Civil servants must make their views heard, says former UK minister

By on 13/09/2016 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Ed Balls, former UK cabinet minister
Civil servants should not shy away from ‘telling politicians what to do,’ a former cabinet minister has said.
Ed Balls, who was chief economic adviser to the Treasury from 1997 to 2004 and secretary at the former Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) from 2007 to 2010, told Global Government Forum on Monday that “the most important thing you need [as a minister] is civil servants who – within the privacy of a room – tell you what they think needs to be done.”

Senior officials, he said, “have loads of experience and knowledge” and should be be part of the strategic conversation.

While officials at the Treasury gave their views readily from the beginning, they were more hesitant to do so at DCSF, he said.

“It took me a long time to get the civil servants to say what we should do when I arrived at DCSF. I would say: ‘Whats the plan?’ and they would ask me what I wanted them to do.

“I said to them: ‘I don’t want you to tell me what you think I think. I want you to tell me what you think. And when we got there, it was great.”

Balls, who lost his parliamentary seat in last year’s general election after more than ten years as an MP, was speaking at a lecture he gave about his new book Speaking Out and the lessons he learned from his time in politics.

The event, which also featured former Treasury permanent secretary Sir Nicholas Macpherson, was organised by the Strand Group at King’s College London.

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About Winnie Agbonlahor

Winnie is news editor of Global Government Forum. She previously reported for Civil Service World - the trade magazine for senior UK government officials. Originally from Germany, Winnie first came to the UK in 2006 to study a BA in Journalism & Russian at the University of Sheffield. She is bilingual in English and German, and, after spending an academic year abroad in Russia and reporting for the Moscow Times, Winnie also speaks Russian fluently.

One Comment

  1. Business Owner says:

    Sounds wrong to me. Someone needs to know what direction to go, and the team of people who stand to loose nothing whatsoever when they get this wrong, who are not KPI’d on paying any attention to anything outside their role, who have no constraints on cost, no incentive to create value, no obligation to share or help, and who practically never talk to their peers in the other departments, states, territories, councils, etc, and all with no accountability to the public, … that team, they are the *last* people who should be given any input on what should be done!

    Maybe this is the lesson he failed to learn when he lost his seat? He should have known what to do, not asked the wrong people?

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