Ministers owe these three important duties to their civil servants:
First, Ministers may not ask civil servants to do things which are illegal or improper (such as spending public money without proper approval).
Second, they must consider officials’ advice, even if they do not take it. They cannot therefore take a policy decision without first giving officials 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’.
Third, Ministers may not ask officials to hide information from other interested officials, nor from Cabinet Ministers, in their own or other departments, nor may they ask officials to help circumvent collective discussion, for instance by announcing a ‘decision’ whilst a Cabinet colleague remains opposed to it.
It is of course sometimes sensible to work up a proposal before showing it to colleagues. But officials may not collude in a ‘bounce’ and if they feel that colleagues in another department would expect to be told about a proposal, then they must tell them. Civil servants may therefore not support freelancing – actions of individual Ministers or small groups that do not have the sanction of the government as a whole. But officials may support the Prime Minister if (s)he wishes to establish a small secret group to focus on a sensitive issue.
But what if Ministers do not accept your no doubt excellent advice? The answer is here.