Posted on: 19/12/2023

Advising Under Pressure: a picture to help inform your engagement

Roshnee Patel, Deputy Director at MoJ, talks about who advisers are, what good advice entails and what pressures they navigate, to help academics, understand how best to engage in that context.


Who are the advisers and decision-makers?

The world of advising Ministers in Government can often feel opaque, so I have spent some time trying to demystify some of this for the academic community via various masterclasses over the last few years. My latest one with the Universities Policy Engagement Network and UKRI Future Leader Fellow Development Network, was an attempt to home in on the various types of pressure that exist in this space. It’s worth noting at the outset that there are a range of professions across the civil service who advise decision-makers. Decision-makers in this context include senior civil servants (including up to Permanent Secretary) as well as Ministers.


What is good advice?

The process for getting advice to these decision-makers can be quite complex and varied, and can be of written or oral nature. While some Ministers prefer an oral briefing, all advice needs to be captured in writing to ensure accountability, clarity and that well informed decisions are being made. This is even more important during a crisis or when things are moving quickly.

Good advice to decision-makers (Ministers or senior civil servants) often captures a wide range of factors which advisers have to martial and balance. The components can include:

  • Issue/background: explaining in plain English (no jargon or technical language) why you are writing to the decision maker.
  • Parliamentary Handling: does this include a debate, a hot topic of the House, particular peer/MP of interest, legislation, Select Committee etc?
  • Finance: what is the financial envelope here and what are the implications? Is this part of a spending review bid or programme funding etc.
  • Commercial: is there a supplier, contract, tender, grant or other arrangement which is relevant? Are there risks to these arrangements?
  • Analysis: what pertinent data/information/evidence is relevant here to highlight?
  • Recommendation: be clear about what you need from the decision maker.
  • Legal implications: is there a pending Judicial Review or are there legal risks including equality considerations?
  • Timing: when do you need a decision and why.
  • Options: summarise the key points of an option analysis


What are the pressures we need to navigate?

Operating under pressure feels like the norm to me but when I started to really think about it, underneath that feeling lies a number of factors. I want to turn to each of those, so the picture of the landscape is clearer to you.

Pace of delivery: People expect results quickly and very much reflects how we operate in our society, expectations of public service is no different. With everything feeling more urgent, we risk not prioritising the important.

ROAMEF: Rather than thinking of policy development as a cycle, I think of it as a journey – some policies get stuck in one part of the journey for all kinds of reasons, we take often take one step forward, and two steps back.

Inclusive Decision Making: How can we make decisions if we are not reflective of the public we serve? The more diverse our advisers, the better our collective intelligence from different life experiences.

Implementation: There is increased pace between problem diagnosis and the delivery stage which makes this even more crucial to get right fast. Delivery is one of three elements identified in the policy profession as core to what we do. So how do you maximise successful delivery?

Capability/retention: The role of the civil service has been subject to change, particularly over the last decade or so. The skills now required to succeed have evolved – a focus on digital and project profession as enablers. Alongside getting the right people in, we have a lot to do to keep them there and retain talented people.

Risk Appetite: most civil servants I know operate with a low tolerance of risk – in my experience this is due to three main factors – failure is often not a palatable option, taxpayers’ money is at stake and time to experiment is often not afforded to you. How do you innovate in a low-risk environment?

Accountability/Scrutiny: accountability and scrutiny are fundamentally important in Government. Government has a number of forums where decisions are made, but there are a number of governance routes and processes which can add significant time to the approval process on any area, particularly if seen as ‘novel and/or contentious’.


How do you (an academic) make the best of this situation?

Realising the wider context of what is happening when you are preparing to engage, arms you with a good sense of the situation to better approach that. Good engagement, in my opinion, is where there is clarity and expectations on both sides and honesty of what is or is not within the scope to engage on.

Here are some top tips on how to initiate effective engagement with civil servants who are advisers:

  • Be clear what success looks like with this engagement for you.
  • Know your offer/worth/value in the relationship and don’t be afraid to let that be known.
  • Are you wanting to influence or inform? Know which side of the spectrum you want to lean towards and do that consciously. Do you just pass on your research, do you get involved in developing options, do you lobby or are you an “honest broker”?
  • Practice telling your story – make it engaging and of interest.
  • Maintain relationships – just like any relationship, there needs to be effort on both parts to be healthy. But in the majority of cases, this effort is worth the perseverance.

When you are under pressure, we can often make mistakes or lose sight of our mission: public service. This is why I believe the leaders in the civil service needs to be resilient, innovative and empathetic.

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