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Five things I discovered on secondment to the civil service

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Rushing from Westminster Hall to report 10 minutes of debate, I heard my name. It was Tom, who I had gone to college with. I hadn’t seen him in 10 years, but there he was – a civil servant, no less, about to support his Minister in a debate. After exchanging brief pleasantries, I rushed off – reporting to be done.  But that encounter got me thinking. For each debate in Westminster Hall, three or four bods sidle quietly into the Chamber, papers and laptops in hand. Who are they? What are they like? What do they do all day long? Surely we should know. 

Hansard reporters get little interaction with the civil servants in the chamber. Through our trusty intermediaries, the Doorkeepers, we pass notes to each other, a bit like at school (but usually more serious). There’s always a little giggle when we see that someone has written “please check against delivery” on the ministerial brief that we receive. That’s because Hansard always reports the words uttered rather than those written in a brief; we simply use a brief to clarify meaning when a Minister stumbles over their words or accidentally skips a line. 

So when the possibility of a five-month secondment at Civil Service Learning’s Parliamentary Capability Team dropped into my inbox, it sounded perfect. I applied and got the position, delivering courses on Parliament and sharing the knowledge I’d built up over my years at Hansard. It was also a chance to speak to new people every day – and maybe learn about them and their work too. 

Here’s what I found: 

1 - We’re not all that different 

The House service is full of fantastic, dedicated, talented people, all working hard under pressure to get the job done. I remember it all feeling pretty intimidating at first – everyone seemed so good. It is no different in the civil service. Each time I delivered the “Understanding Parliament” course, explaining how Parliament works and how to handle interactions with it, mostly to new, fresh-faced civil servants in policy jobs, I was blown away by their perceptiveness. What’s more, they were impossibly friendly and grateful for my taking the time to build their parliamentary knowledge. 

2 - But we think differently about Parliament and Government 

That big question of Government v. Parliament seems to shape our thoughts. In the civil service there is a real sense of being on Team Government, working to deliver successful policies and make things better. And the Opposition? Well, they are just that and their criticisms can be taken to heart. You don’t get that in Parliament, where you work for all parties and all Members alike. 

3 - Thirst for parliamentary knowledge 

When delivering workshops on Parliament, I was joined in a room with a whole bunch of interested faces, all keen to know more about Parliament and what makes it tick. (Okay, perhaps there were a few exceptions, but not many). Six hours in a classroom learning about Parliament might sound horrifying for attendee and trainer alike, but my colleague Daniel created an engaging and active workshop that kept people talking. The feedback was so positive, it almost looked like it had been tampered with. 

There’s clearly mutual curiosity on both sides of the Parliament/Government divide. The more we engage and talk, the better we will understand each other, and that would be to everyone’s benefit. 

4 - The Civil Service’s scale leads to curious variations 

About 400,000 people work in the civil service; only 3,000 work in the House service. I delivered training to people from the Home Office, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Transport and many others, and saw how different the culture seemed to be between Departments. Home Office groups were particularly chatty. DEFRA groups very polite but quieter. DCMS staff live up to their “Ministry of Fun” reputation. But they were all engaged and great in their own ways. 

The overall culture felt very different. It was much calmer than in Parliament, probably because working in Hansard means being exceptionally focused on the pressing, immediate business of the House—whether that business is in the Chamber, Westminster Hall or a Committee Room. The extent of flexible working might also have had something to do with the atmosphere: everyone in Civil Service Learning had a laptop and phone, and came into the office when needed. If not, working from home was fine. My second child, Clementine, popped into the world in February so it was a treat to organise my workload to maximise my time with her and help my wife as much as possible. I think they liked having me about too... 

Enjoying the home office

5 – I knew nothing 

Well, this is embarrassing. I was tasked with producing a primary legislation course. (Apparently at interview I’d given the impression I knew it well, having reported the line-by-line scrutiny of countless Bill Committees over the years.) The trouble was, the Venn diagram of my knowledge and things civil servants wanted to know had virtually no intersection. Much to learn. 

I’ve now got much admiration for Bill teams – they have a heck of a lot to do. I had never quite understood the full extent of it, despite all that reporting. For example, for every Government amendment to a Bill, the Bill team will have to draft the wording, check it’s all fine with their legal team, provide a brief for their Minister and get a full Cabinet write-round to ensure the entire Government is on board. All-nighters will be pulled. And after all that, the amendment might be saved as a contingency plan—just in case.  

Back in the Hansard fold 

I had a great time on secondment and am grateful to Daniel and others for being accommodating, great colleagues. Will I work any differently, now I’m back in the Hansard fold? I think so. Seeing the operation from the other side has debunked a few myths. I certainly now see the human side of that plea to “check against delivery”. Now, back to those early questions. The civil servants in Westminster Hall are from the Department’s parliamentary team. Each will be a specialist, whether on policy or legal matters. They are friendly, professional people and they work extremely hard on all things parliamentary. Not all that different from us at all. 

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