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Top tips in preparation for a new government

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CS Learning logoThe Scotland Office’s Colin Faulkner has written in these pages about using his experience of working with ministers and seeing how government operates to help civil servant colleagues tackle a range of challenges.

During April 2015, Colin was a speaker at 15 events run by Civil Service Learning in preparation for the new government.

The events had three themes:

  • Winning the confidence of new ministers
  • Working effectively with special advisers
  • Being agile and resilient during a time of change

Drawing on the expertise and experience both of the speakers and the civil servants of all grades who took part in these sessions, we have pulled together their top tips for success.

Winning the confidence of new ministers

Do background research on your new ministers

  1. Go to; look at their voting and parliamentary questions history; key interests; CV; Twitter and Guido Fawkes, etc
  2. Know the manifesto
  3. Talk to private office
  4. Speak to others who have worked with them previously
  5. Read their speeches
  6. Get to know the demographics and issues in their constituency
  7. Find out which organisations they are members of
  8. Know which stakeholders they give most credence to and which have given them briefing packs for their new role

Be especially well prepared for the first meeting

Preparing the content

  1. Talk to Private Office: find out what briefing they have read; why does the Minister want the meeting; what has gone well in previous meetings
  2. Speak to Special Advisers - use them as a sounding board
  3. Be sure of facts and evidence
  4. Challenge your starting assumptions
  5. Read research papers and think-tank papers and know the perspective from the front line
  6. Identify quick wins
  7. Know what the future decision points / key milestones are
  8. Be prepared to explain the basics
  9. Rehearse and role-play awkward questions and blue-sky questions
  10. Prepare your “elevator pitch”, if meeting shortened

Choreographing the meeting

  1. Prepare an agenda that can be flexible
  2. Keep the cast list small and agree leads for each agenda item
  3. Seek feedback from others who have already had meetings with the new minister
  4. Find out what meetings they have before and after your meeting

Ten top tips for the first meeting

  1. Introduce yourself (name and job title rather than grade)
  2. Be enthusiastic: congratulate them on their success and ask how they are
  3. Be open to all lines of enquiry
  4. Be honest if you don’t know something, but say you will find out
  5. Listen and be consultative – it’s fine to ask questions
  6. Ask the minister what he/she would like to achieve
  7. Be clear and brief: no jargon or acronyms
  8. Keep it simple but give them options for how much detail they want
  9. Use their language and not the previous incumbent’s
  10. Be realistic: give some real-life examples to illustrate the issues

Written communications that win ministerial confidence

  1. Start at first principles (key facts and data) for intelligent people who are not subject experts
  2. Be succinct
  3. Pay attention to details: e.g. spelling, punctuation and grammar
  4. Ask someone outside your area to read it before you send it
  5. Accept your priority level
  6. Be clear about the problem the minister is trying to solve
  7. Quote the stakeholders the ministers rate

How to build a strong working relationship with special advisers

Top tips for first interactions with new special advisers

  1. Put yourself in their shoes – remember their starting point, knowledge base and background; understand their “world” and perspectives
  2. Develop a shared sense of priorities – maybe work through the manifesto together
  3. Involve them in incoming ministers’ briefing and sessions – they should have their own “Day 1” briefing pack
  4. Help them find their way around
  5. Ask them about favoured working practices, e.g. agree what to copy them in on
  6. Invite them to talk to the whole of the senior civil service
  7. Cultivate their private office
  8. Identify quick wins to gain credibility with them and their trust
  9. Get to know them / do your research – what have they written on before, know their CV; know which external stakeholders are influencing them; speak to others who have had dealings with them
  10. Know your facts and figures

Key behaviours

  1. Be can-do
  2. Demonstrate political common sense
  3. Be proactive
  4. Respond quickly
  5. Work iteratively and in partnership to reach decision

How to maintain positive relationships with special advisers

  1. Share early drafts / give early warning of upcoming issues
  2. Give them good news to publicise as well as bad news to help handle
  3. Write well!
  4. Be persuasive
  5. Catch them early in the day and on Fridays
  6. Follow them on Twitter and other social media
  7. Accept if your policy area isn’t a priority
  8. Share useful data and evidence with them

What to do if there is a problem in the relationship

  1. Accept there is a problem
  2. Don’t be defensive
  3. Work hard to develop alternative approaches
  4. Do not undermine them
  5. Meet rather than email

Being agile and resilient during a time of change

Managing your staff


  1. Start early in communications – prepare them for what might happen
  2. Communicate proactively about why change has happened and what the new vision is
  3. Be honest – even about uncertainty
  4. Beware of media impact on staff morale
  5. Celebrate success of previous policies, address any sense of loss but demand professionalism
  6. Reinforce the Civil Service values and code

Managing moves

  1. Encourage flexibility to ensure a good fit between new roles and staff
  2. Encourage staff to see their transferable skills and to shadow new teams where they might move to work
  3. Give one-on-one time to staff having to change jobs

Managing upwards

  1. Agree the new vision
  2. See your role in helping new leaders get to grips with their new roles
  3. Understand new ministers’ principles, values and philosophy
  4. Scenario-plan
  5. Be responsive

Maintaining personal integrity

  1. Retain impartiality
  2. See the personal development opportunity in every situation!
  3. Be flexible
  4. Be aware of your own process of adjustment
  5. Don’t be personally committed – or be personally committed flexibly!
  6. Look at your policy area from a point of first principles, back to raw data and objective evidence, challenge all your assumptions and gain a fresh perspective
  7. Create space for new ideas
  8. Be confident: civil servants are good at change!

Stakeholder engagement

  1. Be a good listener but retain impartiality
  2. Manage expectations
  3. Help them to engage ministers and special advisers
  4. Remember your stakeholders’ perspectives
  5. Recognise stakeholders’ role as a useful communications channel
  6. Find new stakeholders to align with new ministers
  7. Be professional, honest and sympathetic

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