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One of the lessons we can take from the febrile politics of 2022 is the limitation of ministerial engagement as a route to policy influence. To give just a taste of the comings and goings across Whitehall,  between the start of July and end of October the UK had four chancellors and five education secretaries – including one that stayed in post for just two days! In all, the summer of 2022 saw three full reshuffles. While this pace of change was far from the norm, it did shine a new light on the fact that the political masters of Government are more often than not  just passing through departments. 

This is not to say that political engagement is not essential to effective public affairs. Informing the understanding of Parliamentarians – including those in Government and on the opposition and back benches – plays a huge role in setting the overarching direction of public policy. It influences the prioritisation of issues, the ways in which challenges are tackled, and the questions that are asked when the Government is being scrutinised. However, public affairs programmes exclusively focused on lobbying current Ministers have limited impact and need to be reset when the personnel changes. 

This is why it is important to look to the civil service as much as – if not more than – politicians when seeking policy impact. While the ‘Mandarins’ that lead the civil service tend to get the most attention, there are hundreds of officers working across every department to put policy into practice. While individuals do regularly move from post to post within Government, teams working on key issues do so with a greater degree of continuity than is often the case with Ministers. 

Building trusted relationships with the civil servants at work in the ‘engine room’ of Government can therefore be a highly effective, and sustainable, form of policy engagement. 

There are a few things to keep in mind when looking to engage with civil servants on policy teams. First, genuine expertise in the subject at hand is essential. Unlike traditional,  politically focused public affairs, there is little interest in engagement based on a partisan, or ideological basis. Civil servants are charged with impartially delivering on the priorities of the Government of the day, rather than shoring up politically advantageous relationships. This means that those seeking to have an influence with them need to do so on the basis of legitimate insight that can support effective delivery – offering robustly researched evidence or industry experience, for example. 

Second, and related to this, there is far more influence to be found in being unconditionally  helpful than there is in pushing a line. Even more than elected politicians, civil servants are resistant to overt lobbying. They are of course interested in understanding the practical implications of policy implementation on stakeholder groups, but are not there to simply deliver an advantage to any particular interest. The trust built by providing support without necessarily trying to force policy in a particular direction can ultimately put stakeholders in an incredibly influential position. 

Finally, patience is a virtue. The people working within the civil service have to abide by tight protocols and operate in a highly hierarchical environment. This can often mean that progress on particular projects and initiatives is slower than may be the case in other sectors. The need for sign off and consultation at multiple points can prove frustrating to those unused to such structures, but is worth acclimatising to when seeking to engage in the policy-making and implementation process. 

Government ministers will always have an overriding influence over the direction of national policy, so engaging with them will never not be important to those seeing an impact. However, as the events of 2022 have emphasised, that influence is often transitory. Engaging with a civic service set up to work irrespective of ministerial  – or governing party – change has to be factored into any programme of substantive policy engagement.