Episode 10: Sir Humphrey is changing

Sir Humphrey and Me
8 min readFeb 12, 2021

What happened the last time your boss left their job?

Perhaps it happened quickly, or perhaps it was coming for a while, elongated by a long notice period in which their power and influence slowly ebbed away.

Perhaps you staged them a nice leaving ceremony on their last day, with a cake and some presents and lots of insincere platitudes about what a jolly nice person they were to work for.

And perhaps, very quietly, as you waved them off, you admitted to a colleague that you never liked them, thought they were completely useless and were glad that they’re pissing off.

In the civil service none of these niceties are observed when the top dogs in the department — the ministerial team — get their marching orders, either from the occupants of Number 10 or the electorate. The brutality and suddenness of change in the civil service takes some getting used to. Yet, in the midst of it, Sir Humphrey endures.

Many will have seen those ghastly, staged clips of senior ministers leaving their departments for the last time, the corridors lined with moist officials and sighing big wigs who clap them off as they head out of the door.

What you don’t see is the bug-eyed, frenetic maintenance men dismantling the photo frames of the departing ministerial teams at the entrance, or the less enamoured officials out of shot silently fist bumping and hi-fiving their fond goodbyes.

Change is an industry in the civil service. Much of its role, in fact, is about managing change within the political sphere and mitigating the risks that fall out of it.

As a speechwriter, one of the most immediate perils facing me after a reshuffle was the threat of imminent redundancy. There was never any guarantee that a new minister would want me as their dedicated scribe; some write their own speeches (imagine!) and many bring their own people with them as they criss-cross departments.

In the end, this never happened to me[1], but it was one of the reasons I started to look for broader communications roles outside of speechwriting. I saw it as an escape hatch I could access if a new broom decided to sweep my role — and me — out of Whitehall existence.

Yet mine was a small part of a much bigger series of calculations and manoeuvres that the department teams would make to insulate themselves from potential disaster.

The process would normally start either with a tip off from Number 10 that a former reshuffle was on the way, or a collective reckoning within the department that the scandal-wracked ghoul currently clutching his or her red box like a child’s comforter would soon be seen no more.

Every team in the department would then swing into action, dusting off and updating their ministerial briefing packs. For communications, this meant concocting a plan for the first week or no of a new minister’s tenure: what visits they should go on, what announcements they could make, which health charities or organisations should they meet and so on.

When we knew which minister we were getting — normally only when the news broke on the BBC, or more recently on Twitter as Number 10 started announcing it through social media — we’d start digging into the new person’s history, looking out for any red flags such as dubious past pronouncements on health or any personal scandals or indiscretions that might arouse the curiosity of the hacks now they were in a position of real influence.[2]

Then, normally sometime in early evening, as most of the Department was busy packing up for the day[3], the new Secretary of State would swing into the building. There would be a trail of greetings from a primped up Permanent Secretary and the other big wigs, before the new chief would be handed over to his or her private secretary to show them the ropes.

Early the next day would then see a series of meetings between the new Secretary of State and senior policy bods in which a bonfire would be made of the old policies and a sparkling new set of priorities concocted. And then the Department would settle smoothly into a new order, until the next time, that is, when the same rituals would be revived.

Approaching general elections were an even bigger deal, creating a frenetic rush across departments to prepare the ground for a radical change in the political landscape. Ahead of time, all departments would scour the political speeches and announcements made by all parties for clues about the sort of policies likely to take centre stage if they get into power.

These formed the basis of elaborate briefing packs, with civil servants — the quintessential schoolground swots — doing their utmost to develop a full plan for how these policies might be delivered well ahead of any new boss swinging into town.

The peak moment for this type of exhaustive preparation was 2010, when the election results for the first time in a generation were too close to call. Whitehall embarked on a biblical process of scenario planning for all possible permutations.

