No, minister ... that's not how we do things here

Fran Abrams and Christian Wolmar find Whitehall trying to adapt to the wind of change

It might not be "Sir Humphrey meets Dave Spart", but the arrival of a new generation of ministers in Whitehall has caused bemusement and occasional hilarity.

The goodwill that greeted Labour's victory has been punctured in a few places by a clash of cultures less extreme than if Yes, Minister's civil servant met Private Eye's left-winger, but more real. New ministers must cope with the huge staff, the chauffeur-driven limousines and the constant attentions of their officials. Civil servants have had their slumbers disturbed by a daily diet of new initiatives and brain-storming sessions.

One minister said: "I've found it rather difficult to have all these civil servants around all the time. I'm used to discussing policy with people who are on-side, but some civil servants may be hostile to what you are trying to do. I find it difficult to be frank when I am in a room with people who are not 100 per cent behind me."

It can be intellectually challenging. Another minister said: "We have been used to being surrounded largely by yes men, quite junior researchers and press officers. Now we have to face the permanent secretaries and other civil servants who are not only older than us, they may be wiser, too."

Ministers' special advisers - their political appointees who are not civil servants - have been shocked to learn the extent to which their movements are monitored. One relates a tale of how he picked up his telephone to speak to a minister and three Civil Service colleagues picked up theirs at the same moment.

"I assumed they were all just making phone calls," he said. "But when I put my phone down, all theirs went down at the same time. It was only then that I realised they were all listening in."

On the civil servants' side, there is the need to cope with a change of culture which is not always comprehensible. As one put it: "We were used to set ways of working. For example, everything had to be justified financially because ministers' first question was `is it value for money?' Now we are allowed to put forward ideas which may not necessarily be the cheapest alternatives."

Some preconceptions have been fully justified. One special adviser and his minister nearly wept with laughter when a civil servant responded to their suggestion, with a straight face, "You might say that, I couldn't possibly comment."

"Government is a little bit like a Rolls-Royce," one minister's special adviser explained. "You can sit very comfortably in the back seat and allow yourself to be driven if you like, but it takes a great deal more effort if you want to actually take over and get into the driving seat."

The phenomenon is being experienced in departments all over Whitehall. In some, the force for change is very public. Robin Cook stamped his personality on the Foreign Office in his first week with a public "mission statement" and - horror of horrors - a video. The press conference cost pounds 26,000 and the video pounds 28,000. The event must have caused consternation among some of the fustier colonial throw-backs who still inhabit corners of Old Admiralty Building, but it made the point that life was about to change.

Others have resorted to compromise. Another minister - let us call him John - asked the staff in his private office to call him by his first name. Most, after some prompting, managed to bring themselves to do so. But one, unable to quite master this staggering informality, has resorted instead to "minister John". Glenda Jackson, transport minister, even sent a memorandum round asking everyone to call her by her first name.

While the clash of cultures has its funny side, it has also led to deep despondency. At least one special adviser goes home each night wondering whether he has achieved anything at all during the day.

The Whitehall paper-chase has also caused some consternation. While Shadow Cabinet ministers who received invitations to speak would simply tell their secretaries how they wished to reply, in government they must send copies to around 15 people for comment. Then a preliminary decision may be made, and the 15 people are again asked for their comments. And so it goes on as the minister's speech grinds through to completion.

John Battle, Minister of State at the Department of Trade and Industry, asked his civil servants to provide him with a white board for his office so that he could write reminders to himself. The officials protested that he would have to cover it up whenever anyone else came in to the room because they might see something confidential.

"You don't really want me to have this white board, do you?" he complained. "Minister," they replied, "we are your white board."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
England's women celebrate after their 3rd place play-off win against Germany
Women's World CupFara Williams converts penalty to secure victory and bronze medals
Arts and Entertainment
Ricardo by Edward Sutcliffe, 2014
artPortraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb go on display
News
newsHillary Clinton comments on viral Humans of New York photo of gay teenager
Arts and Entertainment
The gang rape scene in the Royal Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has caused huge controversy
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'