The UK Civil Service

Facts, Analysis and Comment.

Basic Mandarin - Lesson 3

The development and coordination of policy has also spawned a dialect all of its own.

Ball Park Figure
This is a complete stab in the dark which I want you to think might be broadly accurate but will undoubtedly change once I’ve worked out how much the new policy costs.

A posh sounding meeting which involves 2 people at a time having a chat, usually involving Ministers/Perm Secs/Senior Officials in their swanky offices. But bilaterals sound so impressive that the purpose of a bilateral is never asked nor is the information often given. The fact that you have no hope of ever attending a bilateral, nor do you really need to know that these meetings ever take place, reminds you that you are not and never likely to have equivalent influence. Bringing ego is essential, otherwise entry is refused.

Blue Skies / Blue Skies Review
I’m too important to discuss details but am quite happy to throw in some ethereal, unrealistic and totally impractical ideas which will never amount to anything. (Usually “blue skies” people are paid a massive salary but are rarely seen in the office)

Bottoming Out (as in “Let’s bottom this out” or “wait until it bottoms out”)
A very unfortunate turn of phrase. It can be used a way of attempting to actually solve something and get it sorted or … and this is much more likely … as a way of describing the fact that we will need to wait (and do nothing at all) and just see how bad it gets before we deal with the consequences.

Comprehensive Review
Just the same as a “Review“, only likely to take up to 18 months to be completed.

Consultation Document
The Department has already decided what it’s going to do. The document will contain one policy dressed up to look like several options, to give the impression that the Department is open to suggestions. It will also have a few ridiculous ideas, so officials can claim to be “thinking outside the box” (see lesson 1).

Co-ordination Unit
There’s hundreds of units scattered across Whitehall all doing the same job in perfect isolation. A new unit is needed to duplicate the work of the existing units and to inform them of what they already know.

Cross-cutting Issues
Things on which officials across Whitehall have an opinion, but for which no-one wants to be responsible.

A figurehead, usually without real power, employed to think the unthinkable and say the unsayable about a “wicked issue”. Their real purpose is to draw fire away from Ministers.

The last word in procrastination. Used to be a big buzz word – meant doing everything in your power not to deliver – especially if you worked in the Cabinet Office – and most especially if you worked in the Delivery Unit.

Elephant Traps
Cock-ups in waiting:- a term retained from the days when we had an empire.

A totally impractical and over-expensive idea that skirts around a problem but makes it look as though we are doing something about it.

A way of lending importance to a subject or idea

Let’s Drill Down - into this Issue
I’ve got no idea what I’m talking about, but want to show that I think there’s a whole lot more to it than a part time expert like me would even dream about. It may even be a candidate for a PIU project. But can also be used as delaying tactic - see also Parked, Kick into the long grass and Toothpaste out of the tube).

Loop (as in “in the loop” or “not fully in the loop”)
A very important phrase especially for those who are not fully in the loop as it can cause resentment and lead to temper tantrums. It is a measure of how important you are as to whether you are in or out of the loop at any one time.

An increasingly common word whose translation is not yet available. Probably means many different things in many different contexts.

Media Handling Strategy
How on earth do we interest anyone in this? (Much less often:- How on earth can we bury this?)

Menu of Options
There are two strategies for encouraging others to choose your preferred policy. One is to offer a menu which includes your favourite plus several stupid or pointless options to make them think they have a choice. Another is to bracket your preferred option between two extreme versions of the same approach. This is scarcely less subtle and almost always works.

Both strategies are of course disastrous if they fail to work.

On Board (Or Not On Board)
A favourite delaying tactic linked to sharing (or copying) ideas. Getting as many other people on board as possible is important as it results in further meetings/cc-ing others into e-mails and often bilaterals too.

Pilot Project
“We don’t really want to do this but the Minister is keen.” The hope is that there will be a reshuffle before having to commit to anything on a larger scale.

Private Sector Discipline
By emulating industry, HMG will become a lean, fit high-output organisation. Note absence of “private sector remuneration

Punch above our weight
Attempt the impossible with no resources.

Pump Priming
A significant amount of funding, used to bride an industry or organisations to do something that no-one apart from Government wants. If set not too high then it can be forgotten about and continue for years.

Raft Of Measures
None of these ideas are any good but if we throw them together as part of a “package”, at least it will look as if we are trying. See also toolkit.

Resource Implications
This will cost money/need some manpower. So either the department won’t do it or t will be done badly using existing resources.

This policy is going wrong but we cannot admit it. Instead, in order to defuse the controversy, we will get someone who knows nothing about the issues to examine them for 3 months, following which they will provide a helpful synopsis of everything we already knew. See also Comprehensive Review and Strategic Review.

Seedcorn Funding
A derisory amount of grant aid. The department can announce that it is spending “millions of pounds” in order to make an impact on a Wicked Issue (see below) and then claim credit in the unlikely event that it works, and distance itself from the recipient of the grant when it fails to work. (£1m is 2p per head of UK population.)

Strategic Co-Ordination Unit
There’s too many co-ordination units. No-one knows what the hell is going on or who is supposed to be doing what. A new unit to co-ordinate the co-ordinators is therefore required.

Strategic Review
The same as a Review but marginally more superficial and likely to recommend the creation of a “Co-ordination Unit“.

Once used to involve only Heads of State. Now anyone reasonably senior (see “Czar”).

Silly phrase, popular in relation to delivery. As in: “we need to develop a toolkit to solve this issue”. Hints at a mystical set of solutions that will somehow launch us towards public sector nirvana.

A way of detaching oneself from a problem by reducing it to a term used to describe congestion. Means we could get a lot of interest in this (usually resulting in working groups being set up so that other people can deal with the impending work load).

Vietnam Syndrome
When Government has huge power, but finds itself in a quagmire. See “wicked issue”.

A Wealth of Initiatives
A new entry in 2003, meaning a number of good ideas for which no funding is now in place, or ever will be.

Wicked Issue
A policy issue (such as drugs, crime, reforming the NHS, improving the education system) where HMG has the power to pass lots of legislation and spend huge amounts of money – with no discernable effect whatsoever. See also “Vietnam Syndrome

Working Group
5 or more people sitting in a room failing to achieve anything.