19 December 2016

Theresa May is not the first Prime Minister to find Whitehall tough to deal with – but, Jill Rutter argues, her complaints expose the gap that needs to be bridged between rhetoric and policy. 

In a recent interview with the Spectator, Theresa May expressed her dismay that Whitehall was responding to her commitment to help people who are ‘just about managing’. This phrase had been turned by ‘civil servants in Whitehall …into an acronym (JAM) and assigned an income range to (between £18,000 and £21,000)’.  

She went on to say: ‘you can’t just box them into a simple descriptor category. Which is why I get frustrated when Whitehall tries to do that.’ She then rather perversely went on to criticise the civil service for ‘a tendency in the system to try to interpret what they think you want, and to deliver that’ instead of fulfilling their duty to offer the ‘best possible advice’.  

So, some advice to the Prime Minister from a former civil servant.

There is a big gap between what sounds good in speeches and what makes good policy. In speeches, it is fine to talk vaguely about groups of people who share a collection of characteristics. And there is a very good rationale for trying to intervene to make life easier for them – these are just the sort of people that academics would say are suffering from a high ‘bandwidth tax’ where current preoccupations prevent them from making decisions that are in their long-term interests or, indeed, from enjoying a reasonable quality of life. 

But then you need to decide what you can do, which requires getting more specific. Unless you are going to go for universal solutions you can’t afford, or assume that they will be the collateral beneficiaries of a new version of trickle down, you need to identify the people you want to help, or the problems they have – and then come up with policy changes that might make things better.

A huge number of questions which need to be asked before the civil service can work on answers. 

Until those tasked with translating political words into concrete policy action can pin down who the policy is for and what it is trying to do, rhetoric will stay just that. And the Prime Minister too will find she is frustrated that no progress has been made in fulfilling her promises.

There are some specific questions she must ask to define the sort of issues she needs to tackle:

  • Are the people you want to help helped by spending a lot of money on raising the personal tax allowance – or is there a better way of lightening their tax burden that would use that money more efficiently?
  •  Are they likely to benefit from the national living wage – or see their overtime squeezed to pay for it? Or will that just pass them by entirely?
  • Are their local schools no good – and if so, will they be helped more by improving schools generally, directing a pupil premium or free school meals at their children, or by creating an option of government selective schools? If so, how to make sure they benefit from the first wave of new grammars?
  • Do people have distinctive housing concerns? Do you need to change eligibility to give them greater priority for affordable housing? Or are many of them struggling because there is not enough affordable care for their children – or for their parents?

Big political promises come cheap: eradicate fuel poverty by 2010; child poverty by 2020. But unless underpinned by a real understanding of the problems – and what government can do about them – all they do is further undermine the public trust in politicians when they are missed.

So Prime Minister – don’t just lash out at those who are trying to make sense of what you say. They are trying to turn your words into action. Help them instead.


Sensible comments as ever. I would also add - are you trying to make a short term difference? Or do you want to fix a systemic problem? If it's the latter, you'll need a proper programme, with defined outcomes and benefits and ways of assessing interim results. Reading the IOG material on how to tackle longer term policy issues would help you too PM. Apart from being clear what you want done, who you wish to help and whether there are policies which you consider off-limits, you need to ensure someone is responsible for delivery and be consistent in what you are asking for. When your expertise is in words, it's too easy to respond to the latest perceived issue by tweaking an existing one. Experience suggests that this confuses issues and delays action.
Oh - and publicly criticising those who've got to make your words mean something to people in real life by and large doesn't motivate them!

I found this article rather intriguing, but not (I think) in the way Jill intended. If the first bold heading were changed to "some advice to current civil servants ...", the argument would work just as well, if not better.

The reason the article works both ways is that it misses the central point. The problem is not that speeches are almost invariably (and of necessity) more simplistic than the policy they relate to. The problem is that, when the speech precedes the policy, there needs to be a two-way dialogue between the speechwriter and the policymaker to ensure that the policy delivers what the speechwriter was actually striving for and not some other policy that merely fits the (simplistic) words used.

My experience – as a consultant, not a civil servant – is that the dialogue has to be managed by the policy developers, because it is they who develop the questions which the speechmaker needs to answer.

The Prime Minister is complaining that this dialogue isn’t taking place. Maybe there is more she could have done in private, first, to get her point across … or maybe she has tried that approach. I don’t know. But, on the basis of the evidence in Jill’s brief article, it would seem that the most efficient result would flow from civil servants making a rather greater adjustment to their behaviour than the Prime Minister might need to make to her own.