How Change Happens within Government: A Masterclass from a Whitehall Veteran

March 10, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

I chaired a panel at LSE recently that included DFID lifer Phil Mason, who ran its Anti-Corruption Unit (reviewed here) after it was set up in 2000 by Clare Short. Phil had a big challenge – he had to persuade other Whitehall departments to get behind the idea, when they often had very different priorities.

He sent me a short paper he has written on what happened next, which identifies 7 stratagems and 6 lessons for working across Government – a fascinating insider view for anyone trying to work out what goes on in a big government. Here they are:

‘1.        Ministerial impetus undoubtedly helps

Not many came stronger than Clare Short. ‘In the absence of this, all the other stratagems are significantly – although not fatally – weaker.’  Another lesson (particularly applicable with her) was that there was often as much utility presenting oneself to Other Government Department (OGD) peers as ‘restraining’ that pressure, as it was being able to lay it on.  A judicious balance of use and restraint was a vital tool.’

2.         Find the shared agenda

Parts of OGDs may share the same agenda as DFID.  The key was not to see OGDs as monolithic, ‘single-view’, entities.  All organisations are an aggregate of varying interests. For example, one part of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) was lead HMG department for UK performance on implementing the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention.  This section was an ally for DFID against the trade promotion interests on other parts of DTI. 

3.         Link separate but related agendas

Understand OGDs’ interests: The Abacha scandal (Nigeria’s leader looting some $4-6bn from state coffers while in office) mobilised HM Treasury, not because of anxiety over the damage to Nigeria but because of concerns about the reputation of the City of London as a world financial centre. So, remember – it doesn’t matter if OGDs do what we’d like them to do for their reasons if the end result is what we want.  Understanding how pursuing their interests can also achieve our agenda can be important – a little like judo, using their weight to our advantage. 

4.         Exploit crises

The Abacha crisis provided a platform for advancing DFID’s agenda.  A strong motivating force existed for change, even though the reasons for that change were not the ones DFID were primarily concerned with. Good antennae allowed DFID to detect these waves and ride them.

5.         Exploit external pressure

It was often possible to use to our advantage external pressures faced by OGDs.  In the anti-corruption case, our relations with a major NGO, Transparency International, enabled us to ride an existing wave. Through TI’s parliamentary support, we were able to keep the profile of the issue high (our interest also encouraged TI to persevere) through Parliamentary Questions, draft Bills and the parliamentary International Development Committee.

The particular circumstances of the anti-corruption agenda also made it possible for DFID to occupy a position of broker between the Home Office (HO) and TI.  HO believed we had influence with TI, which to some extent we did, but probably not to the extent HO assumed.  We could also help TI understand where the problems were in HO and influence their lobbying approach. In consequence, we had good, targeted lobbying rather than megaphone abuse, and HO felt their concerns were feeding back to TI – which they were.

6.         Think innovatively – find new allies

We developed a novel relationship with the National Criminal Intelligence Service, not an organisation conventionally associated with DFID.  NCIS had shared interests with us on anti-money laundering.  By judicious funding, NCIS became an ally in Whitehall discussions on issues that were important to DFID.

7.         Know your ‘adversaries’

The more you know about your interlocutors, the more you can advance the preceding six stratagems, by knowing better what might work and in what combination.  Opportunities should be taken (particularly useful are out of hours occasions during international meetings etc) to understand them as individuals and their operating domains/paradigms.  They will be coming from very different policy milieus. 

For example, from cultivating close understanding, we knew in HO that the ‘problem’ was at senior official level, not ministers.  It helped us to know that, as we knew it was worth continuing with pressure at political (ministerial) level.  (The opposite intelligence – that the problem resided with Ministers – would have suggested the opposite tactic of working with our peer officials.)  With DTI, we knew of the isolation and difficulties the team had against the trade promotion side of the house.  Boosting them helped both us and them.  Providing support for the Council of Europe Corruption Convention and the OECD Bribery Convention helped HO and DTI restore UK credibility in international circles that we were serious on anti-corruption (against criticisms that those departments weren’t trying).

And 6 Lessons

1. No one approach fits all.  You need to know the terrain well. Getting the tactics right will often be more important than the grand strategy.  For example in the absence of strong Ministerial support at this end, avoid escalating to Ministerial levels.  Work with your peers to influence change ‘from below’. 

2. It takes time to build relations, but it is worth it.  Every personality is penetrable.  You just need to find out the levers.

3. Don’t expect to win merely by the cogency of our position or policy.  This is often a DFID temptation, to simply improve the logicality of the argument.  But this often raises anti-bodies – and more importantly, ignores bureaucratic politics. Whitehall is a game of interests and we need to know and use OGDs’ interests. 

4. The plea for ‘joined-up Government’ is unlikely to serve DFID’s interests where the ‘histories’ of departments on a subject are unequal: when the OGD has the longest pedigree, ‘joined-up government’ is most likely to mean us joining them

5. You must be realistic about how far you can hope to move an OGD.  We are unlikely to shift them on fundamentals, at least in the short-term.

6. ‘Challenge not confrontation’.  There are big advantages in the indirect approach.  Probing inconsistencies in OGD positions is more likely to win gains than stressing the logicality of your own.’

March 10, 2020
Duncan Green