Life after the civil service: notes from a not-so-permanent secretary

Written by Sir Leigh Lewis on 21 March 2019 in Feature

Sir Leigh Lewis retired at the end of 2010 after a 38-year career in government that included perm sec stints in both the Home Office and the Department for Work and Pensions. Here are 10 things he’s learned about life after the higher echelons of Whitehall

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There is life after Whitehall

It’s easy to fall into a mindset of thinking that your retirement years are inevitably going to be something of a let down after all those years at the centre of events. But actually they can be liberating, enriching and fun. Want to take up Morris dancing, embark on a PhD on the true origins of Stonehenge, or cycle round the world? You can. That long-cherished ambition can now be fulfilled. And look at the benefits: no more having to pretend to ministers that their latest deregulation initiative is breathtaking in its imagination, or to the Cabinet Office that your commitment to the latest civil service reform plan (as opposed to the 28 that preceded it) is unquestioned. You can say what you think; think what you like.

But be prepared for some difficult withdrawal symptoms

It can take longer than you think to come to terms with the fact that nobody much cares what you think any more (they may never have done so but they had to pretend); that there isn’t an IT department to sort you out when your PC claims no longer to be able to detect your printer even though it’s located less than a foot away from it; and, most extraordinary of all, that your former department seems to be missing you not a jot, despite everything that was said to you at your farewell party about your being the most irreplaceable colleague since the department was created. Rejoining the human race as a mere mortal can be quite difficult; the more so, the more senior you have been. And it can take longer than you think to get over the almost inevitable feelings of loss.


Don’t take the first post-retirement role offered to you

That’s most people’s first piece of advice to you and it’s good advice. Beset by inner doubts about whether anyone will ever want to employ or use you again for anything, it can be all too tempting to respond to the very first post-retirement phone call you get with an offer attached to it, rather as the drowning man clutches at the life raft. It is almost certainly the case that, despite all those inner fears, your phone is going to ring again and the next offer or offers may be far better ones. And once you have signed up to be the non-executive chair of the Orkney White Fish Association it can be difficult to extract yourself from it when that far more tempting opportunity comes along.

Do take the first post-retirement role which is offered to you

I know, I know. It’s not what I just said. But let’s be realistic. That phone may not ring again (or not for a while at least) and whatever that first opportunity is, it may turn out to be utterly fascinating, and very satisfying. I ended up within weeks of retirement going out to Athens on behalf of the World Bank to advise the then Greek government on how to run their government machine more effectively. The long descent into chaos which followed my visit may suggest that my mission was not overwhelmingly successful, but at the time it was great fun and eye-opening (apart from being tear gassed when I inadvertently walked into the middle of a pitched battle between police and demonstrators as I made my way to the finance ministry). There’s something quite liberating about allowing yourself to be tempted by that first offer as long as it’s decent, legal and honest.

Remember the inverse law of flattery

When that offer does come to chair the commission, join the board or contribute to the academic research on devolved structures of government in post-colonial sub-Saharan Africa, the more the person putting forward the proposition tells you that you, and only you, can do this job and that everyone from the cabinet secretary downwards thinks you are absolutely the right person to take on the challenge, the more it means that the previous 23 people they approached have turned the job down flat and they are now, in some desperation, scraping the barrel. Retain a healthy degree of scepticism and ask the person speaking to you directly whether you’re the first person they’ve approached. The long rather embarrassed silence that follows tells you most of what you need to know.

Think whether you might want to speak out publicly on some issues now that you have the freedom to do so

This is quite a tricky one and everyone will reach their own conclusions. For myself I have resisted all blandishments, or temptations, to speak publicly about anything to do with my former department. I take the view that once you are gone you should stay gone and not in any way hamper or embarrass your successors. But I have been willing – not least in the pages of Civil Service World – to comment publicly about some more general issues affecting government and the civil service. The key thing is to ask yourself whether you think you have something to say which might add genuine value to public debate. If you do, then be prepared to say it.

“It can take longer than you think to come to terms with the fact that nobody much cares what you think anymore and there is no longer an IT department to sort out your computer problems”

Ask yourself whether you might find a role in the third or not for profit sectors attractive

Almost invariably such roles are pro-bono so if you have an overriding need to secure some post-retirement income to pay for your kids – who are now somehow entering their fourth decade of unremunerated so-called study – this may not be for you. But, if not, the opportunities to bring your undoubted skills and experience to help in the running of a not-for-profit organisation can be hugely satisfying. Even the biggest and best run charities can find it really hard to attract people as trustees or non-executives who have hard-edged experience of governance, finance and the public sector. The role of such a trustee or non-executive is never to be taken lightly; there are legal and other obligations and the days when charities could be effectively run by well-meaning, but otherwise completely inexperienced individuals are long gone. But the rewards in the widest sense of helping a charity or not for profit to deliver its objectives can be substantial, and the satisfaction very considerable.

Ask whether there’s an author in you waiting to get out

One of the most satisfying things I have done in my retirement is, jointly with one of my former ministers, to have written and had published a book on our experience of government (copies still available on Amazon if you want to help drive sales into double figures). Another former permanent secretary colleague and friend is a long way down the road of writing a novel. A former colleague with whom I worked in the then Department of Employment has had a cookbook published – and the list goes on. I think most of us have at least one book in us wanting to get out. There’s never a better time than retirement for letting it out.

Take lots of holidays

Of course, you have to be in a position to do so and to think that you’ll enjoy them. But those famous words that you can’t take it with you really are true and, if your family is provided for, then don’t miss the opportunity to take those trips you always wanted or dreamt of being able to do. At this stage in our lives none of us can ever know what’s round the next corner. If your lifelong ambition is to feed the emperor penguins on Tierra del Fuego (I’ve no idea, incidentally, whether there are any emperor penguins on Tierra del Fuego but no doubt at least one avid CSW reader will enlighten me) then go for it.

Keep in touch with your former colleagues

One of the risks of retirement is that, despite your best intentions, you slowly lose contact with former close colleagues (and I’m not talking of the ones who you had spent much of the last 20 years dreaming of losing contact with). It does require some effort on both your parts to stay in contact. But it’s well worth it. Who else is there to put the world to rights with, given that our successors are making such an unholy mess of it? Who else can sort out Brexit if not us? Those of us who no longer participate actively in government owe it to our place in history to meet regularly to remind ourselves of how much better it was in our day and how much better it would be now if only people would listen to our advice…

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Sir Leigh Lewis
About the author

Sir Leigh Lewis was permanent secretary at the Department for Work and Pensions from 2005 until his retirement at the end of 2010. Amongst his current roles he is chair of the alcohol education charity Drinkaware, and vice chair of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust

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