The UK Civil Service

Facts, Analysis and Comment.


The strongest opposition to any innovative policy will inevitably come from other departments, fueled by departmentalitis. Gerald Kaufman MP first drew attention to this debilitating Ministerial disease in his excellent book How to be a Minister:

If you contract departmentalitis you will ruthlessly pursue your own department’s interests even if another department has a better case: quite simply, your department must win . . . you will forget that you are part of a government, that the fortunes of the government are more important than the fortunes of your own department.

But the disease is also endemic amongst officials. We kid ourselves that we run a finely tuned machine, coordinating and consulting effectively with colleagues elsewhere in Government. The truth is that large groups – and indeed whole departments – all too often compete with one another with the result that progress is too slow and we make too many mistakes. As a result, the whole system can begin to break down, and can sometimes break down completely.

The correct treatment for this disease is to refuse to play our cards close to our chest, and refuse to seek power by failing to share information. Remember in particular that Ministers may not order us not to consult or give relevant information to colleagues who have a right to be consulted or to know what is going on. It is of course sometimes sensible to work up a proposal before showing it to colleagues. 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. Officials in different departments should also try very hard to resolve differences without involving Ministers. It is stupid and inefficient to conduct an argument between officials through Ministerial correspondence. This should be reserved for genuine debate between Ministers.

Of course it is no bad thing to become emotionally committed to achieving your, or your Minister’s, objectives, as long as you remain politically impartial, well-balanced and professional. But you should not set out to browbeat colleagues by arguing as if your preference is self-evidently optimal. Such certainty can sometimes impress colleagues, and can sometimes sway decisions. But it is unprofessional and leads to decisions that are not soundly based. If your Minister’s view does not seem to stand up to critical onslaught, you need to go back and discuss the problem. You should not simply try to bulldoze his or her view through.

And we should not hesitate to seek help from colleagues, even at the risk of appearing a little silly. Colleagues collectively have a wealth of knowledge and experience. Even if the problem is quite novel, they will have ideas about how you might tackle it. Indeed, most problems melt away if you simply seek help from colleagues. Almost everyone is more than willing to help, if they are approached in the right way. Indeed, it is often a very good idea to brainstorm an issue or to think aloud. But you should flag up very clearly that this is what you are doing, or else colleagues will think that you are delivering a considered view, and will not be impressed by your more hair-brained ideas!

You may occasionally come across someone – perhaps in a central department or in an influential position elsewhere in your department – who will seem to give you a direct order that you are not happy to accept. Remember that they cannot do so. No official other than in your management chain can give you an order, even if they are in Number 10, in the Cabinet Office, or even in your Solicitors’ office. They can draw your attention to their Minister’s views, or to established policy, or to the law, and you will usually wish to take careful note. But in the last resort you must be guided by your own professional opinion. If you were to follow their advice, and they were to turn out to have been wrong, you could not subsequently blame them. If they continue to press their case, and you remain unpersuaded, you should consult Ministers or (in the case of legal advice) your department’s senior legal adviser.

Finally, a word about dealing with the Treasury and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO). Officials from these two departments tend to wield more power than others. This derives from the status of their Ministers and, in the case of the Treasury, from the fact that they act as HMG’s banker. But the nature of their work means that some of them have little first-hand experience of their subject, or of achieving change. They are therefore required to question your policies without being expected to know the underlying facts. As a result, a small minority of Treasury and FCO colleagues give the impression that they believe that other departments are not clever enough, are not critical enough and do not work hard enough. In practice it is not too difficult to prove them wrong, as long as you are indeed fully on top of your policy issues, and the associated facts. If they can ask a relevant question that flummoxes you, you have only yourself to blame. The vast majority of Treasury and FCO staff are in fact very professional, experienced in their fields and invaluable colleagues. You should therefore treat them as equals, and expect them to treat you likewise.


Martin Stanley