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Opinion

The Secret Civil Servant: We come up with solutions and ministers ignore them

A Whitehall worker wants people to know civil servants understand the public’s frustrations over the cost of living crisis and are just as angry.

A few weeks ago, Big Issue founder Lord John Bird wrote a column along the lines of: “Government lacks creativity”.

As a civil servant, I disagree, but I can’t help but understand why he feels this way.

Creativity exists within every government department, and at every level. The challenge we face is ministers whose eyes are closed and ears are stopped up, yet whose mouths convey a message far from the reality we are unable to speak of.

Whether it’s the pandemic, cost of living or the Rwanda scandal, there are no shortage of issues we must deal with that compromise not only our own morals, but those of society we seek to serve. 

Creativity is not the issue. It is the standard we ought to expect of ministers, and accountability, that is lacking.

I left one department several years ago having witnessed ministers knowingly and intentionally waste £55million of tax payers money. Why? Because of unforeseeable risk. Risk that, as civil servants, we couldn’t possibly understand. 

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Despite dozens of colleagues giving ‘creative’ advice on how the money could be recuperated or better spent elsewhere, the ‘do nothing option’ guarded against unwanted headlines questioning their abilities. 

This is the real risk they talked of. Their own selfish ambitions placed over the genuine needs of the very same people who naively elected them.

I left shortly after, and have since worked at two other departments. I wish I could say they were different.

My daily commute takes me past at least three dozen apartment complexes. All of which are empty. Owned by a foreign investor no doubt, one that would probably struggle to point it out on a map.

My commute then takes me past Parliament. Our highly regarded, world leading parliament. One cannot help but feel it equally as empty as those apartment blocks.

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We have a housing a crisis in the UK. The solutions are plentiful, creative recommendations overflowing from Red Boxes… but still nothing changes. 

Having been a civil servant for six years, I don’t look out the window on the train anymore. I don’t stop to admire Parliament and what it should represent. 

Instead I remain faithful to the notion that every decision we make can and will have an impact on peoples lives, and it’s our duty to make that a positive one.

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I do not envy colleagues working in Ofgem or BEIS [Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy] right now.

As you read this, please don’t blame them. They are no doubt just as angry as you, struggling, anxious. They will be doing everything in their power to seek the best possible outcome. Whether or not that outcome is right for society or for the ministers’ own interests is a decision we cannot make. 

The only bright light of my commute is Rob, the Big Issue vendor outside Waterloo station. I still have his Christmas card on my shelf. He is a good person. I have more faith in him than I do any elected official. 

He always says: “God Bless” after I say goodbye. I say it back. 

I pray for him, I pray for our families, friends, colleagues. I pray for society and the environment. 

But just as the empty apartments I pass on my journey to the city, I cannot help but feel my prayers enter an equally empty space that even God cannot fill.

The void will only be filled through fundamental change at the highest levels of government, one that recognises the creativity of the 450,000 civil servants committed to the greater good.

Until then all we have is each other. And the Big Issue.

The Secret Civil Servant worked as a senior civil servant in the Department for Transport in 2019.

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