A former House of Commons clerk turned communications adviser gives the run-down on how to engage with SW1
No-one goes into public service for the glory. While those at the very top will be rewarded with agreeable signs of honour from the Palace, for most civil servants it is an anonymous life, an existence of policy papers, ministerial advice, committee meetings and tersely correct minutes. Ronald Reagan famously declared, ‘The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help,’ but business should take that seriously. Whitehall does want to help: you just need to learn how to speak its language.
Civil servants are trained to be phlegmatic, measured and cautious. Taking a ‘courageous’ decision is no longer the dangerous and reckless act it was for Yes, Minister in the 1980s, but it is still not a quality most civil servants would covet. This often forms a barrier between government and business, where heroes are iconoclastic disruptors like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. Whitehall is trying to bridge this cultural divide by bringing in private sector figures like John Manzoni and Charles Roxburgh.
Late entrants to the civil service say that the pace of life is much faster than in the private sector. Senior mandarins are responding to events in timescales measured by hours and days, with little scope for horizon-scanning and 12-month strategies. But their metrics are different. Rare is the flagship policy which can be trumpeted as a success: for every National Minimum Wage, there is a Cones Hotline. All too often, the avoidance of disaster can itself be accounted a triumph. It is still a great accolade in the civil service to be described as a ‘safe pair of hands’.
Another risk factor which is always on the minds of bureaucrats is the so-called ‘Daily Mail test’: in making any decision, you should consider how it will look on the front page of the UK’s most popular daily newspaper. This is not a consideration unknown in the private sector. The very phrase was coined by industrialist Nigel Rudd in a speech to the CBI in 2002. But it has come to paralyse the public sector.
No action is too small to escape its glare, from ordering a glass of wine over lunch to using too much paper. Business leaders need to understand and absorb this important part of decision-making. Think ahead, and have a strategy prepared when a civil servant inevitably begins, ‘But how will this look…’
If the operational tempo of life in Whitehall is high, it does not equate to a rapid decision-making process. Again, investors and entrepreneurs need to curb their impatience. Try to understand the complex ecosystem in which civil servants work. Policy is drafted at a relatively low level, and then progresses upwards through the bureaucratic ranks. This takes time. Towards the top, it must also take a kind of ‘twin track’ approach, presented for approval to officials and ministers. A particular course of action may be carefully planned and coherent with departmental and governmental goals, but the political leadership of a department will always want to know how it will play, whom it will benefit, how it will be sold. Politics is the art of the possible.
Another factor to understand is timescale. If the decision-making process can be slow, bear in mind that the stakeholders may change. Ministerial turnover is high nowadays, and a dialogue with a department which takes months may see change among secretaries of state or their cast of junior ministers. This can make maintaining personal relationships difficult; be prepared to repeat your pitch.
Let us end on a positive note. Whitehall really is there to help. Although the days of ‘backing winners’ have faded, there are still major investments to be secured, especially in science, R&D and tech. These cash injections can be game-changing, especially for SMEs, and they can open up new markets and benefit from the UK’s overseas network of diplomats, trade advisers and development experts. Talk to them, or talk to a company which can plug you into these networks, which knows the geography and the caste structure of Whitehall. ‘Global Britain’ is the government’s tagline, so why not be part of it?
Eliot Wilson is the co-founder of Pivot Point and a former House of Commons clerk