Managing a Whitehall Crisis

You can see a fuller text of the talk here.

On 18 September, Lord (Tim) Boswell of Aynho talked to the Club about managing a crisis in Whitehall and he said : “You have to start somewhere, and there can be no better introduction than ‘Yes Minister’. Most of us would describe it as inspired light fiction, but for insiders it was a documentary, and even sometimes a training video.

I pretty much came cold into this world in the early. I was farming in Aynho when the phone rang, and the then Minister of Agriculture said Tim, Europe has agreed to reduce the butter mountain by introducing milk quotas – would you like to come up to help us invent them?’ So I took off my wellies, and went up to Whitehall officially for two days a week, to become what is now known, often rather notoriously, as a Special Adviser. A role that I was retained in for three years, not just for milk quotas, but long enough to go also through the Chernobyl crisis (with radioactive sheep in the Lake District) and it all led to my going into politics, and eventually having some time as a Minister back in my old Department, with Sir Tony Baldry as a colleague.

The top tip for someone going into Whitehall is to make the best of the element of surprise. If you can be civil and constructive, and not too bumptious, that’s a bonus.

A second aspect in any crisis is that you never know where you are when you start out. There are many feedback loops, all seized on by litigious persons (think of insurance claims) arts lobbies (not to mention the culture war over the Last Night of the Proms) or disability interests. And now, which I never directly experienced myself you have all the apparatus of devolution and (slightly) different rules to explain.

Here is a prescription for coping:

  • Pick a small team with one or two who know the subject(obviously doctors if it’s a health crisis)
  • One or two people who can think imaginatively – a Whitehall crisis unlocks inner creativity.
  • At least one lawyer who can also think outside the box
  • Someone who likes strategy, thinking forward to the next hurdle.
  • Someone checking implementation. So often you think or claim you have pulled the lever and nothing happens, or it gets caught up in something else.
  • This team needs to work frequently together and to bounce ideas off each other.

Ministers need to keep a wary but real relationship with their ‘shadows’.

You have to navigate the tensions between evolving knowledge, explaining what you are doing about it, and deciding what the public needs to be told. The longer it continues the tougher it gets.

There is an implied steady state normally in public life where Government governs, whether or not you support it, and is only subject to a bit of grief from the media and parliament and the wider checks and balances in society like local authorities and trade associations. This breaks down in a crisis when people who would not normally worry too much about politics realise that there is a real threat, and that it is affecting them and their families.

To stimulate your thoughts, let me offer you what I feel should have been said at the beginning of the pandemic:

  • This is a new and serious health emergency affecting us all
  • We don’t know how serious yet, but we will try to use the best knowledge available to do the right thing
  • We will try to tell it straight and not over-claim
  • We will take responsibility for what we do, including inevitably mistakes
  • We will do our best for you and ask in return that you respond in the same way

Two thoughts finally. We should always make the best of a crisis and learn lessons, but you can’t ration the number of crises-try simultaneously COVID, BREXIT, floods and a cyber-attack on New Year’s Eve. Then cheer yourselves by reflecting on the Queen’s wisdom when she reminded us ‘We’ll meet again’ !”

Tim then fielded a series of questions which provided further insight into the mechanisms of Whitehall and the present issues regarding the Covid-19 Pandemic.  Altogether a most interesting talk and question time.