The permanent government

The permanent government

During an election campaign, the civil service can get a bit forgotten about. But its relationship with the political process is, for those of us on the outside, worth thinking about. Handled in the right way, understanding and beginning to engage with civil servants during a campaign can have benefits later on.

The very top of the civil service will have prepared for what happens next. By convention, every official opposition gets the chance to meet senior civil servants and outline its programme for government. For two elections in the first decade of the century, this convention was politely respected with no expectation of William Hague or Michael Howard bothering the Number 10 decorators. But in 2010 the prospect of change was very real and it was much more important for Whitehall to understand the policy platform that a Cameron government would implement.

Even then, much of this was confined to a small number of officials behind closed doors. For most of the civil service, the normal business of government goes on through election campaigns. Ministers continue to have functions which the department is there to discharge. And they remain ministers until the Queen invites someone to form a government, who then in turn makes the new appointments.

This means that the machinery of government must remain in place, and in theory it has plenty of work to do. The reality, though, is that the pace of life slows substantially. With political masters out on the campaign trail, the demand for policy analysis, speeches, briefing and correspondence dries up. The work done to support parliamentary activity also stops.

What’s more, pre-election purdah means that much of what the government wants to do is not possible. Big policy announcements can only be made by consensus with the opposition, meaning this is a rare occurrence. Even public appearances by officials at conferences or external meetings pretty much stop (although sensible officials interpret these rules with some common sense – nobody ever won or lost an election because a civil servant gave a presentation to fourteen people in a hotel suite).

So government departments do what any office would do in the circumstances: take things easy, catch up on admin, bond as a team and watch things unfold.

During the rest of the electoral cycle, many civil servants pay remarkably little attention to party politics. But during an election campaign, officials will read the papers pretty closely (online or buying their own; budgets no longer stretch to copies in the office). Typically, they exhibit three emotional responses to what they see.

First, weariness. Cynical officials with years of experience of how difficult the business of government can be tend to look at party political promises with an unforgiving eye. Often the work of special advisers (or ‘teenage scribblers’ as I often heard them called), these pat solutions for long-standing problems are met with some scepticism. This can usually be ironed out once these ideas become proper government policy, but there is always a period of tutting at the impracticality of what is in the manifestos.

Second, trepidation. Incoming ministers and special advisers like to complain about departments’ tendency to amass power, claim budget and extend missions. This can be massively irritating to political leaders who would much prefer their department did a few things really well and for less money, and left unchecked it represents Whitehall at its worst.

But at the same time, this is an entirely natural response which politicians would do well to understand. If you work in a department, you would like to know whether that department will still be there the week after the election. You want to feel that the work you do is recognised, and to know that you will be given the tools to do it to a really high standard. At heart, civil servants want to feel their work is important. And politicians should consider what the opposite might look like. A department which is eager to rush to its own demise, or at least meekly accepts any reduction in its importance, is unlikely to provide a strong backing to its secretary of state.

The third, more positive emotion is excitement. The arrival of new ministers, or an entire new government, can be a big moment of energy for civil servants. New faces, new ideas and a fresh start can provide a really positive atmosphere. This is even the case where the policy these ministers bring is a total reversal of what has gone before. On occasion, civil servants feel very attached to a particular policy, and feel defensive about its deconstruction. But on the whole, they are remarkably adaptive to changes in direction, and will be quite happy to spend a period undoing their own work.

All of which is worth knowing about and understanding. In each case, the civil service is waiting to follow where its political masters lead. But amidst all of this, there are some things the civil service can do that politicians cannot.

Where something major is in view that will require significant government effort, but is not yet an urgent priority, Whitehall is occasionally better equipped than Westminster to gear itself up. Some issues are very deliberately postponed until after the election, meaning political engagement is impossible. But in a quiet way, officials can anticipate the big issues and at least plan to face them, even if making decisions is a way off. Talking to them will not produce big decisions but can lay the ground for how decisions are framed some way in the future.

So election year is an opportunity to take stock, prepare and adapt – whether defensively or proactively. Civil servants can seem over-formal, or mistrustful or even just shy. But the period before the election provides a genuine opportunity to help the civil service help you in the period afterwards.