Exit interview: Sir Derek Jones on a "quiet revolution" and his stint as the Welsh government's top civil servant

Written by Suzannah Brecknell on 14 February 2017 in Interview
Interview

Just before he stepped down as permanent secretary of the Welsh Government, Sir Derek Jones told CSW's Suzannah Brecknell why, despite the challenges ahead, civil servants should be confident – and why creativity is as important as penning an elegant memo

Sir Derek Jones knows a thing or two about the transformative potential of referendums. In 1997, exactly 20 years after Jones joined the civil service as a fast streamer in the Department for Trade and Industry, the Welsh public voted by a small majority to establish an elected assembly government in Wales. And Jones’ career – which to that point had been largely in Whitehall, in the trade department, Treasury, and the Welsh Office – took a new turn. 

In the Welsh Office, and then in the new assembly government, Jones took part in the creation of new democratic institutions and would eventually, after eight years working outside government as director of strategic partnerships for Cardiff University, lead the 5,000-strong Welsh Government as it wrote the first laws to originate in Wales for hundreds of years. 

Stepping down as permanent secretary of the Welsh Government almost 20 years on from that 1997 referendum, he looks back with pride on the historic process he has both witnessed and shaped. “We call it devolution, but actually it’s been a quiet revolution, a constitutional revolution,” he says. In Jones’s final weeks as a civil servant, CSW caught up with him to reflect on his career and ask what advice he has for those who will continue to support the Welsh and UK governments as devolution enters its next phase. 


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What was the proudest moment of your career?

Without doubt becoming permanent secretary of the Welsh Government. Walking back into the building as perm sec [after eight years with Cardiff University] is something that stays pretty fresh in my mind, more than four years later. 

I’m also proud of being involved with the creation of the new democratic institutions for Wales – which represent a profound change in the constitution of the UK. In earlier years, in different roles, I was involved in creating and setting up the working parliament and government in Wales. Then, as perm sec, it has continued to be a very dynamic process: the first Welsh Acts since the time of [14th century Welsh prince] Owain Glyndwr have been put on the statute book during my time as perm sec. 

There’s nothing wrong with a sense of history, and I can’t help but look back with some pride on a development of that kind. 

The other things that I think have given me most satisfaction have been to do with the economy, and being able to attract investment and jobs into Wales – which were badly needed when I came back from Whitehall. In fact, that was largely why I came back: to get involved in economic development and job-creation at that time. 

The economy has had its ups and downs since, but certainly in my time in this job I get enormous satisfaction from being able to help with the process of creating investment and jobs because I know the extent to which having work or not having work is the key to many individuals and families’ life satisfaction. 

Which manager or mentor did you learn most from? 

I’d go back to my Treasury days. The first line manager that I had there wouldn’t have dreamt of actually mentoring me in any overt way, but what I learnt from him was to work with confidence and pace. Not just because you get more done, but it keeps you ahead of the opposition – and there is always opposition on any given task. Those are two litmus tests that to this day I still use to challenge myself, my team, or organisation. There are always things that can slow you down or undermine confidence and so it’s helpful to step back and ask yourself: “Are we approaching this with sufficient confidence, do we know what we’re trying to achieve? And are we dealing with it with sufficient pace?” 

Good project management techniques will, in a slightly formulaic way, take you to the same place, through gateway reviews and so on. But a lot of what we do in the civil service isn’t subject to that project or programme management discipline, so you need to prompt yourself to step back frequently, and ask yourself those two questions. 

Any Yes, Minister moments? 
I do have an actual specific Yes, Minister moment, which I can report because the minister concerned included it in his published memoirs. It was a minister in Tony Blair’s administration wanting to bring in a friendlier, more informal relationship between ministers and civil servants. He asked me to be sure to refer to him by his first name. And so my response was: “Yes, minister.” It was a joke, but it was written up in the memoirs straight. 

