At the end of my first week since leaving the civil service, I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve learned in my time in central government. Hopefully without breaching any rules or code of conduct, I think the top 5 things are:
- Central government is a massive machine that looks from the outside like it moves very slowly. On the inside it is moving at a hundred miles an hour with many, many people to engage with, processes to go through and approvals to get. When it’s working well, it really is a joy to be part of. Policy is well-thought out, with sufficient time for research and real engagement with experts, is driven by needs not comms, and results in positive change.
- Most civil servants are deeply committed; extremely hard working; keen to engage with stakeholders and hear a range of views, talented and increasingly diverse. I have of course met a few who would rival Sir Humphrey for obfuscation, but they are not as numerous as the press would have you believe, and the good officials know how to work around them.
- Accountability is very important and should not be compromised. This sounds glib, but with the number of departments, units, officials, external partners (all with less than aligned viewpoints) and changes in direction that policy-making goes through as a matter of course, it is absolutely essential that there is a clear line of responsibility for decision-making. Working under a Coalition government makes this even more important (and difficult).
- Transparency is increasing, but very slowly. FOI requests are starting to be viewed more positively, but I have met at least one FOI officer who thought his job was to teach us about ways to avoid releasing information.
- There has never been more fertile ground for moving power away from the centre, all central departments are trying to work out how they can do it. It is politically driven, of course, and we could debate all day about whether ‘Whitehall’ (a fairly useless and lazy journalistic trope in my view) really wants to do it. It doesn’t matter. Whatever your views on the politics and the issues with the branding, the Government has set us on a course with Big Society and the Transparency agenda that gives a real opportunity for a permanent shift in power to localities, communities, neighbourhoods. My hope now is to be part of grasping that opportunity and making it a genuine power shift.