Brexit trade challenges, ministerial directions and achieving gender parity: Lunch with Sir Martin Donnelly

Written by Jess Bowie on 7 July 2017 in Interview
Interview

The outgoing permanent secretary of the Department for International Trade breaks bread with Jess Bowie

Who? Sir Martin Donnelly’s decades in Whitehall saw him rise to became, in 2010, permanent secretary at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), where he remained for six years. After a brief spell as joint head of BEIS – after BIS was merged with the energy department – he helped to set up and run the Department for International Trade as its first perm sec. He retired from the civil service in March 2017.

The venue: Sartoria: Delicious Italian food inspired by the head chef’s native Calabria, tucked away among the tailors of Savile Row

The menu

Starter: Burrata and torpedino tomatoes, smoked aubergine and basil leaves; Veal tuna
Main: Brown polenta with wild mushrooms and truffle; Home cured black cod with liquorice
We drank: Sparkling water; espresso; fresh mint tea

We discussed

His first day in Whitehall

I was just 22. It was September 1980 and I walked up through the big entrance of the Treasury. There were only two of us joining that day. The other, Helen Goodman, is now a senior MP. The previous year there hadn’t been any fast streamers because of the 1979 election result and a freeze on recruitment. The Treasury wasn’t really geared up for welcome programmes. I remember finding myself, eventually, in the right room, where I would be working on nationalised industries. There were two other people in there, one of whom smoked a pipe in the office, which meant that every day my not-very-good suits would come home reeking of smoke. I gradually got the hang of things. After a couple of months my principal said to me: “This is your probationary interim appraisal: ‘You are not [onetime head of the civil service] Ian Bancroft, but you’ll do.’”

Whether, after nearly 37 years of public service, he is damned pleased to be out of it

I don’t know! It was a major shock to the system to get the referendum result and begin to work through the practical consequences last summer. I was happy to help by agreeing to set up the international trade department and get it going, and was equally clear that I wasn’t the right person to take this through the next three or four years.

Seven years as a permanent secretary felt, to me, long enough. There’s a balance between using your experience well, and not thinking you are completely indispensable – and also not getting to the stage where you are cruising. I feel I didn’t do either of those, but I also felt this was the right time to move on.
 
What he’s up to now

I’m enjoying having more time. The challenge is doing enough of the things you want to do as well as the things people ask you to do – as well as leaving space for stuff coming later. I’m trying to arrange life so that I have a bit more time to play the piano, I have taken one of Samuel Beckett’s novels – Malone Dies – out of the library which I’ve been meaning to read for decades. I’ve just taken part in a 10k run in Oxford, where I’ll be a visiting academic at Hertford College for a year in the autumn – which gives me a chance to do some more thinking, writing and hopefully some seminars around how we take forward effective modern government. That will be great fun. Then I’m also hoping to join the board of at least one charity. So I do feel I am entering a career change phase, although I certainly don’t think of it as retirement.

His career highlight

That’s a tough one. I’ve enjoyed lots of bits of my career. But honestly, a day in October in 2014 with all of my senior team, so about 160 people, on an away afternoon at The Oval. We were talking about storytelling and about opening up and being ourselves. I talked about myself and my story, and another woman spoke brilliantly about her story and you could feel people opening up and coming together. That was a moment when I learned a lot about leadership. And how brilliant the people I was working with were, and how important trust was between us.

When he realised he was a feminist

I used to encourage my daughters when they were small by telling them that on the whole girls were smarter and lived longer than boys – both true. When their mother died and I had a stint as a lone parent I began to realise that being carer of last resort was different to sharing the job, and that for a lot of women they were expected to be the family safety net, with their careers seen as secondary.

Then when I became gender diversity champion in the FCO I saw the effects of a traditional culture which – nearly 15 years ago now – often expected women to behave like men, and single men at that. I heard a lot of anger and frustration expressed behind closed doors about sexist attitudes and realised that change had to start with specific improvements, like guaranteed flexible working after maternity leave, improved mentoring and keeping in effective touch during career breaks.

Over time, I saw men become less embarrassed at leaving an early evening meeting in order to pick up children before the nursery closed; and we changed our ways of working to be more family-friendly. Morale and efficiency both improved. In BIS, our leadership team committed to going further, and we did – again by changing the culture to build trust and openness around people’s personal circumstances and then by doing things that helped them feel a valued part of our organisation, whatever their working patterns.

I have seen firsthand that real gender equality delivers high performing organisations where people want to work. And, more importantly, it is the way to treat everyone fairly and with respect. I don’t know if that makes me a feminist, but I don’t object to the term!
 
Whether he is confident other departments will prioritise diversity as he did

There are lots of good things going on led by different people in different ways. And in BIS and DIT, and indeed the FCO before, it was always “we” and not “I”. Having said that, I leave feeling that there is a lot more unfinished business in the diversity area than I realised even five years ago. I do believe when we talk about diversity we are also talking about that wider culture. One thing we learned through experience, particularly in the BIS transformation process, was that you have got to be intolerant of the wrong behaviours. You can’t have a partially diverse organisation, you have got to have everybody signed up to those values. Both because they are right and because they produce a higher performing organisation at the end of it. And there, I think, the civil service needs to take that extra jump into the deep end of the pool. I believe now – building on the progress that we’ve made – it is the right time to challenge ourselves to say: “Well, let’s have hard targets across every organisation and look at plans as to how we get there.”
 