How has the civil service adapted to enable devolution? 
I think the phrase “transformational change” is a bit overused these days – people use it when what they really mean is change that is partial or gradual. It might be important and therefore it gets the tag “transformational”, but in terms of real transformation – namely changing things out of almost all recognition – I don’t think you see a lot of that. 

However the change from pre-devolution government to where we are now has been truly transformational. The civil service have just been fantastically, quietly effective, and unsung for the most part. They have adapted to completely new circumstances. Governments – we’ve now learnt to use the plural – in the UK will always have their successes and failures, but underneath all of that, over the years of constitutional change, the new democratic institutions have been made to work very effectively. The service has adapted to be able to follow the different political leadership in the governments of the UK but remain a single coherent service, with all the advantages of trust and mobility of staff across the whole of the UK. 

You argued in favour of remaining as a single civil service at the recent PACAC inquiry into devolution… 
Yes. I can remember some of the discussions right back at the very beginning of devolution about whether the civil service should, in effect, be broken up or federalised. In the Welsh context, my view was that a separate Welsh civil service would simply be too small, and would lack the advantages for the staff and the effectiveness of being part of a large organisation. But over time, the real value, to me, has been the extent to which intergovernmental business is helped by the fact that there are shared values and good, high levels of trust between colleagues, even when dealing with political conflict or contradiction. 

Having said that, the degree of autonomy I enjoy as perm sec of the Welsh government is incredibly important to me. We’re part of the whole, but I have a lot of autonomy in running my own business within that context – which allows me to support my political leadership in a suitably tailored way. 

When we spoke in 2013 you talked about wanting to make the most of the advantages of being a small government – including the ability to connect with citizens more easily…
I am shameless in the pursuit of the best of both worlds! The other potential advantage which was talked about right at the beginning, but which has only developed recently, is the extent to which different governments with different policies across the UK would provide the opportunity for what’s now referred to as a “policy laboratory” approach. 

We’ve now started to get to grips with that opportunity in a more systematic way: I hosted a really good four nations conference here with the policy profession leads from the UK government, Northern Ireland and Scotland. We had a very productive couple of days of compare-and-contrast work, and everybody felt that it was valuable. So it’s been agreed that will become an annual event. I think that was the first properly systematic attempt to use the devolution differences to encourage innovation and best practice. 

How can the different governments get better at working together? 
There is no great clever answer to this, it’s just awareness. At operational levels, that awareness usually comes more naturally; it’s at the policy level that I tend to get more frustrated by lack of awareness. So my prescription is always pretty much the same: simply get to know your opposite numbers in the other governments. Find out how they are thinking and what they’re doing.

It’ll be beneficial for everybody but it also means that you’re much more likely to be able to identify when there’s a devolution issue and address it in good time, rather than think afterwards: “Oh crikey we should have spoken to the Welsh”, which still happens too frequently. But we are again on the move there, with the first real systematic attempt at awareness-raising through the Devolution and You programme, which Philip Rycroft is leading from the Cabinet Office. 

What advice do you have for Welsh civil servants as they adapt to the next stage of devolution, with taxation and other powers moving to Cardiff? 
The Welsh Government is facing a number of challenges. One is that we are effectively at the start of a new programme for government. We are a government service and so the priority is to make sure we focus on, resource, and deliver over five years the programme of government that our political leadership has set out. 

“What lies ahead shouldn’t strike anyone as something that can’t be managed. It will be hard work, but we should approach it in a very confident way”

Challenge two is that there are new functions and responsibilities in the process of being devolved at the moment. Tax in particular stands out, and there’s a Wales Bill in the late stages in parliament which, on the assumption that that passes, will bring a new tranche of devolved functions, including some quite important constitutional ones. 

