Interview: Chris Wormald

Written by Winnie Agbonlahor on 3 September 2014 in Feature

Chris Wormald tells Winnie Agbonlahor how he's trying to raise the standard of policymaking across government - without imposing too much central control

The policy profession is “not a profession in the traditional sense of the word”, says its head Chris Wormald, the permanent secretary at the Department for Education (DfE). “It’s not structured like other professions in Whitehall; it doesn’t have entry barriers; and it isn’t a set of people who are identified as policymakers in quite the same way that economists or lawyers [are identified as such]”. In fact, he adds, policymakers have only recently started to think of themselves as part of a profession: “When I joined the civil service, I don’t think anyone ever used the term ‘policy profession’. We used to talk about generalists.”

Indeed, there isn’t a “definition of what a policy professional is”; but Wormald adds that “in a way that’s quite a good thing, because you don’t want a closed cadre of policymakers.” The nimble, inclusive nature of the profession is also the reason why Wormald has refrained from adopting a centralised, “functional leadership model”, as adopted by many other professions.

A one-size-fits-all approach isn’t appropriate in policymaking, he explains, “given that it covers everything from running the economy to developing education policy or national security – all completely different types of things”. Hence, improving policymaking is best left to individual departments, which best know their own beats. Moreover, he says, “the ultimate customer of our policy is very frequently ministers [who] ought to individually get a very clear say in taking policy decisions, and in what type of policy support and advice they want from the department.” It’s very important that the profession doesn’t “do anything to centrally cut across” that ministerial prerogative.

Instead, Wormald says, “what we do from the centre is try to put in place the right framework for people to learn good practice and to set the sort of standards that departments ought to be meeting.” Wormald meets departmental heads of profession once a month, but these meetings aren’t based on a “direct managerial relationship”; instead, colleagues are able to “talk about issues of common interest”, shared challenges and useful information. Wormald’s role, he says, is essentially to provide a forum for sharing best practice.

The only aspect of the profession that Wormald wants to develop centrally is training and development. A seven-strong Policy Profession Support Unit, based in Civil Service Learning (CSL), attends the monthly meetings of departmental heads, supports the profession’s board, and commissions and evaluates training.

Which skills and talent gaps have been identified when devising this training? Data analysis, he says, is something “we want to improve on” – especially within the DfE. And open policymaking is still a “work in progress”. Progress here is vital, he adds, because civil servants no longer have a “right to be listened to on policy”. In the past – “pre-Freedom of Information Act and transparency” – Wormald says, “government had a monopoly on data and information. But now any university, any think tank, pretty much anyone with access to the internet can get most of the information on which government bases its decisions – and if their ideas are better than ours, they should be listened to.”

The biggest challenge for the profession, Wormald says, “is consistency”. This is not a straightforward attribute to foster – but, he says “you can have standards, training and development, and you can tell people what you expect.” Since he became head of the profession in 2012, various initiatives have taken place to address skills gaps and give people new tools. The What Works Centres have been created to collate evidence which can inform policymaking, for example; and a Policy Lab, based in the Cabinet Office, has been launched to help departments incorporate design techniques into policymaking.

In October 2013, the government launched a 12-point improvement plan to professionalise policymaking. The 12 actions, Wormald explains, were based on five key drivers: “Open policymaking; improve training and development; much greater visible leadership of policymaking within departments; spreading good practice; and policy standards.” These standards, he adds, are set not by the centre, but by each department, “appropriate to their type of business”.

In DfE, for example, the standards are summarised in five key questions that every policymaker should constantly ask themselves: “What’s the point? What’s it got to do with us? Who made me the expert? Is my advice predictable? Will it actually work?”

The tricky thing is to track progress: how can improvement be measured? “Ultimately, of course, you can judge it by the policies that are successful – but that is quite a long-term gain.”
Wormald faces many significant challenges in his profession, but his raw material is good: “The biggest single strength by far we have is the people: the civil service has always had excellent people,” he says. “The question is: do we have the training and development and the systems to make the best of those people?”

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Winnie Agbonlahor
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S Miller (not verified)

Submitted on 3 September, 2014 - 15:03
In my opinion the best policy making is done by those who listen to the 'front line' and address issues at the outset. Not listening to those who actually do the jobs and know potential pitfalls is a recipe for major mistakes. Too often staff at the bottom are seen as being negative if they raise concerns or issues. Their skills and abilities may not be recognised by policy makers. Their input should be encouraged. I am a strong believer in 'end user' groups for projects - get feedback and address issues from all potential civil service end users of whatever the outcome will be. There should be a freedom to speak up at such meetings without fear of retribution and participants should include the lower grades, not just HEO and above. So much easier to fix things that are not yet up and running. Staff often have the ability to recognise major potential errors at a design phase, but once the projects are up and running the 'this WILL work' mentality can take over and managers stop listening to those who have concerns and only feed positive things up the line.

Ethan Edwards (not verified)

Submitted on 11 September, 2014 - 17:19
And here was me thinking that policies were something that governments were elected for.

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