Five tips to help public servants in central government and local services work together better
Morgan Finlayson reflects on nearly a decade of working in the civil service and offers a personal perspective on what makes an effective working relationship between central government and local services.
Before joining MV I spent nine years working for central government. During my time on various policy and delivery programmes, it became increasingly clear how vital it was that there is a good understanding between civil servants in Whitehall and local managers “doing the doing” - for both creating effective policy and successfully delivering it.
But having worked in public, private and third sectors, I appreciate how challenging it can be when colleagues want to engage with the operations of central government but can't seem to get any traction. Equally, making decisions at the centre can be difficult without a real sense of the current constraints experienced by practitioners who are delivering services.
The purpose of these reflections is to help civil servants and other public servants think through the best way to engage with each other. I'm not going to offer specific 'do's and don'ts' – what I will do instead is to suggest five broad rules to remember, based on the connections I made during my time in government and insight from MV’s relational approach.
1. There is no 'one person' to engage with
For public servants not part of the central government machinery, it is tempting to want to find the "one person" who covers your sector or area of interest. But many policy areas are nuanced and won't have a single person covering them. More than that, they may span across different teams within the same department or across more than one department.
Since this is the case, think of one person is a starting point. If you want to build a good network across a policy area, you should aim to link up with as many as possible, and try to learn who’s who in other departments.
2. Always consider the big picture
It is always wise to take time to think about the pressures on the people you are working with. When engaging with counterparts in central government or local services, prepare yourself by understanding the demands that your colleague needs to balance. For civil servants this might be manifesto commitments, value for money, Ministerial priorities, and so on. For local public servants, this might be a campaign by service users, a local election, or budget shortfall. Does your perspective or view fit into what matters to them? If so, how? Or what can you change?
3. Consistency and authenticity is the gold standard
Consistency and authenticity are hallmarks of excellent professional relationships, and the same should be said here – the relationship is not there just for one side.
All public servants are inundated with requests and demands - from their own colleagues, from politicians, and from external stakeholders. We all clock very quickly when an interaction isn't genuine or is just after something.
4. 'Trusted' is better than 'renowned'
Would you rather be a regular guest at Friday night dinner, or the person who only gets invited on special occasions?
Reaching a place of trust means being able to discuss your particular position more regularly, and being considered a reliable person to seek out for support or discussion. What's crucial to building this trust? Respecting that you may never hear a public servant's "own" views on a subject. It's not personal, it's professional: being impartial is part of the job.
5. Maintain your connection and be patient
If the relationship can't do more at this time, don’t step away - maintain the connection, keep abreast of personnel changes and policy direction, and keep each other updated with your work: events, projects, reports, publications and so on.
Why do this? Many civil servants have a 'useful things drawer' - or indeed a 'useful things inbox folder' - things they can't make happen or work on right now, but would re-explore if the appetite from Ministers changed, if budgets were readjusted, or even if the administration changed after an election. Likewise, council officers or NHS managers usually have a list of wants and desires, if only they had the money and resources to make them happen.
Given the current context, this last point is perhaps the most important. With 2024 fast approaching, and the prospect of an election ahead, there's are only so many days that are guaranteed to fulfil existing policy commitments and programme delivery before things could change. A final universal tip for everyone: always keep one eye on the horizon.
To read more about MV’s work on the ‘bridge’ between central and local government click here.
To learn about MV’s relational approach to programme management click here.