In Praise of Civil Servants

When I first became a minister at the Home Office in 2010 we newbie ministers were invited by the Institute for Government to an induction. It’s a great idea to give new ministers some external, impartial advice on how to make the most of the job – and the advice I got that day stood me in better stead than any before or since.

Essentially there were two pieces of advice that I took to heart. Giving that advice were Michael Heseltine and Andrew Adonis – and whilst I know they are nothing alike, it’s the very fact that two such different people politically (from each other and from me!) had useful advice to give which shows there are common challenges ministers of all parties face.

The first piece of advice was to prioritise ruthlessly. We would find ourselves hit by a tsunami of work – a never-ending juggernaut all through our time in office – that was simply the business of government. If we weren’t careful we would do all our work, read all our submissions, make all our speeches, attend all our government meetings, take debates in Parliament and more – and we would exit our ministerships as good little ministers. Yes we would have done our work well but not used the extraordinary opportunity of our positions to deliver something we wanted to deliver during our time in the sun.

The second piece of advice was to trust our civil servants. They would, we were told, strain every muscle to enable us to deliver our mission if we made it clear what we wanted. They were not the satirical stuff of which ‘Yes Minister’ or ‘The Thick of It’ was made (although there have been some recognisable moments during my time in government!). We were told how civil servants are hard-working and noble in their efforts to make their new minister’s missions come true.

So I went back to my office, then at the Home Office as Equalities Minister, and set out my priority: introducing same-sex marriage. It was liberal. It righted a wrong and it would mean a huge amount to those it gave the freedom to choose to marry. I believed it was possible. Thus I decided and set my course.

The civil servants then got to work. Always willing to raise decent questions about how and when, but always willing to stick to the priority and find a way to make the details work. From a standing start they guided me through all the many many hoops, pitfalls and dangers that I had to get through. I had nothing but support, advice, energy and dedication to my mission.

And now it is the law.

And then I went to the Department for International Development (DFID) and did the same thing. I prioritised Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). I said to my civil servants I want to campaign in government on FGM (campaigning in government was a bit of a new concept for them at that point). And as I hope you have noticed – it is now in the media on virtually a daily basis. In fact – the media deserve plaudits for their coverage on this too – particularly the Evening Standard.

I have instigated a £35million program to end FGM in a generation, working with the many opponents of FGM in the communities where it happens. The diaspora in our own country who practise FGM and their mother countries where this terrible practise has gone on for 4,000 years are inextricably linked. We won’t stop it here if we don’t end it there.

That is why we are supporting the African-led movement to end Female Genital mutilation and the UN resolution banning it worldwide.

And now my campaign stretches right across Whitehall – into the Department of Health, the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Education. I’ve had the privilege of working with phenomenal campaigners like Nimko Ali and Efua Dorkenoo, who for years have been so instrumental and inspiring with their work on FGM.

Without such dedicated civil servants understanding what I was trying to do and helping me do it – I could not have been so successful.

And not to forget that there is even more praise due to the DFID civil servants around the world in the most dangerous of locations – providing our programs to end extreme world poverty by delivering on health, education, water and sanitation and much more to the poorest and most marginalised people in the world.

A big thank you to all my civil servants!

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