An outside edge? By Maria McHale

13 Oct 05
Civil servants need to get out more and they are. Now middle managers are going to the private sector while its high flyers join Whitehall. Maria McHale meets the change-makers

14 October 2005

Civil servants need to get out more – and they are. Now middle managers are going to the private sector while its high flyers join Whitehall. Maria McHale meets the change-makers

It's all about juggling, apparently. Forget about the 'old Whitehall' filled with bright intellectuals, often with degrees in classics or the humanities from the more traditional universities, capable of mastering whatever subject they were assigned.

Now those people with specialist skills have to bone up on juggling. Civil servants are not expected to master circus skills. However, they are expected to be able to do many more things at the same time.

A year ago, the then Cabinet Secretary threw it all up in the air. Sir Andrew Turnbull announced he wanted to leave behind the concepts of generalists and specialists and create a new image for the civil service.

'Generalist implies a dilettante who is not very professional, and a specialist can be a bit isolated,' Turnbull said. 'We want to get rid of the image of mandarins and bureaucrats… so that people will want to come and work for us.'

So a new programme was introduced to ensure all civil servants at middle-management level undertake a series of training programmes or placements for two to four years before they are allowed to enter the senior civil service.

They will have to show competence in three main areas, or 'families', which will carry equal status. These comprise: policy expert, with competence in research, analysis, strategy formulation and policy development; operational delivery, which involves skills in delivering public services and large-scale management; and corporate services, with skills in finance, human resources, communications and marketing.

Turnbull's successor was pushing the issue again last month. Speaking at a conference in September, Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell said he was placing professionalism at the centre of his agenda for the civil service, too.

'This is about making sure we all have the right skills to do our jobs. It's about having really serious skills for everyone – whether they are working on HR [human resources] or policy, or delivering services.

'Fundamentally, it is about making sure we can deliver the best possible service.'

Turnbull and O'Donnell can relax a little because it seems the civil service is becoming more attractive to high flyers in other sectors. A mix of secondments and open competition for the senior jobs is giving those inside and out a chance to see what it's like to work for the other side. So far, the rapprochement has been a success.

There are an increasing number of private sector bods pitching up in Whitehall for a stint at the public sector coalface. And Whitehall's Sir Humphreys are moving out across the private sector on a series of secondments designed to broaden their experience and skills. According to the Cabinet Office, as of April 2005 there were 61 senior civil servants on placements outside Whitehall.

With only a stingy 3% of the Whitehall budget spent on training its mandarins (the National Health Service spends 5%), those going outside have a lot to learn.

Sitting in the ultra-modern offices of 'big four' accountancy firm Ernst & Young, Willy Rickett is a classic example of a long-serving civil servant.

A former director general in the Department of Transport, he is on a year-long secondment to E&Y, helping the firm to build and improve its advisory business with the government sector. He rates the experience as extremely useful.

His background and know-how is wide ranging and he's an old hand at the secondment lark – he already has a two-year secondment to the corporate finance department at Kleinwort Benson under his belt. In his previous career he spent three years as private secretary to Margaret Thatcher, and worked at the departments of energy and the environment, as well as the Cabinet Office, before moving to the DoT in 2000 to work on the ten-year Transport Plan.

Rickett is a modern mandarin and believes it is essential to get out of Whitehall 'for a breath of fresh air' at regular intervals.

'You can get stale and stuck in a box if you stay in one job for a long time and become complacent. Getting out and seeing another culture allows you to develop a different style, culture and management skills.'

His role has given him the opportunity to examine what the government looks like from the outside, and see what it needs more clearly.

Being at Ernst & Young has been an eye-opener, according to Rickett. The main difference he can see is the culture, but he also believes the skills levels are higher but narrower.

Essentially, the ethos at Ernst & Young is much more enthusiastic. 'They are much more positive, more focused and try to put over the fact “this is a winning team”. It makes everyone more energetic.'

Whitehall, on the other hand, is more prone to cynicism, according to Rickett, but he believes it is not surprising: 'You don't feel here the adversarial politics and media focus, which can reduce morale. It is harder to feel “up” in Whitehall at times.'

So the consultancy gets the inside view on what makes Whitehall work and an understanding of government and the wider political context, thanks to Rickett's presence. He, in turn, enjoys working with highly skilled market-facing people, who work to find what the client wants to achieve, a good skill to bring back to government.

Getting out of the box brings more energy and makes for more inspiring leadership, according to Rickett.

'I have found it very useful to think about what the government should be doing about delivery, what it looks like from the outside and what it should look like. I do think being outside gives a boost to your energy and dusts off the cobwebs.'

Getting back to Whitehall will be a more interesting challenge. With his previous post already filled, Rickett will have to apply for the jobs on offer. He should be guaranteed something in his current pay band (Whitehall still pays his salary and is reimbursed by E&Y), but if all goes to plan his new experience should make him an even more attractive candidate.