Then, like the rest of government, we are now grappling with the consequences and the uncertainties of Brexit. And if you look ahead over three to five years, we’re going to have to deal with all of that on financial and human resources that continue to shrink. So absolutely there’s a cracking set of professional challenges and opportunities for the Welsh Government civil service in all of that. But the advice that I give my team, going back to what we discussed before, is you should be confident about this: given what has already been achieved over the devolution period, what lies ahead in the next phase shouldn’t strike anyone as something that can’t be managed. It will be hard work and we need a good plan, but we should approach it in a very confident way. 

How are you responding to the challenge of Brexit? 
We established our first response and made sure that we were able to resource what was necessary immediately. But I think the next phase is more by way of contingency planning rather than actual resource allocation, because there are still too many things that are uncertain to place any big bets in terms of resource allocation. So I think the key thing for us will be to make sure that we’ve thought through the possibilities and done the scenario planning and that we’re sufficiently agile in our procedures. As in many other parts of government, our procedures can be pretty clunky in some respects, so I’ve been working to improve our agility and pace, not least in terms of resource allocation. 

When we last met you had begun work to simplify processes and decision-making, to remove what you called “pieces of buggeration” that slow work down. How has that work continued, and how have you ensured unnecessary process doesn’t creep back in? 
Well, it does. These are the laws of administrative physics that processes do come back in. It’s not something that you finish, this kind of work. But it has been going well, and has been a combination of large and small changes. We set up an anti-complexity hotline so that officials can call or email in suggestions for changes or improvements in our processes. It can be small things such as how you approve the process which allows an individual to move from one part of an organisation to another. But there’s a real benefit in having a good culture of people flagging up small changes and simplifications because the cumulative effect can be really very helpful. 

Then there are other, bigger things. I’ve revamped the basis on which we provide advice to ministers, and the way that advice is approved. There were a number of different ways of getting the necessary approval for submissions to ministers and now there is one, which also sharpens the personal accountability because it’s very clear which individual is taking personal responsibility for this advice. We’ve also made a pretty big impact on simplifying and improving email and record-keeping, having found we were definitely sub-optimal there. 

"I’m not planning to retire from working life – I’ll aim to get busy"

What skills did you think you would use most as a civil servant, and which ones ended up being most important? 
Well I started off as a civil servant in the late 1970s – things have changed a bit! But if I’m absolutely frank I think, particularly as a Fast Streamer, I thought it was all about intellect and good judgement. Indeed, I worked with many people in those days who also thought it was all about intellect and good judgement: who could pen the most elegant memo. But actually the attributes that I’ve relied on most are completely different. Things like physical stamina, mental resilience, a sense of humour and interpersonal relationships, emotional intelligence and communication, in the sense of both listening and outwardly communicating. Those are actually the things that I relied upon most, rather than the ones I started off thinking would be important. 

What skills do you think will be important in the future? 
The things I’ve mentioned are still going be crucial in my view but hard work won’t be enough when it comes to some of the challenges ahead – the scale of them. So looking ahead I would add creativity and innovation. 

What’s next for you as you leave the Welsh Government?
I don’t know what I’m going to do in the afterlife…but I will aim to get busy again. This is a good time for me to step down because I can hand over the ownership for supporting our ministers to deliver the next five year programme at the beginning of a cycle, rather than half-way through. But I’m not planning to retire from working life – I’ll aim to get busy.

Do you have any advice for ambitious civil servants reading this?
I worked outside government for a number of years before I took the chance to do this job, and that was really beneficial. I enjoyed it, for a start, and I think it helped me be a better permanent secretary for having worked outside and seen government from outside. I only wish I’d done more of it sooner in my career. So I think it’s a great ambition to have career in the civil service as what you might call the backbone of your career, but do other things as well.

I do think that being a civil servant is still a great career: a stupendously stimulating and rewarding career, full of a vast range of opportunities and great colleagues. I don’t think I’ve had a boring day in the office for the best part of 40 years, and there aren’t many occupations where you can say that. 

About the author

Suzannah Brecknell is CSW's senior reporter. She tweets as @SuzannahCSW

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