How to engage civil servants effectively

Good engagement between civil servants and the sector is critical in the creation of good policy.

No matter how experienced or well-meaning the official, there will be a wealth of detail which can only be supplied by those who have worked at the coalface for decades. Even when those in the sector may disagree with a policy, discussion and engagement can improve and shape an idea, avoid unintended consequences and ensure that any policy solutions are devised in a way that is as targeted, effective and proportionate as possible.

But good engagement isn’t easy. And sometimes it seems that for every positive engagement, there’s another which leaves both sides frustrated and no further forward. If policy wonks and academics want to be as effective as possible in engaging civil servants they need to think as carefully about how they engage as they do about the underlying policy. So, without further ado, I present five do’s and don’ts for effective engagement.

1. Don’t come without reading the document

An obvious one to start with, but it’s amazing how many people come to talk to civil servants without having done this. If you’re not aware that the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) metrics are benchmarked by prior attainment, you’re not going to get much further than the civil servant pointing to the aforesaid benchmarking. If you’ve read the documentation, you can have a really good conversation about whether the benchmarking system is appropriate and raise any concerns you have with it – or just leave that point and move on to others that concern you more.

An important consideration is that points that are good to make in speeches and to the media are not always effective for engaging with officials who are as on top of the technical detail as you should be. You’re not playing to the crowd; you’re speaking to an individual.

Do prepare thoroughly, analyse the documentation and come ready with questions and talking points

Proper preparation allows both sides to get the most out of the engagement. Questions are good: all civil servants will appreciate the opportunity to clear up any misunderstandings or uncertainties, but we would like you to have read what we’ve already published. Knowing the detail allows you to identify how it may impact situations we may not ever have thought of. And coming with a clear idea of what you want to discuss allows you to ensure the meeting is spent discussing what you feel is most important.

2. Don’t expect the impossible

If you’re meeting a mid-level civil servant, they’re not going to reverse a manifesto policy. If your only ask is for the complete abandonment of a policy, it’s unlikely to meet with a great reception. Even if you have the best evidenced, most reasonable request in the world, don’t expect someone to agree to it in that meeting: policies are complex and clearance processes take time. An official who may be sympathetic – and even planning to recommend a change to their minister – is still only likely to say something such as, “I can really see the strength of the points you’re making there; I’ll have a look at this again.”

Do manage your expectations

Understand the level of authority and influence of the person you’re dealing with. Pitch your arguments accordingly. If you want a major change, maybe you should be trying to make your points directly to the minister, and so using the meeting to secure that – explaining why your point is important and (indirectly) why the group you represent matters – is the most effective thing you can do.

Often minds don’t get changed through just one engagement, but through multiple conversations with many people over time. Just because your meeting didn’t result in an immediate change doesn’t mean it wasn’t an important part of that process.

3. Don’t think you know an official’s personal opinions

This can work both ways. I’ve had stakeholders try to bond with me through the mistaken belief that we shared the same view about a topical issue of the day; I’ve also had people become angrily personal when I was simply representing the views of my minister. Civil servants’ duty is to represent the views of the government of the day, and most of us become rather good at not letting our own feelings impact how we engage publicly. Of course, regardless of whether people try to make it personal, a good official will aim to remain professional and not let that influence their judgement –  but it’s still not going to help them leave the meeting feeling positive about you.

Of course, there are exceptions. If you’ve worked with someone for a long time, you may have started to work out some of what they really think – but even then, I’d suggest it’s best not to assume.

Do act courteously and engage politely

The more often you get to see someone, the more likely they are to take your views on board – and being courteous and polite is one of the best ways to help make someone want to see you again. At the end of the day, we are all professionals doing our jobs, and treating each other with respect is the least that we can do to make everyone’s lives better.

4. Don’t just be negative

I’m not talking about constructive criticism. If a policy will have a negative impact on those you’re representing, officials will want to know – and the more detail the better. But try to be realistic. In particular, the argument “this system isn’t perfect” carries a lot less weight than “this system will make things worse than they are now and this is why.”

Do be constructive

Usually, the civil servant will have been set a problem to solve. If you agree that’s a problem but not with the solution, see if you can suggest a better solution (that doesn’t cost a fortune or take 10 years). The odds are they’ll be delighted. Even if you disagree that there’s a problem and think the policy is wholly negative, at least go into detail – with evidence – about exactly where, how and by how much the negative impacts will be. That’s much more constructive than simply prophesying doom.

5. Don’t sell your birthright for a mess of pottage

I’ve had people tell me in discussions on destinations of leavers from HE (DLHE) or longitudinal education outcomes (LEO) that going to higher education makes absolutely no difference to a person’s future employment prospects or earnings. Really? Do you really want to say that to the department responsible for arguing for your funding from the Treasury? Fortunately, this argument doesn’t tend to have much traction.

Of greater potential danger is the argument that the TEF is invalid because it doesn’t observe teaching directly. It’s a seductive argument, recently picked up by the Lords Economic Affairs Committee – but do any of the people in the sector who advanced it really want government inspectors coming to observe university teaching? Ofsted would be a far greater intrusion and a threat to autonomy than the TEF. People need to understand that arguing that the TEF is invalid unless it includes direct inspection of teaching is far more likely to lead to the imposition of Ofsted-style inspections than to the abolition of the TEF.

Do think strategically rather than tactically

Don’t compromise deeply-held sector principles to win tactical debates. Don’t try to win cheap points at the expense of something you care deeply about. Always think about what the likely result will be if the argument you’re making genuinely becomes accepted.

More broadly, understand when to accept, when to compromise and when to oppose outright. Pick your battles and make sure you use your influence and arguments to best effect. Above all, think of the long-term: the higher education sector is one of the few areas of society which can justifiably think on a timescale of decades, if not centuries, so engage accordingly.

Good engagement benefits both sides – and leads to better policymaking and better results for all concerned. The five tips above are just the tip of the iceberg but can be the underpinnings of strong and genuinely respectful dialogue between the ministry and the sector.

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