From: Sir Humphrey Appleby
To: Bernard Woolley
Subject: Guiding Ministers
Your proposal for the induction course for high-fliers misses an important element. Since it is not our job as civil servants to oppose the policies of our lords and masters, we need to develop and deploy a range of techniques to resist those of their ideas which are patently foolish, misguided, impracticable or potentially catastrophic, which of course constitutes the great majority of the schemes they come up with. I suggest you break this down into four sections.
Our initial resistance is based on our three general objections: absence of parliamentary time, lack of money and existing statutory provisions which prohibit their proposed measures. Those often do the trick, but if they fail the second line of defence is that the proposals will bring us into conflict with the outside bodies. The most effective are the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation, the U.N., the European Union, the European Commission on Human Rights and Washington, although we can usually find others on specific subjects.
Then there are the administrative devices: fixing key meetings at awkward times and short notice and reassuring them that they do not have to attend; saying people are unavailable when they have not actually been approached; suppressing reports that conflict with our advice or challenge our policy; leaving political advisors off circulation lists on security grounds; reporting serious objections from people who do not actually object at all; subtly altering instructions and agreements when writing up reports; setting up interdepartmental committees to examine proposals; and circulating proposals widely for comments and not chasing up responses.
These three categories should take care of all but the most energetic persistence by the most intransigent of ministers; if they do not, we can fall back on the four magic words: costly, slow, complicated and controversial. In an emergency we can substitute ‘courageous’ for ‘controversial’, which rarely fails; it is the ultimate deterrent. We can then turn the magic words round to commend the policy we are guiding them towards. We tell them it will be cheap, quick, simple and popular. There are few if any ministers who do not find that combination of adjectives irresistible.
(Sir Humphrey Appleby KCB CVO)
© Sir Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, 14 September 2010