Testing times for the civil service: some rules of engagement for the Brexit departments

On top of the pressures of defining what “Brexit means Brexit” might mean and starting to map out the UK’s new place in the world, there are signs that engagement between the Brexit departments – Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) and Department for International Trade (DIT) – and business has not got off to a good start. Given the potential for damage to the economy and to the reputation of the civil service, I have been reflecting on my own experience in search of lessons that might be relevant to the current process.

As a civil servant in HMRC and HMT, particularly during 15 years working on corporate tax policy, I had frequent engagement with business. This ranged from CFOs and CEOs of plcs, through rep bodies including the CBI, to more specialised tax directors, lawyers and big 4 partners. The engagement generally involved a fair degree of challenge – tax has always been a contentious subject, even before it hit the mainstream media – and was more successful on some occasions than on others. But there were lessons to learn from each consultation exercise, and these crystallised around two fairly clear principles that would ensure that the process, at least, was constructive. These can be summed up in just two words: professionalism and openness.

Professionalism – or, if you get it even slightly wrong, the opposite impression of disorganised muddle – can be conveyed in various ways. A first, basic and rather boring step is to be professional in arranging meetings: inviting the right people, giving them sufficient notice, being clear about what’s on the agenda and the contribution that will be expected from them. The meetings themselves need to be run in a disciplined way, with clarity of purpose and of messages. The outcome to be avoided at all costs is for participants to leave with different views of what has been said or achieved – and, even worse, to air these differences with the press.

Professionalism includes not wasting people’s time. This is about more than simply planning meetings effectively. It’s also about coordinating with other civil servants in overlapping areas, so that business reps only have to say something once to government. Asking them to attend multiple meetings where they say virtually the same thing, to groups of different civil servants whose respective roles and responsibilities are opaque to them, is a needless irritant. And assuring them that “it’s all joined up round the back” will cut no ice if their actual experience is of uncoordinated duplication.

Turning to openness, the starting-point is listening. Even if ministers start out with clear ideas of what they want to achieve, so that the room for debate is limited, it’s important to listen to understand where people are coming from and to identify any common ground, or room for compromise. You also have to listen in order to transmit points back candidly to ministers (a point I will return to).

Having listened, it’s important to be as open as possible about the government position, partly in order to “manage expectations”, but also because openness breeds openness and makes for a productive dialogue. This doesn’t mean leaking official secrets, but being frank in terms of objectives and likely outcomes – and being clear about the boundaries of what can be said and achieved.

The final, and perhaps most important, element of openness is honesty in reporting views back to ministers. Any filtering of the messages – whether through fear of being the messenger who is “shot” or otherwise – is counter-productive in the long run, as well as being contrary to the civil service code of giving honest advice.

The recent press reports suggest that the two new Brexit departments, DexEU and DIT, either don’t understand these basic rules of engagement or are applying them only haphazardly:

  • Guardian 14 September: invitations to retail CEOs were issued at the last minute, giving the impression of a tick-box exercise and an agenda with no substance. Instead of the senior-level engagement that ministers were looking for, the meetings was attended by more junior “public affairs” staff.
  • Times 22 September: an Association of British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) report on priorities for Brexit was “rejected” by the government as being “not what people had voted for”. This might look like a positive example of openness in action, but the impression is blurred by a subsequent correction on the ABPI website, with the published report, stressing that the meeting on 6 September was in fact very constructive. So this looks more like another example of mixed messages, as below.
  • FT 22 September: business leaders express concern at lack of a single point of contact, and weariness at repeating the same list of negotiating priorities to different government departments. A “government insider” insists there is no lack of “joined-up government”; each department has its own role and the “government machine” will ensure the separate talks are coordinated separately. The Chancellor was reportedly asked “who’s in charge?” and replied “it’s all very difficult at the moment” – but this comment is “not recognised” by his aides after the meeting.
  • Reuters 22 September: Ollie Robbins, Permanent Secretary at DExEU, meets EU ambassadors in London. Officials afterwards “don’t recognize what’s clearly a muddled and contradictory account of the meeting”.

I haven’t included here the various ministerial gaffes (“fat and lazy businesses”) and slap-downs; if ministers really want to shoot themselves in the foot, there’s little the civil service can do to prevent it.

But the lack of “grip” betrayed in these examples – particularly the give-away line on “not recognising” reports of a meeting – is worrying in the context of one of the most difficult projects the civil service has ever had to deliver. One reason may be that, in the newly set-up departments, many of the key players are likely either to be very new and inexperienced, or to have gained most of their experience in “central” departments such as Cabinet Office, where their main interactions will have been with other civil servants, at one remove from actual delivery and with different levers of power.

Professionalism is a tricky issue for civil servants criticised for decades as amateurs (at best, “gifted” amateurs). There have been persistent and hard efforts to shed that image, most recently with Civil Service Reform, and in my experience the criticism is often unfair, especially where teams are business-facing. But the label sticks, and the civil service as a whole needs to draw on its pockets of experience (notably in parts of HMT) in order to raise its game.

The fear factor should also not be under-estimated, with back-bench MPs baying for civil servants to be sacked if they do not sufficiently support Brexit, ministers jockeying for position among themselves, and a PM intent on showing she’s the boss. Openness is difficult in a culture of fear, but it is essential if the civil service is to come through the long and arduous Brexit process with its reputation for impartiality intact.


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