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Sir John Redwood is MP for Wokingham, and is a former Secretary of State for Wales.

Recent tensions between Ministers and civil servants have surfaced. The stories reveal Ministerial impatience that reforms promised in the election are not being pursued with vigour and energy by officials who seem to want to slow them or overwhelm them with objections. Pro-Brexit Ministers are understandably suspicious of the intents of the civil service at large, after the strong defence of the status quo that the civil service helped David Cameron and George Osborne mount during the EU referendum.

It seemed that the civil service came close to losing its reputation for neutrality by enthusiastic and inaccurate  forecasts and reports heralding big trouble were the public to vote to leave. This was followed by a long period of generating endless difficulties and obstacles to simply leaving, even after it was official Government policy to implement the wishes of the majority in the vote. There were no published papers or civil service leaks about all the opportunities Brexit would bring.

I have often been asked how I helped Margaret Thatcher get through a radical programme of change and reform during the 1980s when I advised her first from outside government, and then as her Chief Policy Adviser inside 10 Downing Street.

I have been reluctant to say much about that period as I am rooted in the present and passionate about the future, and am not ready to write up my reflections from the past. It is, however, possible to  present some conclusions as to how we managed democratic decision-making, and how we secured implementation of policies in that tempestuous era that are relevant to where we now are.

There were plenty ofYes Minister routines and scripts to live through then as now. I recall that when I first took over the Policy Unit the rest of the civil service decided to starve us of their papers to make our jobs difficult. I responded by telling them in that case I would still be submitting our view of how the Prime Minister should proceed on each subject heading on the agenda regardless of their advice, and would compete against their unseen proposition.

They decided wisely that this would not be a good idea and could lose them more of their battles with the Prime Minister than they wished. They turned instead to sending us huge quantities of paper which overwhelmed us. I told them that was as bad as sending us nothing. What we needed to see was their advice on matters that warranted the Prime Minister’s time, and particularly matters where she needed to decide or get the Cabinet to decide.

I also pointed out that we had work to do putting manifesto and political priorities into the form of policies that could be implemented.  We were happy to share our memos on these matters with them. The civil service then decided to co-operate, and we saw the papers we needed to see, and recommended the departmental or Cabinet Office answer when it made sense.

The Policy Unit had ten members. We covered every Government subject apart from non-EU foreign affairs, where the PM had a separate adviser in Number 10. I supervised all briefs going to the Prime Minister, but each specialist usually signed their own work and had some access to the Prime Minister for themselves to keep them involved and committed to her. It included two career civil servants and three secondees from business.

I met the Prime Minister once a week for a one to one review of the agenda for half an hour and usually saw her daily at meetings when she was working in London.  I could attend most of the meetings in the diary if I wished. I asked all my colleagues to  be polite and co-operative with the wider civil service, but to give them clear steers on what the Prime Minister’s view was and what Number 10 was out to achieve whether they liked that view or not. We never wished the Government to operate outside the normal rules of procedure or to be cavalier with the law.

I was also very conscious that we needed to help her foster better relations with her Cabinet colleagues. I persuaded the Prime Minister to follow a no shocks policy where possible. We invited in leading Cabinet members for one to one meetings when they could tell the Prime Minister what they were doing and what help they needed, and she could tell them what her priorities were and what she was looking for from their department. Margaret had a tendency to take criticisms or embarrassing facts about a department which we might supply and use them with gusto against a  Minister in wider meetings, which made me increasingly careful about whether and how I offered such information.

The big items on the agenda that often required counter-cultural actions by the civil service were privatisation and government reform. Many civil servants did not like the idea of transferring some 10 per cent of national output from the hands of the state into private hands through share and business sales in the privatisation programme. There was strong Labour Party and trade union resistance, as there was to council house sales, which informed efforts to slow the process down.

We were made to take through separate legislation for each privatisation sale rather than putting through enabling legislation for the whole programme. Council house sales were tied up by various rules over sales proceeds and discounts. We managed the process by securing the buy-in of the chairmen of the nationalised Industries, who saw how it would solve their capital scarcity and modernisation problems.

I got the Prime Minister to set up a special department for privatisation within the Treasury and make John Moore the first Minister in charge ot it. He and I then set out a programme for Cabinet consideration, and he recruited a group of volunteer Treasury officials who were good and keen on the topic to get it under way. Cabinet buy-in was secured by explaining the whole future programme to them and encouraging individual Ministers and departments to bid for early slots for sales.

When it came to central government, we decided to make a bigger distinction between policy work and the administration of policy. The actual work of mending and managing the roads or  administering grants could be done by an agency or executive quango. A senior civil servant or external chairman could take charge, be set targets, and report back as necessary. Failure to deliver would be mismanagement – not a direct failing of the Minister.

Policy work and work close to Ministers would be under the traditional rules where advisers advised and Ministers decided. Ministers were responsible, and managed the presentation of the Department’s case. In some cases, such as the Property Services Agency responsible for various building task and maintenance, it was possible to go on from agency status to privatise the agency and give the public sector more choice for property work.

Results from this reform were mixed. In some cases, it added to quality and efficiency by concentrating attention on what before had often been Cinderella parts of a department. In other cases, good leadership was not found and little changed. The civil service tried to water down the impact of managing to stated and clear targets by multiplying the number of such targets to the point where they were meaningless.

106 comments for: John Redwood: Lessons for managing civil service obstruction from the Thatcher years. And my role as head of her Policy Unit.

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