Working with Ministers

Whitehall civil servants are not employed to ‘make policy’, or ‘to manage’. We are employed to achieve change on Ministers’ behalf. We need to make sure that every piece of advice, every brief, every management decision, every letter and every meeting takes us a little closer to our Minister’s objectives. One fundamental skill, therefore, is to establish a productive relationship with Ministers so that we can help them achieve their long term goals.

The Three Key Professional Duties

It is vital, when working with Ministers, to recognise that we have three distinct professional duties. We need to be clear which duty we are carrying out at any one time, for each requires different skills and behaviour. Be aware that it is unlikely that you, and others in your team, will perform really well in all three areas. Be proactive, therefore, in adding skills as necessary.

Our three duties are as follows:

  1. Civil servants give advice to Ministers before they make policy decisions. We must give them private, honest, informed advice and we are expected to face them with the truth even when it turns up in an inconvenient form. The Civil Service Code says that the constitutional and practical role of the civil service is to assist the government of the day with integrity, honesty, impartiality and objectivity. Put another way, we are employed to ‘speak truth to power’.
  2. We must help Ministers promote and defend their decisions, even if we advised against them. We must, when operating in this mode, now pay much more attention to the tone and impact of what Ministers say and do, rather than focusing on the detail that underlies the policy decision. We certainly don't draw attention to inconvenient facts and arguments.  It matters little whether we think Ministers are right or wrong. It is vital that their programs are professionally promoted and defended if they are to achieve their objectives.
  3. We are responsible for delivery: implementing Ministers’ decisions on the ground and possibly drafting the necessary legislation. Again, we become less analytical, and much more proactive. We now focus almost exclusively on ensuring the delivery of worthwhile outcomes, working closely with delivery partners both inside and outside our department. Indeed, although we undoubtedly continue to work for Ministers, we often have to work with Ministers in order to achieve Ministers’ own objectives. After all, little is as effective in driving forward a difficult agenda as a strong Ministerial speech or a well-prepared meeting between a Minister and a Ministerial colleague, or a powerful interest group, or a delivery partner.

By the way, the need to focus on long-term goals does not exempt us from the duty to respect the numerous constraints within which we are forced to work. These constraints are therefore described in some detail elsewhere in this website. But our key professional skill is to be innovative in achieving Ministers’ objectives without breaking any rules, and without going on about how difficult it all is.

Before going into further detail, let’s take a quick look at our clients.


The various types of Minister and their responsibilities are summarised here.

Private Offices ...

... are a vital link in handling Ministerial correspondence, organising the Ministerial diary, conveying Ministers’ views to officials, and providing Ministers with information and views from their departments. They therefore play a crucial role in managing two precious commodities for Ministers: information and time. They also play a key role in helping the Minister understand – and ask difficult questions about – advice from the department.

It is worth investing a lot of time and effort into working well with Private Offices. Putting on one side the fact that you should want to help them do their jobs, you also want them to think that you are helpful, knowledgeable, sensible and flexible. This is because they will communicate their views to the Minister, in all sorts of subtle ways – and sometimes not so subtle if they really do detest you.

The Minister in charge of the department will have quite a large office – maybe 12 or more staff in a large department – headed by a Principal Private Secretary (PPS) - not be be confused with the Parliamentary Private Secretary - see below. He or she will be a more experienced official, able to act as interlocutor and trouble-shooter with senior departmental officials. The PPS is a handy first point of call if you need urgent help or advice and do not know who else to approach. PPSs are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and know where all the bodies are buried. For this reason, they are usually promoted when they leave Private Office, myself included.

The officials in charge of other Ministers’ offices are known as Private Secretaries (PSs) and they are usually quite young, partly because much of the work is essentially straightforward – preparing notes of meetings and so on – and partly because the job offers excellent experience for future senior officials. And although the work is straightforward, that does not mean that it is easy. The Private Secretary has to take a mass of information and paperwork from the department and prepare it so that it is easy for the Minister to assimilate it even in the small hours of the morning. The Private Secretary might therefore highlight certain text, or prepare a summary of a long document, but must not distort the message when doing so.

The same applies when the Private Secretary is communicating the Minister’s views to the department, including when preparing a note of a meeting. It is permissible to emphasise particular points and stress any action needed, but it is not permissible to misrepresent, distort or exaggerate the views of the Minister or anyone else. The main exception is that Private Secretaries will generally ignore what lawyers call obiter dicta i.e. things that are said when Ministers, like the rest of us, choose to air their views on a wide range of subjects in the middle of a conversation about a scarcely related subject. These comments can usually safely be ignored – but only if the Private Secretary is sure that the Minister will not, two weeks later, ask what has happened about his decision to relocate a large part of the department to his constituency.

