Ministers' top five bureaucracy pet peeves

By David Donaldson

March 9, 2017

Overwriting and not appreciating the requirements of parliamentary duties are two of the public service traits named as the most annoying in a series of interviews with former UK ministers.

There is a tendency to write “a huge amount of terrible guff, at huge, colossal, humungous length”, former minister for government policy Oliver Letwin told think tank the Institute for Government.

“Somewhere along the line the Civil Service had got used to splurge of the meaningless kind. Some of this didn’t matter; it was just very inelegant and very impenetrable, but it didn’t actually have any substantive effect,” he said.

“Quite a lot I discovered quite quickly did really matter, in the sense that people just didn’t know what they were talking about so they were saying that things were impossible which were in fact perfectly possible, or saying that things were possible that were in fact quite impossible, or saying things which were just literally not the case. Because they hadn’t found out. Instead of finding out, they were splurging. I remained throughout the six years very worried about this.”

The institute’s new report, How to be an effective minister, boils down insights from its 72 published interviews with former ministers from the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties.

While some gripes aren’t as relevant to Australia — British ministers find it frustrating that they have little control over appointments to their private office — many would undoubtedly apply here.

Although the former ministers praised the intelligence and hard work of civil service staff, frustrations centred on five main issues:

  • poor-quality drafting and a propensity to overwrite, leaving some ministers “forever doing quite significant re-writes of correspondence”.
  • failure of officials to appreciate the importance of parliament or constituencies — civil servants are “completely oblivious” to the fact that constituents are responsible for ministers being in parliament in the first place and are “exceedingly poorly versed on how the House of Commons works”.
  • mistakes, gaffes and less commonly examples of incompetence or negligence that ministers cannot hold officials to account for.
  • overly cautious or “just quite conservative” policy advice and a lack of political or communications nous when developing policy.
  • a feeling that civil servants are too hierarchical, so that ministers cannot access junior but expert staff, or deferential (“everybody is being almost far too nice to you”, said one), resulting in poor debate and dialogue.

The last two criticisms “reveal a constant tension between ministers and officials: it is difficult for officials to give honest advice and point out problems, where they exist, without seeming like they are blocking ministers’ policy ideas”, the report notes.

Ministers know they may only have a limited time in office, so are often in a rush to get things done and can be frustrated if they feel that officials are slowing things down. “There were times when getting something done was like wading through treacle”, according to one former minister.

Reflecting on the consequences of the frequency of reshuffles in the last Labour government, another noted that ministers get “frustrated with civil servants who sometimes are doing the right thing by trying to create a speed of policy development, consultation, legislative development, which is probably slightly slower than ideally the minister wants … that creates a bit of conflict.”

Ministers also expressed irritation at some more systemic problems with Whitehall — points which will sound familiar: insufficient focus on implementation as opposed to policy development, high turnover of staff and the sense that government is not good at working collectively towards common goals.

The report also gives a broader sense of how ministers work. It highlights that they often aren’t interested in the formal structures of government, but find it easier to get things done through personal relationships.

Being the final decision maker can be tough. As Jack Straw, who held several senior ministerial posts under the last Labour government, notes, decision making is often done hastily and is based “inevitably, on inadequate information. Inevitably about things that are going to happen in the future, so they are uncertain. [You have] to make the best decisions and then to move on, and to accept that some of the decisions will not be correct in retrospect.”

Many newly-appointed ministers don’t even have a vague idea how the processes of government work. One told the institute: “I literally didn’t have a clue. I didn’t even know what a submission was. Literally nothing.”

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