Job shares

I have been fortunate enough to work with some outstandingly effective job shares doing several of the most difficult jobs. It’s the responsibility of all of us to make them work. The issues are all cultural ones. I was at the party to celebrate the success of the Higher Education Bill, where Polly Payne and Ruth Hannant [job-sharing the higher education director role at BIS], together with a brilliant wider team, were absolutely critical. So long as you take it as normal that there is a job share and you get Polly one day and Ruth the other, what’s the big deal? The key thing is that it is a way of doing things which passes the “a bunch of us are smarter than any one of us” test. So long as the organisation around it does not pretend that they are one person. They’re not, why should they be?

Part time is just a different approach to doing the job and it is an entirely normal one. It’s just the same as someone who does five days a week who can’t be available seven days a week. So it’s about mindset. You have to stop seeing these things as concessions and see them as part of what high performing organisations do to recruit and retain really good staff.
 
Tips on trade negotiation

Contrary to what some people think, the best negotiators are the ones who absolutely never raise their voices. They don’t bash the table, they don’t tend to have crew cuts and be six foot five tall. There was an American negotiator for part of the G8 process who was superb at that because he was a genuinely empathic individual. If he couldn’t agree with you he gave you the impression, I think correctly, that he regretted it. It was never a zero sum game, and negotiations are never a zero sum game. Aggression is a substitute for preparation, for engagement and for really knowing what is achievable.

The biggest challenges facing the DIT

DIT is a department full of  enthusiasm. But one of [the challenges] is that 21st century trade is not the same as 20th century trade. Much more of it, in a modern, service-based economy, is about services. It’s about digital issues and cyber security, and intellectual property and structures of regulation and how companies working across borders can get effective redress and how consumers can get redress – and how you deliver that. The WTO was essentially set up for goods. So the challenge of being a successful trading economy in services is a really important one. It’s nice, in a way, to start from a fresh position where you don’t have a weight of how we used to do it to think about.

Otherwise, it is a question of how much resource you need to do various things and that’s a classic issue the civil service has always been pretty good at. And, of course, as you go along, you have to make adjustments for negotiations going better or slower or quicker or becoming more politically salient. You’ve got to have that flexibility, while at the same time training up enough people.

“You’ve got to be intolerant of the wrong behaviours. You can’t have a partially diverse organisation. Everybody needs to be signed up to those values”

When resources will need to increase to handle Brexit

That’s not for me to say. I’m not avoiding the question but ultimately the resource you put in affects the output you get. So you choose, in trade, how many negotiations you think you want to run at a time and you assort it accordingly. You could do more, you could do fewer or they could take longer. There are some areas where that is less true. If, for example, you want to be in a situation where you had a hard customs border with the continent, it’s clear there is a very large amount of technical work on IT. But also on physical infrastructure. And these things cannot happen overnight. Essentially, the challenge for the civil service is giving ministers as clear as possible a picture, accepting  all the uncertainties of what you can do with the resources you already have and also how long it takes to get more resources up and running. Because you can’t just turn them on like that in these areas.

Whether he’s ever been afraid to speak truth to power

When I was a very young civil servant, and Yes, Minister had just started, a more experienced colleague said to me: “People talk a lot about civil servants obstructing ministers. But the truth is, we’re often far too ready to roll over and have our tummies tickled.” I’ve never forgotten that, because when you work for a minister, particularly but not just in private office, you build a relationship inevitably which is professional but it is positive. I’ve called it “positive neutrality” in the past. You want to help them deliver what they want. That might mean suggesting different approaches, but it’s right to start from: this is what [the minister] wants, here is how to suggest we go about it.

The challenge is: suppose it turns out to be not such a brilliant idea. [In that instance] what really good civil servants are good at doing is going upstream and saying: “So you want to do this because you want to do A, B and C. Stepping back a little bit, it may be that this other approach gets you more of A, B and C, even though this one [your idea] will play well publicly and so on.” That is a fair and a good conversation to have, but you have to start from where the minister is, and not from: “This is our much better plan we thought of last year.”

And then I think a lot of it is about being more open than we civil servants often are about the arguments we have internally about what is going to work. That’s to say, sharing with politicians: “Well I thought this, but Rachel thought we could have done it this way and Mohammed wanted to focus on this area.”

Rather than saying: “Here is our one-size-fits-all mix of these”, we could say: “There are a couple of approaches here – can we argue this out in front of you?” When I have seen that done, it works well.
 
Whether the secretary of state-perm sec relationship can ever recover after a ministerial direction

Well, yes. I have been fortunate enough to have understanding secretaries of state; in my different guises I’ve worked for four. [Seeking a direction] is not something that you do lightly, but it’s part of your job to do it and it’s part of speaking truth unto power because it is a parliamentary responsibility. And you have to look yourself in the mirror and say: “Am I doing this right?” Then you have to do it in a way which respects the very real political and other constraints ministers work under. Because, at the end of the day, the system is supposed to benefit all of us. I found ministers to be very professional about this. The relationship is something that you need to take into account as to how you are going to manage it, but it can’t affect the integrity of the decision.

His favourite minister

I couldn’t answer that with one name. I have been a private secretary for several ministers, I’ve worked in a commissioner’s cabinet, which I greatly enjoyed, I’ve been a permanent secretary. I’ve worked closely on policy with different ministers and they are very different. Sometimes there is a shared sense of: it’s you [and the minister] against the world. I would say that I leave with a higher opinion of ministers than when I started. I didn’t know much about them then. They have really tough jobs and they do a huge amount of unsung, effective, hard-grind work, and I think we – including our civil servants in Whitehall – could do more to recognise that.

About the author

Jess Bowie is is Civil Service World's editor. She tweets as @jessbowie

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