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
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The Independent Online
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."