3rd March 2014
Last week we were privileged to be invited to an event at the Cabinet Office entitled ‘Yes Minister; Yes Councillor’. Organised by three new graduates from the Hertfordshire County Council Graduate scheme – Meinir Jones, Oliver Barnes and Tom Johnson – the event sought to give an insight to young staff in both central and local government about how the other half live.
Here, Oliver sums up the key messages from the event and draws out some lessons about the lessons for new public servants about local and central government.
We hope you enjoy this post as much as we enjoyed the event.
As a graduate starting out on a career in public service, the Byzantine structure of UK governance can be daunting. Yet somehow we have to navigate it, and we Hertfordshire County Council grads thought we should take some advice from people who have been there and done it. Along with a former Hertfordshire grad who know works in the Cabinet Office, we organised a conference, ‘Yes Minister; Yes Councillor’, the theme of which was sharing knowledge across the central-local divide.
Our speakers had a wealth of experience to draw on…
• Caroline Tapster – former HCC chief executive, now at the LGA and a non-executive director at the Home Office
• James Blake – former civil servant in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, and at the DCLG, and current Chief Executive of St Albans City and District Council
• Mike Parsons – Former Director at HCC, and now Chief Operating Officer at the Home Office
• Chris Badger – Formerly of Cambridgeshire CC, now Assistant Director for Health and Social Care Integration at HCC, with experience working in the Civil Service and in the NHS on secondment.
They offered intriguing reflections, which have given us all food for thought.
The strengths offered by the Civil Service
The real strength of the civil service is the ability to create policy at impressive speed. A speciality in policy stems from the political control the civil service is subject to. This can mean that civil servants are made to work against their own principles, which they can offset against the idea that they are serving democracy. Civil servants are essential to the enactment of the democratic will embodied in the government; a strong message for new starters to take away.
Overall we got the sense of the civil service being a well-oiled machine; for example, a government department takes a single weekend to prepare for a new minister and get them fully briefed. The good running of this machine is demonstrated by the fashion in which generalist civil servants can move seamlessly across departments.
The strengths offered by Local Government
Local government, on the other hand, was generally recognised as being better at softer skills. One of these is ‘backstaging’; the art of working subtly behind the scenes, to forewarn and reconcile stakeholders. Backstaging puts local government officers at the nexus of the political system, facilitating the flow of information. The role of a local official can become political at a time of crisis, during recent flooding for example, local officials and national politicians vied for air time. This more prominent role stems from the fact that (at the risk of stating the obvious) local officials are tied to a specific area. Consequently, they are steeped in soft intelligence about their locality, and about the impact policy has on the street. They have a useful sense of place.
What does this mean for aspiring young people in government?
For young, ambitious public servants experience of central and local government is essential. Secondments can be a useful tool for gaining real-life cross-sector experience. For generalist policy experts this can be an effective means of breaking out of the corporate centre and moving into service delivery.
‘Yes Minister; Yes Councillor’ was full of fabulous detail, insight, and guidance. But to boil it down to five take home points on the relations between central and local government, and the meaning to aspiring public servants, we might suggest:
• Communication must improve.
• Local government can learn from civil service policy making.
• Civil Servants can learn the ability to manage politicians across the political divide from Local Government.
• We all need to be proactive in seeking out cross-sector experience.
• And; whichever sector we work in, we need a deeper appreciation of what it means to deliver public services on the frontline.
Finally, there was much to be gained simply by pulling such a diverse range of people from across government and the private sector into one room. Ideas were shared, and soft networks established. We learned from each other as well as from the panellists. If for no other reason than this, we hope to see you at our next event.