So what's it like coming the other way? Senior mandarins have been under increasing pressure to show they can deliver services and master such corporate skills as finance, statistics and human relations.

To plug the skills gap, an increasing number of senior appointees are reaching the top echelons in Whitehall through open competition, boosting the 'professionalisation' of the civil service.

Two recruits from outside, Shirley Pointer and Jonathan Moor, have come into the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Transport at senior levels, bringing with them the much-needed corporate skills said to be lacking in Whitehall.

Both agree that civil servants need the chance to move in and out of the public and private sectors to get a broader mix of skills. However, Pointer and Moor have both been impressed by the intellectual capacity across Whitehall.

After a 25-year career in HR in the financial services industry, becoming a civil servant was not a natural career step for Shirley Pointer, but she walked away from Abbey National in 2004 to join the DTI as director for HR and change management.

She admits the move would not have been so attractive a few years ago but points to the increased emphasis on professionalism as one of the main attractions of coming into Whitehall.

'There is a real appetite for bringing in people from professional backgrounds, and the recognition that things were changing made Whitehall an attractive option for me.'

Pointer says the closed-shop culture was uninviting in the past, but with no real experience or contacts in Whitehall, her only impressions of the civil service were based on what she read in the press.

'Before, the jobs were not open to us and this time it was important to consider the modernisation of the civil service. I had read about Whitehall changing in the papers and it looked like a good place to be and a real opportunity to make a difference.'

Surprisingly, the change has not been as stark as everyone expected. 'I think people here thought I would find it more different than I actually did. But the DTI is a very outward-facing department, and has a relationship with the private sector and has an understanding of the private sector, so the change was not so great.'

However, she admits she did some homework before she arrived: 'I did a lot of due diligence before I joined, but the image of a fuddy-duddy civil servant is not how it is. It is a vibrant, modern and energetic place to be.'

Coming in from the outside brings qualities, Pointer says, that internally appointed people do not have.

'You bring with you all your years of experience, good and bad, and it gives you gravitas because you have dealt with it all before and that in turn gives you credibility. I do think internally appointed people don't have that credibility and it makes it much harder for them.'

Like Rickett, believes that change is essential for freshness and an external perspective. Becoming too rooted means losing your sense of what is needed, she says.

But Whitehall is full of bright people who have a lot to offer the private sector too, according to Pointer. Whitehall is all about service delivery to the wider community and getting that balance between better policy and delivery, she says.

And the private sector has much to gain from the exchange. 'We must not forget that the private sector gets value from civil servants, too, because of the

intellectual capability that civil servants bring to problem solving, as well as real insights into very big strategic agendas and the concept of evidence-based decision making.'

But the only way forward is wider skills, Pointer concedes. 'If you want to be successful then you need wide skills and a broad range of experience, not just the civil service thing. People develop expertise through a whole range of ways. Single skill careers do not give you the capability to run an organisation.'

Jonathan Moor has made several very clever career choices and has that much-vaunted mix of public and private experience so beloved by Whitehall at the moment.

Currently director of strategy and resources at the Driver, Vehicle and Operator Group at the Department for Transport, he pitched up in Whitehall via Touche Ross, District Audit and the Audit Commission.

His first real exposure to the public sector was when he was involved in the privatisation of the four electricity companies, and was seconded to Kleinwort Benson to be the administrator behind the drafting of the privatisation prospectus and contact with the DTI. Then, after three years at District Audit working on the health service, Moor moved to the Audit Commission, working in a number of roles before becoming corporate finance director.

As well as the obvious financial skills in long-term finance strategy, Moor believes his planning skills are attractive to Whitehall.

'I have always looked three, four, five years down the line and this helps prioritise what we are trying to do and how we are going to fund it, and I think I bring the understanding of delivery and that link between policy and what people are actually doing and whether it works.'

Professionally trained as a manager early on in his career, Moor has advanced up the career path with a constant focus on his professional development.

He plans to keep that up in Whitehall and is one of the few 'outsiders' to make it on to the High Potential Development scheme run by the Cabinet Office. Moor says the scheme 'makes you aware of what you are capable of'.

'I think the main skill I have brought in from the outside is around risk taking. It is easy to say but not easy to do and I have tried to introduce a culture that says it is OK to try things differently and take a more innovative approach.'

He admits the culture is different 'but that is not to say it is bad'. What is most noticeable, according to Moor, is the hierarchy, but he believes people do want to change.

'Part of the joy of doing this job is that people are up for change. You are pushing against an open door. We are in the environment where we can try to change things. I am very impressed by that culture of wanting to change. And I am very impressed by the calibre of people here. The intellectual ability is very strong.'

What Whitehall's management needs to do is make that ability flourish, Moor says.

'I do think that the intellectual ability does not flourish. The Audit Commission had the same intellectual ability and was willing to take the chance with it. I think it will be challenged.'