Profile James Hall Playing his cards right

5 Apr 07
James Hall is so convinced of the benefits of ID cards he left the private sector to head the agency launching them. He tells Vivienne Russell why

06 April 2007

James Hall is so convinced of the benefits of ID cards he left the private sector to head the agency launching them. He tells Vivienne Russell why

James Hall starts the day bright and early. I arrive at the Identity and Passport Service's Victoria headquarters well before our 8am interview is due to begin, but the new chief executive has beaten me to it and is already in his office finishing off some paperwork.

Hall's office, located in a corner of the open-plan sixth floor, is unassuming and unpretentious, much like Hall himself.

As we talk, staff begin to trickle in to start their day's work. The agency's people are very important to Hall. People and technology, he tells me, are all the IPS has to deliver one of the most complex, ambitious and controversial programmes in government – the provision of identity cards.

The rollout of ID cards must rank as one of the toughest challenges in government, and not just because of the technological challenges involved. It is also a highly charged political issue, polarising public opinion over what the cards will mean for civil liberties. The IPS also came under the media spotlight recently, amid admissions that 10,000 passports were given to bogus applicants last year.

Hall is focused on making them a success. A plan, published last December, set out an ambitious timetable for the scheme. The first cards are to be issued to British nationals in 2009, and rolled out in significant volumes from 2010.

Timescales are tight: the IPS has given itself just 12 months to complete the procurement process, due to start around now. If that can be done successfully, Hall says the service has a 'reasonable shot' at making the delivery targets.

He is undeterred by the government's extremely patchy record in large-scale IT procurement projects. 'The government unfortunately attracts a huge amount of publicity to those projects that go wrong and zero publicity to those which go right,' he muses before going on to list the steps that have been taken to reduce risk in the ID cards programme.

Success won't rest on a single individual, Hall says, but on the right team of people. One thing absorbing his attention is establishing the right senior management team. 'This project has got to be built around a core of full-time, long-term civil servants,' he says.

Although Hall is a top-flight mandarin – as IPS chief executive he sits on the Home Office board – he is no career civil servant. He migrated to the public sector last October after 30 years at management consultancy Accenture.

A graduate of the University of Aberdeen, where he studied politics and international relations, Edinburgh-born Hall chuckles as he reflects that his degree has 'finally become useful'. He certainly appears to have made the transition from the private to the public sector with ease.

'Everyone said that this would be a huge culture shock. I've not found it particularly so,' the genial Scot says. Things can sometimes move slowly, he acknowledges, but adds: 'I feel I've got a very fair level of discretion to get on and do what I've got to do to deliver the identity scheme.'

Hall speaks enthusiastically of the benefits of ID cards. The IPS is engaged in creating an 'identity utility', he explains, that will benefit not only government and business, but also the individual citizen. He says the government will hold only a minimal set of data, which people will be able to view and amend as their circumstances change.

'What people get out of [ID cards], frankly, is first, greater control over their identity, protection of misuse of their identity and – not to be underestimated at all – a massive amount of convenience. It's very inconvenient to have to prove your identity, to have to drag out utility bills and so on. Here we've got a very simple, straightforward way of doing it.'

Legislation has not yet been passed to make ID cards compulsory, and, as things stand, it is proposed they will be issued as people's passports come up for renewal.

Decisions around how ID cards will be distributed to hard-to-reach groups, or those unable to pay the fee, are 'some way off', he says. But he is so confident the cards will prove a hit with the public that he believes more thought will be needed on how the system will cope if demand shoots up.

He acknowledges, however, that there is a huge job to be done in persuading people of the value of ID cards. The scheme's success will be judged not on whether the physical cards are rolled out in time, he says, but the extent to which they are regularly used for the convenience of citizens, business and government.

While opinion polling has shown a majority of people favour the introduction of the cards because they see them as a solution to immigration and security problems, Hall is careful to stress that it is not a 'silver bullet' to deal with such contentious issues.

'All of these problems are very complex and you need very multi-faceted solutions, of which an identity scheme can be only one part,' he says. 'We also have to recognise that the identity scheme is not directed at solving a single problem. One of the things that's really interesting about it is the variety of different things it can help with.'

The well-defined objective of ID card delivery was a major factor in wooing Hall away from Accenture. 'The core goal is one I've come to believe in very strongly and believe is thoroughly worthwhile,' he says.

Colleagues say Hall's commitment to delivery makes him an inspiring leader. Annette Vernon, the agency's chief information officer, says: 'The thing that I have really noticed is he's someone who really wants to deliver and make a difference and that obviously means he is a person I want to work with and for. And he's not afraid to take decisions – and in a complex and fast-moving programme, that's a very valuable skill.'

Hall says his three decades in consultancy allowed him to have lots of different careers in one and left him well equipped to take on a public sector challenge.

'I have been through a number of major change programmes before and helped clients go through those so I've got a reasonable sense of the breadth of issues,' he says.

'And I think I know the right questions to ask. You'll find that successful organisations are the ones in which people can challenge each other and test each other's thinking in a reasonably aggressive way without it ever getting down to personalities or debates about what the goal is.'

As a recent recruit from the private sector, Hall says that the increasing flow of traffic can only be a good thing for Whitehall. He ventures the opinion that traditional civil servants would do well to spend time in the commercial world. Such exchanges of personnel and expertise helps to demolish the myth that the public and private sectors are parallel worlds occupied with different issues and governed by different values.

'All these stereotypes are so much nonsense,' he says. 'Whether you're working for a major oil company, a global financial institution or a major government department, the issues are the same. The more transition of skills we have around that, the better for everybody.'

With homes in Staffordshire and the north of his native Scotland, Hall likes to escape from London as often as he can. 'I like to get out. I like to walk, I like to fish and just generally get a bit of fresh air on my cheeks,' he says.

However, as pressure on the ID card programme intensifies during the coming year, one senses such opportunities will be increasingly rare.


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