When you are starting out with new contacts in Whitehall, try to be clear what you are trying to achieve. Give them background information and questions that you would like addressed before you meet. Let them know what you have to offer and what you would like from them.
Do your research
- Look them up on twitter and linkedin beforehand (most civil servants don’t tweet in their professional capacity, but some do )
- It’s likely that more than one department has an interest in your area so try to get a handle on which they are. Check if the relevant ministers have made speeches recently and research what the latest government policy papers and announcements are in your area.
- Look at CivilServiceWorld.com for up to date news and the Institute for Government for policy comment.
- Consider which MPs and journalists have been following your area and what have they said recently?
Outline what you would like to achieve at the start of the meeting, but emphasise that you want a dialogue. You may need to provide clear information about your organisation and agenda, and some killer facts, but avoid death by powerpoint or relying on written information in a face to face meeting. Keep your background presentation short and clear and then outline what you would like help with or what you think you have to offer.
Don’t presume that you know more than them
You may be an acknowledged expert in your field, but Whitehall is such a complex and multi-headed beast, that it’s best to start with an open dialogue about what you want to achieve and see if it’s realistic. The benefit of meeting government officials is that they should know who the key senior stakeholders and decision makers are across government. Ideally they will also know which way the wind is blowing, and the current government priorities that affect your area. Simply getting up to speed could be extremely beneficial to you, and will give you future credibility.
Understand the context they are working in
Whitehall is a stressful environment at the moment. It has been getting gradually more pressured over the last few years. The departments have gone through harsh cost cutting exercises, and many teams are undersized for the scale of the task. You will be meeting people who have a lot on their plate. Brexit has created significant new demands and many strong team members have been moved into Brexit roles.
Similarly, many ministers and senior officials are focussed on Brexit, which means it can be harder to keep a focus on non-Brexit matters. So try to be realistic about what can be achieved in your area and ask for feedback from your government contacts about what they think is realistic.
Rather than feel that you have to prove something, try to spend time listening to the government officials talking about how things are operating and developing in Whitehall. Ask them who else you should be making contact with and what the current challenges in your area are for government.
Once you have got more info on the current challenges, this is a perfect opportunity to offer help. Are there facts, figures or assistance that you can offer? Do you have in-house expertise that can assist? Does your your network have some of the answers? Ask open questions about what the policy officials would find useful and remember to listen carefully to the answers.
Civil Servants are – of course – human. Most like to gossip (discreetly) about the big political developments and to chat about life outside work. So be yourself, as it’s the best (and probably the only) way to build lasting relationships.
Don’t expect lots of ongoing communication once you have met because everyone is busy, but if you have agreed to provide information or help then follow up quickly. Ask for a future meeting to be put in the diary or a catch up phone call. If something substantive changes in your world that you think they should know about, then keep them in the loop.
Keep up to speed
Continue to follow the news agenda related to your area so that you keep up with government developments. Whitehall changes quickly sometimes. Watch out for announcements in your area, changes in key officials, new ministers etc. Once you have made good contacts in government, it’s simple to make a phone call or drop them an email every so often and get advice on where things have moved to. To keep you up to speech, here are some of my personal recommendations for twitter follows: