wealth. If it is free, those people will give that wealth to their children. But then it cannot be equal, for some people will inherit wealth that they did not earn. Our individual politics are defined by our choice as to which of these ideals should yield - which will of course be influenced by how much we stand to inherit.

Remember, too, that politicians need to be re-elected and - to this end - must sometimes take what both they and you will know to be otherwise illogical decisions. One Irish official summarised it very well when she said that 'Politicians pay attention to fisheries. It's emotive. Everybody likes fisherman. It's a hard, dangerous job. Politicians will never attack people who appear as characters in children's books. Fisherman and postman are the good guys.'

Equally, there are regular attempts to get Ministers to introduce better inheritance and property tax systems. But as Dan Turnbull pithily put it: "Every Treasury official of the past 25 years knew this made economic sense. Every Chancellor knew it did not make political sense."

Indeed, I suspect that most politicians know what needs to be done – at least in the ‘wicked areas’ such as the environment, tax, foreign policy, pensions, drugs.  But they just don’t know how to get re-elected after doing it.  They know that many voters feels that the political elites have for too long been making decisions without reference to the public. and argue that Whitehall needs to work much harder to involve citizens in decision-making.  You need to factor this into your advice.

We nevertheless have a professional duty to give clear unbiased advice, based on a sound knowledge of the facts and a wise analysis of the competing arguments. Above all, we understand the need to question both explicit and implicit assumptions, especially those about human, corporate or national economic behaviour. We make full use of our common sense or instincts, drawing on our experience in the policy area in question. And we above all give advice which will deliver worthwhile outcomes, not just in some idealised Whitehall world but in real schools, hospitals, or barracks.

The best civil servants also know that their advice will often be unwelcome or unexpected, so they do not expect it to be accepted straight away. There is usually a moment to be seized, but you might have to wait for it.

You should therefore try to avoid telling a Minister that he or she cannot do something unless you also offer them an alternative approach which substantially achieves the same political objective, or at the very least undertake to look for a way round the obstacle, and to report back very quickly. You must therefore develop the ability to distinguish between Ministers’ fundamental objectives, the outcomes they are seeking to achieve, and the specific solutions which they might put forward, but which might not be workable or affordable. Jonathan Portes put it very well:

The textbook description of the role of the civil service is to provide impartial, objective advice to Ministers, who then decide. Meanwhile, the Yes Minister parody – the civil service, whose primary interests are to maintain the status quo, and with it, their own power – still has a powerful hold over the public imagination.  Neither is accurate.  Civil servants who “speak truth to power” by telling ministers that their pet policy ideas are crazy and unworkable don’t get far.  But simply nodding along and promising to deliver the undeliverable is not only a betrayal of the responsibilities of a civil servant but is what leads to policy disasters like Universal Credit. Being a good civil servant is about squaring the circle – analysis combined with persuasion, vision combined with realism.  

Follow this link for a more detailed discussion of the theory and practice of 'speaking truth to power'.

Remember, too, that, as Ministers are under constant pressure, you must do everything possible to help them work quickly, efficiently and effectively. Always prepare your work in a way which allows them to concentrate on essential decisions, and on presentation. Be succinct – especially in meetings. And definitely read David Laughrin's summary of Ministers' needs In Their Own Words. You might also like to read David's Political Quarterly article on Ministerial overload (Swimming for Their Lives - Waving or Drowning?) and what should be done to tackle it.

Ministers are inevitably very concerned to perform well in Parliament. It is particularly important that they are well prepared for Oral Parliamentary Questions, Statements and Debates, all of which can be very testing even for experienced Ministers. On the other hand, do not make the mistake of believing that political opponents are also enemies. Parliament operates rather like an old-fashioned club. Fierce public debate is often for show, and political opponents are often surprisingly friendly when not on public view.

Ministers hate it when civil servants hog the thinking time. It is often the case that we know that a difficult decision needs to be taken in, for example, five days time. We then spend four (or four-and-a-half) days crafting elegant advice. This cannot possibly allow the Minister enough time to reflect on the issue, let alone ask for further information or consultations. Of course it will take you some time to consult colleagues, consider all the options etc. But, as a rule of thumb, you should put up a preliminary submission, if only for information, about half way through your thinking period. If nothing else, this will give the Minister a chance to reflect on the issue in bed at night. And he or she will be able to feed in their own thoughts and questions, before it is too late. We may not welcome substantial changes to our proposals – but it is better to know about them before the deadline is only a few hours away.

Similarly, Ministers hate surprises. They need to be told bad news, told about serious problems, and told when important decisions are brewing, as soon as you are aware of them. They may not be very pleased, but they will be a lot less pleased if they first hear of the problem from someone else, or even worse from the press, and then find out that you knew all along.

Remember, too, that Ministerial thinking time needs to be built into the diary, but often isn't. If you get to work in a Private Office, try to build in a number of quiet slots and strategy discussions.

There is of course a lot more to persuading a Minister than simply providing logical advice. As noted above, your advice is much more likely to be accepted if you have already established that you understand political realities. A Special Adviser once suggested that 'Civil Servants should be politically aware, not politically aligned.' More generally, you want to be perceived as a professional - such as a solicitor - who is on the side of the Minister and committed to helping them do their job really well. Once you have established that relationship, it is easier to give occasional unpalatable advice.

You also need to show that you can cope with setbacks and can dig yourself – and your Minister – out of a hole. Indeed, if you have made a mistake yourself, and then said ‘sorry’ and done your best to put it right, you will probably find that this results in your having a stronger relationship with your Minister. He or she will have made mistakes too!

More widely, however, you need to show that you understand ‘the real world’ outside Whitehall, and are innovative and enthusiastic. It follows that personal impressions count heavily with Ministers. They want to be able to rely on the enthusiasm and professionalism of their officials, and are very disappointed if officials do not seem committed to their objectives; or are in any way unimpressive, hesitant or over-cautious; or if they do not seem to know what they are talking about. You are paid to be creative and to look for solutions. You should make it clear that obstacles frustrate you, too. You should also tell them about your successes, and prepare very carefully for even the most routine meetings with them. This will reinforce their trust in you, and this in turn will give you greater authority in your dealings with others.

Also (I hate to say this, but it is important) remember that your clothes, appearance and body language send clear messages, whether or not you want them to. Take care that those messages are the ones that you wish to send, both to Ministers and to colleagues.

Finally, there is much more detailed and perceptive advice in Christopher Jary's book, Working with Ministers, republished in 2015.

And (ex-Secretary of State) James Purnell and (ex-Permanent Secretary) Leigh Lewis have together published a short and sensible note recommending how a newly-appointed Secretary of State and their Permanent Secretary should most sensibly spend their first 100 days together.

Follow these links for more detailed advice about preparing written policy advice ('submissions') and preparing briefing in advance of meetings etc.

Martin Stanley

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