Where do ex-civil servants go when they leave government?

Written by Tamsin Rutter on 17 January 2018 in Feature
Feature

Though some politicians dismiss civil servants’ ability to get jobs “in the real world”, moving between sectors is more and more common. Tamsin Rutter takes a look at the data to find out where top officials go after leaving Whitehall

The biggest career switch trend around ex-civil servants is a move to consultancies. Credit: Flickr/ Angel Abril Ruiz​

The World Bank, G4S, Sheffield Hallam University, Deloitte and Deliveroo all have something in common. They’ve recruited from the upper echelons of the civil service in the past two years.

In one of the most pointed attacks on Whitehall of 2017, a “source close to” the former international development secretary Priti Patel said senior civil servants’ salaries were too high, adding: “It’s not like they are going to walk into better paid jobs in the real world.”

While it’s true that the civil service headcount has risen slightly in the past year thanks to the demands of Brexit, there were still 35,000 civil service leavers in 2016-17. As FDA general secretary Dave Penman pointed out in his response to Patel, more than half of the senior civil servants who quit last year “cited pay as a significant reason for their exit”.

In addition, the government is encouraging people to leave the civil service – if only for a time. “Movement in and out of the civil service with ease” is one of the goals outlined in Whitehall’s workforce plan for 2016-20. Andrea Trainer, a partner at employment agency Green Park, says: “Increasingly, individuals entering the civil service don’t necessarily see themselves as civil servants for life. They are keen to broaden their experience, which the departments are as well.”

So where do departing civil servants go?

‘An external voice gave me more influence’

The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba), which provides independent advice on the appropriateness of jobs taken up by civil servants at director-general level and above within two years of leaving government, lists some departee destinations in its annual reports.

In the year to March 2017, it advised 55 crown servants in relation to 140 appointments (including 54 commissions under the terms of independent consultancies) – up from 36 crown servants and 110 appointments in 2015-16.

The snapshot gives a sense of what very senior civil servants and special advisers do soon after leaving government, and the largest proportion (18 of the 55) were seeking advice on setting up their own consultancies. These include Sir Peter Housden, former Scottish Government permanent secretary, on providing professional services in devolution; Vanessa Lawrence, ex-head of Ordnance Survey International, on offering advice on optimising information assets globally; and former chief commercial officer Bill Crothers, on taking work from Francis Maude Associates, a consultancy set up by the former Cabinet Office minister to advise overseas governments.

In a separate analysis of the next steps of directors and deputy directors who have recently departed from 15 government departments, drawn from departmental transparency data from the past two years, Civil Service World found other ex-officials seeking to set up their own consultancies. These included five former Cabinet Office officials (four of them special advisers) in 2017 and five former Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs officials in 2016 in that position.

According to Jill Rutter of the Institute for Government, and formerly a senior civil servant, interest in these independent contractors is partly a symptom of the government reducing in size and stepping up the amount of work it contracts out.

“Government departments are very often looking for people that they know and who they know know their stuff, just to do a bit of casual work,” she says. 

“An external voice gave me more influence than being on the inside in terms of shaping opinion” – Andrew Greenway, Public Digital

They are often civil servants who’ve left with a package such as a pension or a payoff, she suggests, and take on a few contracts from their former colleagues to “top up” their finances. “It’s quite a nice lifestyle – you can do a few contracts a year and then take long holidays,” adds Rutter.

But CSW columnist Andrew Greenway – who left as a civil service deputy director in 2015 to go freelance – has a different take on why some ex-officials might want to take on small-scale consultancy work. He quit in his thirties to escape bureaucracy and have more autonomy while still doing interesting work for government.

Greenway says one of the main reasons he left the civil service was frustration over processes – around recruitment, HR, governance, procurement, budgets. The institutional operating conditions, he says, were broken. 

On leaving, Greenway did a lot of freelancing back into the civil service. “One of the things that appealed to me was that an external voice gave me more influence than being on the inside in terms of shaping opinion – which I hate. To me that feels wrong. But I observed that a little on the inside too.”

‘Private suppliers like people who know the other side’

Greenway says he had no interest in joining a big established consultancy, having already spent a year at one prior to entering the civil service in 2008. But plenty of ex-civil servants do – Whitehall has many ties with these types of organisations, which are often drafted in to advise on decisions around spending cuts.

CSW’s analysis of 166 post-Whitehall roles (some civil servants appeared more than once) found that at least 28% of them were in consultancies, and two-thirds of those in established consultancy firms, including McKinsey & Company, PA Consulting, Hanbury Strategy, Deloitte, Ernst & Young, and KPMG. A further six people on the Acoba list joined an established consultancy.

