Is dealing with aggressive ministers now the reality for UK civil servants?

By on 16/05/2023 | Updated on 17/05/2023
Dominic Raab. Photo by Pippa Fowles, No 10 Downing Street via Flickr

Aggressive ‘Raab-like’ behaviour is endemic in the ministerial environment and, if it continues, we cannot expect the civil service to continue displaying unquestionable devotion to duty, says Andrew Kakabadse, professor of governance and leadership at Henley Business School

Was former deputy prime minister Dominic Raab’s fate the result of vengeful civil servants or an expression of officials’ deep frustration at being exposed to seemingly endless harassments? My observations suggest it was the latter and that civil servants have reached the end of their tether.

From my own background, originally as a professionally-trained psychiatric social worker, my own research indicated that too many civil servants were exhibiting the psychological traits of ‘battered wife syndrome.’

The recent Tolley Inquiry into formal complaints about the conduct of Dominic Raab MP concluded that Raab had “acted in a way which was intimidating, in the sense of unreasonably and persistently aggressive in the context of a workplace meeting”.

But is ‘Raab-like’ activity endemic across the ministerial cadre? Research indicates that it is more widespread than one might expect.

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It was my honour to be invited by the then Public Administration and Public Affairs Committee (PACAC) to undertake an inquiry which aimed to answer the question ‘Is the civil service fit for purpose?’.

After just one week of initial interviews and informal discussions it became clear that this singular focus was insufficient given the scope of the exercise. Ministers needed to be subject to similar scrutiny as that of civil servants for the study to surface meaningful insights.

As a result the inquiry theme was adjusted and became ‘Is government fit for purpose?’ The results were ultimately submitted to PACAC in March 2018 as ‘The Kakabadse Report.’

After some 160 probing and confidential conversations, the nature of the minister-public servant relationship emerged as a detailed critique of the very functioning of government. The key findings of ‘Is government fit for purpose?’ still apply today and are summarised as follows.

1. A deep but necessary tension

The inquiry revealed that government both benefits from and is undermined by the deep tension between minister and civil servant, otherwise recognised as the conflict between ‘urgency vs realism’.

There is a ministerial clamour for things to happen immediately, especially when it comes to publicly-proclaimed commitments. This is often in direct conflict with the reality faced by civil servants, who have to ensure the process is accurate and appropriate in order to pave the way for effective policy delivery.

What works, or what can be made to work, requires due and careful consideration, keeping in mind the array of stakeholder interests and engagement across various misalignments the minister faces.

There is inevitable pressure on the minister to ‘deliver what you promised’, all the while pushing against the civil servants’ ‘what can actually work here?’ perspective. This is the daily tension being played out at the heart of government.

‘Urgency vs realism’ is an inevitable but necessary tension. It stretches the key players to do their utmost to deliver policy, but also surfaces intricate details that require attention.

Given the minister’s credibility is at stake, when well-handled the desired results are self-evident. However, if there is lack of awareness of or insensitivity to the chemistry between secretary of state and permanent secretary, the outcome is inevitably reduced to abusive conduct.

Conscious of this pressure, the civil servants’ priority remains unchanged. The secretary of state’s goals must be achieved, but in so doing the civil servant is in danger of offending their ‘urgency’ demand. Realism takes time and to the minister it can feel like their initiative is being proactively blocked.

2. Civil servants’ devotion to the minister

Drawing on my research and experience with international governments, agencies and corporations, there is nowhere else I have witnessed such a deep commitment and devotion to the minister as in Westminster. The officials’ deep-seated belief in representative democracy ensures that the machinery of government is in best position to deliver policy. 

Similarly, civil servants’ focused sense of duty is irretrievably bound to the secretary of state as the guardian of the people’s elected government.

Read more: UK civil service review to call for more ‘robust culture’ after Raab resignation

3. Scanning the bigger picture

Scanning the broader environment and considering how to proceed defines the Westminster senior civil servant’s distinct capability to work through complexity.

Accurately preparing the minister for contingencies was repeatedly identified by both secretaries of state and senior officials as being fundamental to effective policy delivery. In comparison to the private sector, civil servants exhibit a more than impressive IQ that enables them to appreciate intricacies and, as a result, find novel ways through extensive internal and external misalignments.

4. Sensitivity to the minister’s ‘wavelength’

Constructing arguments and sifting through data to offer the best policy advice to the minister would not be possible without a deep-seated sensitivity to individual and group dynamics.

