How the civil service prepares for changes in government

How does the civil service prepare for a change in government?

Preparation undertaken by the civil service falls largely into three main categories:

  • Access talks and preparatory contact with opposition parties which could come into government.
  • Writing briefs for incoming ministers about departmental activity and other significant issues that a new minister will have to deal with on taking office.
  • Work anticipating the likely policies of opposition parties and what the objectives of each department might be under a different government, including by studying the manifestoes of each party.

Before the Labour victory in 1997, the Department for Education and Employment used information from meetings between the then permanent secretary Michael Bichard and the then shadow secretary of state David Blunkett to guide its preparatory work for Labour’s Literacy Strategy and prepare itself for the first ever blind minister. 

When does the civil service start preparing for a change in government?

Any preparation that the civil service undertakes for a change in government has to be balanced against its priority to serve the government which is currently in office.

Most preparation work will occur during the election campaign. However, in the past departments have started preparations far in advance of an expected election date. Before the 2010 election limited numbers of civil servants began think about election issues 18 months before the election, but most work took place in the last six months. The Fixed Term Parliaments Act in theory helps provide a regular election cycle, but in 2017 Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election meant that civil service preparation time was necessarily short. While the 2019 election had been expected for some time, the civil service will have had little or no time to prepare compared to an election being held in the usual cycle.

What happens to ministers and their civil servants during an election period?

During an election campaign period, ministers are expected to separate their roles as a government minister and a party campaigner. Government resources cannot be used for election purposes – including speech-writing support, events organisation and factual briefings prepared by the civil service. The rules also state that government activity must be restricted during that period. The Ministerial Code states: ‘Ministers continue in office and it is customary for them to observe discretion in initiating any action of a continuing or long-term character’.

Civil servants continue to support the government during the campaign, under far stricter rules than usual, in what used to be called a ‘purdah’ period. No new appointments, contracts or major policy areas can be announced. Civil servants also begin to prepare for new ministers in their departments, drawing up briefings and other induction materials. Government announcements, consultations and new appointments are customarily postponed until after the election.

How is preparation coordinated across the civil service?

At around the time Parliament dissolves, the Cabinet Office releases guidance relating to the conduct of each general election. It also acts as the primary coordinator between the opposition leadership and the civil service on access talks. The Cabinet Office and cabinet secretary must also prepare for an incoming prime minister and produce a briefing pack for them. The Cabinet Office also prepares for an unclear election result and any coalition or supply and confidence negotiations – as well as other constitutional issues that might arise from the election result. It also acts as the primary coordinator between the opposition leadership and the civil service on access talks.

What do civil servants prepare for a new minister on their first day?

Departments prepare briefing documents for new ministers. This can be a useful way for departments to take stock of their policies and organisation, and consider how they might need to change. However, not all ministers find these documents useful – or even read them. Andrew Greenway, a former senior civil servant in the Cabinet Office, explained how the documentation provided for a new minister could number hundreds of pages but argued that it was often of little use.

Others felt it could be more useful. Jacqui Smith, former home secretary, said in her Ministers Reflect interview that some departments provided a ‘well worked through… education process that enables you both through written material and through meetings to get an idea of the sort of policy areas that you’re covering’. Lord Dunlop, a minister in the Scotland Office, felt that ‘the civil service does a great job in looking at various scenarios as to what’s going to happen in the election and preparing briefs for the incoming minister’.

The ‘Day One’ planning for new ministers also includes thinking about how best to introduce the minister to departmental staff, discussing how their office will work and even making sure that logos, posters and name-badges associated with the previous government are removed.

Update date: 
Wednesday, October 30, 2019
Authors: Catherine Haddon