In health, we had communications plans worked out for a new Secretary of State from all three political parties, backed by 100-day plans of activity covering every possible ministerial calibration. Every policy division in the department had done something similar for their areas of responsibility. What united all of them was that they lasted about 10 minutes into a new administration before they were discarded: weeks and weeks of work almost immediately consigned to the dustbin.[4]

What’s altogether more difficult to plan for, however, is the shift in the basic architecture of Whitehall that takes place when government decides to reshape whole departments or even create new ones to advance their agenda. Known as “machinery of government” changes, the effect this can have on civil servants is enormous.

My first experience of this came just a few months into my Whitehall career, when the incoming Brown administration decided to carve up the Department for Education.

The politics of this were obvious. Blair’s administration would forever be associated with his pledge to make “Education, Education, Education” his defining priority. For Brown, a different agenda was needed, one that spoke to his passion for reducing social inequalities, supporting families and vulnerable children and creating a high skilled, high value economy.

As a result, we found out suddenly, on 28 June 2007, that the bulk of the Department for Education would be recast as the new Department for Children, Schools and Families — while the bits of the department responsible for further and higher education policy would be hived off and merged with the business department to form the new Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

To the outside world, there is much cynicism about these sorts of rebrands. People suspect they simply involve changing the brass plate outside the front door, while everything stays much as before inside. What this perspective misses is the sudden, violent change made to hundreds of civil servants’ working lives.

In my own team, I saw press officers who had been responsible for policies now falling under the new BIS bailiwick rock up at the office at 9am and get remarkably short shrift. They were told to pack their things and head over to the business department’s HQ at Victoria Street straight away. While some took it in good heart, others were distraught.

Their mood was unlikely to be lifted when they discovered that BIS weren’t expecting them, hadn’t got any office space for them and didn’t have the first clue how to use them.

The adaptability and resourcefulness of the civil servant is quite something, and for much of that first week, we heard stories of press officers briefing out stories for BIS while sitting on stairwells or tucked up in the department’s coffee shop.

Whatever is thrown their way, Sir Humphrey’s folk endure.

Notes:

[1] This did happen to a close colleague though. After a new minister decided he didn’t like the cut of his jib, he was summarily relieved from his speechwriting duties and put in charge of running a series of “plain English” courses to get policy officials to stop using such constipated jargon: a role to make even Sisyphus think about a career change. I was so happy for him when he landed a big job at a large international agency on double his old salary — he deserved every penny.

[2] Obvious things like Jeremy Hunt’s flirtations with homeopathic medicine or his religiously-inspired belief in earlier limits on abortion were in a sense easy for the Department’s communication team to deal with. It was the secret lobbying deals or casual nepotism buried deep in a minister’s past that tended to be the thing that really tripped us up — always more harmful because they’re so purposefully hidden.

[3] One of my favourite moments in TV series The Thick Of It is when Hugh Abbot, Secretary of State at the Department of Social Affairs, wanders into the empty departmental offices and asks, “Where are all the people? Where are my people?”. Only to be told by his Terri, his civil servant press secretary, “They’ve gone home, Secretary of State, it’s 5.40”. Like much in the series, there’s more than a grain of truth to this, particularly early on in my career when we knew it would be a devil’s job to get a media line out of a policy official much beyond half four. The difference today though is that the majority of civil servants now carry laptops and blackberries home with them. Even before the pandemic, many colleagues would log on at home, often working long into the evening, to get through their bulging in-trays. Not a plea for sympathy, but a different perspective on the old clichés about the work-shy, clock-watching civil servant.

[4] Preparations were relaxed slightly in subsequent elections, the emphasis being much more on being “mindset ready” than planning out every possible eventuality: the particular mindset most required, in my experience, being a willingness to look cheerfully on as a new Secretary of State dismantled several years’ worth of work in order to embark on a new set of priorities untainted by their now departed rival’s hand.

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Sir Humphrey and Me

A former civil servant sharing light-hearted stories about life in the UK’s civil service