Don’t hesitate, by the way, to challenge the accuracy of a note of a meeting, whether prepared by a Private Secretary or someone in the Cabinet Secretariat. Even the first Cabinet Secretary admitted to ‘racking his brains to record and report, what he thinks that they think that they ought to have thought.’ The result of such a process can easily be wrong, and such meeting notes are usually too important to go uncorrected.

Things can get difficult when the Minister gets angry, because the Private Secretary is then the one that has to transmit that anger to his or her colleagues in the department. They will usually seek to tone down the Minister’s comments but they, like the Minister, will run out of patience if officials seem to be ignoring comments and requests. The result is that they will then quote the Minister’s actual words. I once saw a minute which said that the Secretary of State ‘has commented: This paper might well have earned reasonable marks in a university degree exam but it would score much less well in the school of life ... I want the real world spelt out ... As I asked for this well over a year ago ... if I do not get a [revised] paper ... within a month I shall commission it outside the Department.’ If you get something like this then you really are in trouble.

Be aware, however, that some Private Secretaries get ideas well above their station. It can be very helpful if they ask ‘idiot boy’ questions that might well occur to someone not closely involved in your area, and they can sometimes be helpful in spotting silly mistakes, or by drawing attention to some development or Ministerial view of which you were not aware. Sometimes, however, and sometimes encouraged by their Ministers, they start acting as alternate policy advisers, commenting freely on the merits of your work. Watch out for this, for something has gone badly wrong if a Minister prefers to hear the advice of his Private Secretary to that of the responsible official.

Private Secretaries also control official attendance at Ministers’ meetings. Ideally, the Minister will allow four types of official to attend. The first will be the lead official(s) responsible for preparing the advice and implementing any decisions. The second type will be those, such as more senior officials and lawyers, who will provide further useful contributions to the discussion. The third, occasional attenders, will be inexperienced officials who are gaining experience of working with Ministers. They are expected to keep their mouths shut, and can be usefully employed in writing the note of the meeting, thus removing a chore from the Private Secretary. The fourth are press officers, who should be involved in discussing any issue which has a presentational aspect.

In practice, all Ministers get understandably jumpy if too many officials turn up – and it also looks inefficient, especially in meetings with outsiders. The basic rule, therefore, is one official (not counting the Private Secretary or Special Adviser) to each visitor, although you can usually get away with two officials if there is only one visitor. If there are no visitors then each Minister will have their own threshold, which will be communicated to you by the Private Secretary. It can be particularly difficult if the Minister has favourite civil servants, and won’t see anyone else, even if they know much more about the subject under discussion. But you have to accept the Minister’s decision and there is no point in shouting at the poor Private Secretary who probably hates it as much as you do.

The daily life of a Private Office revolves around ‘the box’ – the red rectangular box in which the Minister carries his or her homework. Some Ministers, to everyone’s amazement, manage to sign all their letters, and respond to all their submissions, when in the office. Others take several boxes home each night and then never touch them. But most plough through one or two boxes, if only because they contain some quite fascinating stuff.

A typical box will contain a red ‘immediate’ folder of items requiring immediate decision or action, about which the Private Secretary will ask first thing in the morning. Then there will be a diary folder, prepared by the Diary Secretary – a position which can be one of the worst jobs in Whitehall; there are no thanks if everything goes well, but immediate retribution if something goes wrong: ‘How could you send me to Wigan North Western when I should have gone to Wigan Wallgate? Didn’t you (a 19 year old who has never been north of Wembley Arena) know the difference?’ Ministers also accuse novice Diary Secretaries of arranging meetings to which the Minister had not agreed, and so on. They quickly learn never to confirm any engagement without the Minister’s signature, preferably in blood.

Diary Secretaries will therefore threaten to maim any official who has the temerity to tell a member of the public that the Minister’s diary is free at a certain time. This is because the member of the public will then expect to be able to arrange a meeting at that time and, if the meeting is not then arranged, they will know that the Minister chose not to see them, rather than that the Minister was literally unable to see them. Frequently, therefore, you will be trapped between a member of the public (who cannot understand why it takes more than 30 seconds to check that the Minister is free – have we never heard of telephones and computers?) and the Diary Secretary (who will ensure that nothing in your official life will ever run sweetly again if you dare to commit the Minister without his or her written agreement – which will not be forthcoming for several weeks). What is the best way of handling this problem? I wish I knew.