Adjusting to the minister’s ‘wavelength’ was repeatedly referenced as being of primary importance in our study.

A sharp IQ needs to be matched by an awareness of the dynamics between people. This combination enables civil servants to be aware of, and respond to, nuances which continually match the needs of the minister.

In one instance, after a successful encounter between a senior civil servant and secretary of state, one special advisor (SPAD) caught-up with the public servant and commented: “You basically said the same all those months ago when the secretary of state threw you out.” They replied: “Yes, but I learnt how to get onto the minister’s wavelength.”

The possession of high IQ and sensitivity in one person is the hallmark of a distinctly successful leader.

The most successful chairs of large corporations display these skills in the creation of a compelling case, coupled with a responsiveness that is necessary to capture hearts and minds. This is particularly true when deep disagreements arise between the board and the executive, or across the board itself. This same combination enables an expression of independent and carefully-considered comment.

However, one consequence of such a sharpness of mind and sensitivity is a declining emotional resilience and ability to sustain high-levels of performance. Reduced resilience, or burnout, plays a constant role in undermining the type of independence which is necessary for speaking truth to power.

One permanent secretary outlined their predicament by explaining: “On the minister’s behalf, if I fall on my sword I will be blamed. If I do not, I will also be blamed. What do I do? I know I will receive a black mark regardless and that is what I fear most.”

In a following conversation, the concern raised over the black mark was flagged to the relevant secretary of state, who responded: “Why so sensitive to a black mark? After all these years and experience, what’s wrong with [that person]?”

This particular secretary of state was an exception. It turned out that they eventually appreciated the effect of living with the strain of drawing on analytical skills and exercising deep sensitivity. They further recognised the devoted service offered by civil servants and admitted that ministers could treat their public officials better.

5. In defence of the minister

Being aware of the public exposure and consequent vulnerability, the defence of the minister by civil servants emerges as a deep-seated habit. Positioning the minister in the most favourable light is achieved by displaying their qualities of character.

Secretaries of state and junior ministers frequently declared their appreciation of the degree of defence offered by civil servants, although this did not noticeably alter the unwelcome behaviour of certain junior ministers and secretaries of state toward public servants.

6. Engagement delivers value

There are very few large and complex private or public sector organisations that would tolerate the persistent harassment of their senior executives.

Even the most financially-disciplined managerial environment would recognise that such damaged interfaces make the delivery of strategy and policy ineffective.

When delivery to communities and markets is done progressively badly, it is incumbent on the chair to intervene.

An increasingly common phenomenon being faced by corporate chairs is the question of how they should sack a successful chief executive. To be clear, the chief executive’s targets and achievements may be beyond reproach, but the cost of damaged internal and external relationships can weaken an entity’s capacity to deliver value and realise competitive advantage.

The immediate results of this need to be balanced against the organisation’s sensitivity to stakeholder needs and interests, which in turn demands strengthened interfaces.

That was not the finding of the ‘Is government fit for purpose?’ inquiry. A considerable proportion of the ministers from current and previous administrations expressed reservations regarding the value and contributions of their civil servants.

Capable public servants were treated in an unwelcome manner, rarely seen in complex private and public sector organisations.

Should unproductive ministerial behaviour continue then the level of achievement we have come to expect from our civil service will dissipate, leaving the state unnecessarily exposed.

The Dominic Raab case is a call-to-arms for an independent governance inquiry, focused on how effectively policy is delivered by paying particular attention to the demands of the minister-civil servant interface.

We must be clear – harassment is a human rights concern and of parallel importance is how well policy is delivered to communities. The 20-80 rule of ‘policy creation vs policy delivery’ is mostly acknowledged, but rarely digested by government. A first step would be to display respect for the ‘urgency vs realism’ tension.

The majority of ministers from the Conservative administration at the time of our inquiry, as well as previous governments, expressed reservations in respect to the value and contribution of their civil servants.

The fact that the term ‘blockers’ was repeatedly used is indicative of the limited appreciation by secretaries of state of the subtleties which are necessary for policy delivery to work. If this continues, we cannot expect the civil service of the future to continue displaying such unquestionable devotion to duty. It is a truism that engagement delivers value, but this requires the full participation of everyone involved in the process.

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About Andrew Kakabadse

Andrew Kakabadse is professor of governance and leadership at Henley Business School

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