The rest of the box will contain folders full of submissions, letters for signature, and background information. Christopher Jary reckons that a typical Secretary of State's red box may include:

  • 25 letters to sign
  • 15 submissions
  • 10 draft replies to PQs
  • 5 invitations to consider
  • 2 draft press releases
  • 1 draft speech to approve
  • 1 Q&A brief
  • 1 Parliamentary statement to approve
  • 110 press cuttings
  • 20 briefings
  • 15 letters from Cabinet colleagues
  • 8 papers and attachments for tomorrow
  • a folder of papers from Special Advisers

Some of the papers that do not require a decision may not get read (would you read them at 1 o’clock in the morning?). And the 'papers for tomorrow' may get put on one side to be looked at just before - or in the car on the way to - the meeting. The letters get signed, if they look sensible, often without the Minister looking at the covering note from officials. So, if the Minister should definitely give some thought to whether he really wants to sign the letter, you must get the Private Secretary to put a big red note on top.

Submissions will also get looked at in varying depth, depending upon how sensible the recommendation – at the top of the document – seems to appear. Again, therefore, do not hide a little bombshell in the middle of a submission. You may think that you are protecting your back, but this ploy will cut no ice with the Minister when the unexpected bomb detonates a day or two later. It is also worth noting that Private Secretaries may be tempted to edit a long badly structured submission, and this can be dangerous if the PS doesn't know the policy area very well. This is one of the reasons why short, clear submissions are to be preferred.

Paper is of course often giving way to electronics in the form of Blackberries, tablets and mobile phones, speeding communication but also adding somewhat to the complexity of organising a Ministerial life.

By the way, don't be surprised or upset if you hear that an incoming Minister has 'sacked' the Private Secretary that they have inherited from their predecessor. It is vital that there is good personal chemistry between the Minister and his/her PS, and the absence of such chemistry does not imply any fault on either side. I used to advise Ministers to consider whether they they would be happy to sit next to a candidate PS during a very long non-stop flight. Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd had a second test. "You are sitting at the top table at a public dinner. The far door of the hotel ballroom opens and your Private Secretary appears clutching a piece of paper. It will not simply say that the PM has altered the time of your meeting tomorrow, because that would not justify the interruption. It will carry some news, almost certainly bad. Will you look forward to sharing your first reaction to that news with the individual now crossing the floor towards you? If the candidate looks like failing this test, then no amount of intellectual or professional qualifications will make up for the deficiency."

Ministerial Aides

One or two other interesting species can be found in and around Private Offices.

The role of Special Advisers, and how best to work with them, are discussed elsewhere in this website.

Parliamentary Private Secretaries (confusingly also known as PPSs) are not civil servants but are MPs who help senior Ministers with their Parliamentary duties. They often attend meetings within the department and should be given as much help and information as possible. However, their duties are primarily party political, and they hold no formal office on behalf of the voter or taxpayer. There are therefore obvious limits to the amount of assistance that they can be given by officials and they should only be given otherwise confidential information if it is clearly necessary for the discharge of their Parliamentary and political duties.

Parliamentary Clerks look after departments’ relations with Parliament, ensuring that questions are answered, Bill amendments laid and so on. They are usually both very knowledgeable and helpful. Indeed, they like to be asked questions because it greatly helps them if you understand their systems and timescales.

Information Officers work in the Press Office but usually develop a very close working relationship with Ministers, and so should form a key part of your extended team. They will help you design media strategies, draft press releases etc. and they will oversee any contact with journalists. Involve them very early on, as you need to ‘design in’ the way in which you will explain and communicate any new policy. However, like you, they will not seek to ‘spin’ a story in the sense of seeking to leave a journalist with an over-favourable impression of a development. New Ministers and Special Advisers therefore frequently compare them unfavourably with Party press officers, although the more experienced ones come to admire the trust that can be built up between specialist reporters and their departmental opposite numbers.

Ministers’ Duties

Ministers owe certain important duties to their civil servants.

First, they must consider your advice, even if they do not take it. They cannot tell you what to do without first giving you an opportunity to advise them on the suitability of their proposed course of action. The Ministerial Code says that ‘Ministers have a duty to give fair consideration and due weight to informed and impartial advice from civil servants . . . ’.

On the other hand, Ministers are, to some extent, free to choose how they will receive your advice. Some will have meetings only with selected officials. If you are not in that group then you will always have to submit advice on paper. Other Ministers hate paper, and you will need to be able to brief them – succinctly but effectively – in meetings or in the back of the Ministerial car. But note that Ministers may not require you to give them advice in public or in front of a TV camera; and the advice that you give to Ministers will not normally be made public. It can be difficult enough to give contentious advice whilst worrying about the reactions of your colleagues. It is twice as difficult if you also have to take account of the possible reaction of outside observers, journalists or television viewers. Equally, it is important that Ministers should be allowed to reject your advice without fearing criticism for having done so.

But note also that, if the decision is important, you must prepare, and the Minister must have the opportunity to read, a written submission, although it often makes sense for this to be followed by a meeting - and if you think that such a discussion would be helpful then you should ask for one. I must stress, however, that important decisions must never be based merely on oral briefing, or a PowerPoint presentation. This is to ensure that the decision is soundly based on a proper consideration of all the relevant facts and arguments. The aim is to develop evidence-based policy, not policy based evidence.

For instance, a Minister pleased with the apparent success of a programme might encourage his or her officials to think about an encore. Such encouragement can appear welcome, but must be resisted until the case for and against the further programme has been properly thought through. And there is a less positive reason. A formal submission is a defence against a Minister who might not accept advice and then subsequently seeks to blame his or her officials.

If a Minister makes a decision that you consider to be seriously wrong then you have the right – indeed it is your responsibility – to check (a) that the Minister has been presented in writing with all the relevant facts and arguments, and with a clear recommendation, in a form which he can easily assimilate, and (b) that he or she has understood all the important factors. If this has not happened then you should consult the Minister’s Private Secretary about the best way to correct matters.

Further written advice will often be enough, including any necessary apology for failing to prepare comprehensive advice the first time round. But if comprehensive advice has already been submitted, and the decision is important enough, then you should press for the opportunity to argue the case a second time, preferably in person. If the Minister then still rejects your recommendation then you must accept the decision. It is not for you to question the political or strategic thinking that might have contributed to the decision in question unless, exceptionally, the Minister appears to be ignoring legal advice or defying Government policy, e.g. by failing to consult interested colleagues.

Second, Ministers may not ask you to help them circumvent collective discussion, e.g. by announcing a ‘decision’ whilst a Ministerial colleague remains opposed to it. If you are caught in such cross fire you should either refer the issue to your Permanent Secretary or seek collective resolution by involving the Cabinet Secretariat who will arrange discussions at the necessary level.

Third, Ministers may not ask you to do things which are illegal or improper. For instance, they may not ask you to pay a ‘state aid’ which is prohibited under European Law. And they may not tell you to commit expenditure unless you have obtained the necessary approvals, e.g. from the Treasury. (It is not enough for your Minister to assure you that he has spoken to the Chief Secretary and received the OK. The Chief Secretary may have a quite different recollection of the same conversation, or at the very least has a duty to consult his or her civil servants before making the decision.)

Fourth, Ministers may not ask you to hide things from interested officials and Ministers in your own or other departments. It is of course sometimes sensible to work up a proposal before showing it to colleagues. After all, although you do not work only for your own Ministers, you certainly work first for your Ministers. But you may not collude in a ‘bounce’ and if you feel that colleagues in another department would expect to be told about a proposal, then you must tell them – and you should ensure that your Ministers are equally well informed. It is embarrassing, to say the least, if they find that the Chief Secretary appears to know more than they do.

The main exception to this rule is that there is no need for you to disclose your own and your Minister’s negotiating position in a public expenditure negotiation. But the relevant facts which underlie your position must be disclosed.

Fifth, Ministers should be polite to their officials – because of course we cannot answer back. In practice, we can forgive an occasional flash of bad temper, recognising that Ministers are often under great pressure. Indeed, it is worth remembering the rule of thumb that Ministers who are constantly charming in public are often (not always) less than considerate to their staff (and vice versa). I suspect that that is because we all have only a limited amount of charm to hand around. And Ministers are human, too, with the usual run of human strengths and weaknesses. But consistent bullying, rudeness and foul language are unacceptable, not least because they damage the Minister him- or herself. Bullies are avoided and not told things. They are placated and not served.

It can be hard to know what to do if a Minister appears to be breaching one of the above rules. If you know the Minister well enough, and if you are sure that you are not being thin skinned, you should raise any concerns yourself. Alternatively you might consult the Minister’s Private Secretary. And failing that you should enlist the help of a senior colleague.

Giving Advice to Ministers

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."

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.

Indeed, you should never tell 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.

Martin Stanley

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