Rebecca George, lead public sector partner at Deloitte, explains why she sometimes looks to Whitehall when recruiting. “In all my interactions with the civil service I have found their top people strong in strategic decision-making, stakeholder engagement, managing complex organisations and translating policy to pragmatic delivery,” she says.

“Corporates are interested in the same skill set as they are facing similar challenges – so would look to senior civil servants in their search for top talent.”

Other reasons ex-Whitehall hires are appealing to consultancies – and indeed any organisation that operates at the interface of government and the private sector – are their understanding of the machinery of government, their networks and what Green Park’s Trainer describes as their “influencing skills”.

"Private companies are interested in people who know the other side of the market in government because it’s government letting the contract" – Jill Rutter, IfG

According to CSW’s analyses (from Acoba and the departmental data), 13 ex-senior civil servants taking on new employment in 2016 and 2017 were snapped up by trade associations or professional bodies, which often lobby government and need staff with a thorough understanding of policy in their sectors. Over the past two years there has been a business department deputy director going to Water UK, a Foreign Office official to the Scotch Whisky Association, an environment department director to the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management and a Treasury special adviser to the Investment Association. A further 13 former officials took roles in PR or comms firms, while 23 roles in the third sector were taken up.

Officials can also end up working for suppliers (a move more likely than any other to spark off debate about Whitehall’s revolving door). According to our research it is ex-defence officials in particular that end up working with their department’s contractors. Half of the departures from the Ministry of Defence in 2016 and 2017 (13 of 26) were to contractors or defence equipment and tech firms used by the department, including QinetiQ and Babock International.

“As you diversify the providers of services in the public sector, and in particular bring in these private companies, then those private companies are interested in people who know the other side of the market in government because it’s government letting the contract,” says Rutter. 

‘Civil servants move within their policy areas’

Many civil servants stay within the public sector, moving to arms-length bodies or international NGOs.

This is reflected in the data, with top hires in the past two years at the civil service pension scheme My CSP (a Cabinet Office spin-out), the transport department-owned HS2, the health department’s NHS Improvement and the business department’s loan agency Salix Finance. These organisations, like the civil service, have to navigate political landscapes and require staff with honed communications and stakeholder skills.

A small handful made a move to local government, but Trainer suggests that there isn’t “as significant a move from central to local as one might expect”. She says: “Where it does occur it tends to be around the civil servants moving within their policy areas in which they have a particular interest and skillset, for example, education, social care, housing or regeneration.”

Civil servants who’ve focused on policy for much of their careers can be attracted by the chance to gain large scale service delivery experience at the coalface, she adds.

A bigger movement is to universities, particularly among the most senior of civil servants. Acoba’s data reveals that 11 positions with universities were requested in 2016-17, though three of them came from one ex-official, the MoD’s former chief scientific adviser Prof Vernon Gibson.

Other trends are evident when the data is dissected by job title. Most commonly, ex-officials are employed as consultants or advisors, including ex-civil service head Lord Kerslake who took on advisory and “strategic consultant” roles at energy supplier Engie and software company WANdisco, and former chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee Sir Jon Day, who sought advice on becoming a special adviser for the bank Credit Agricole.

Ex-senior civil servants are also in demand for positions on boards, particularly, again, those with the most experience: 27% of roles on the Acoba list were as trustees, chairs or non-executive directors. “The most senior people, so the people who I was at No 10 with who’ve all got their knighthoods now, they’re all on boards left, right and centre,” says Rutter.

‘A lot of movement out is around functional roles’

Another common post-Whitehall job title is of the ilk “head of government affairs”, and the IfG’s Rutter believes that doing other sorts of jobs in the private sector can be trickier, especially for policy professionals.

Rutter quit the civil service and joined BP in 1998. “I didn’t want to do government relations… because I basically thought that was just selling my contact book and I didn’t want to do that,” she says. “I did some very interesting jobs… but it was very clear that as an ex-policy civil servant you never knew as much about the business as people who’d been in the business [for their whole careers]. BP liked people with established track records in the business.”

She re-joined the civil service in 2004, becoming a director in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

“I think there’s a real difference with the people who have what you might regard as transferable professional skills,” she says, citing HR, finance, project management, commercial and – above all – digital. “A lot of the movement in and out is of people who are playing those functional roles, rather than playing a policy role.”

Whitehall’s functional and operational leaders are increasingly coming from outside to begin with, which can give them greater opportunities to return to the private sector. 

‘Other institutions make policy decisions’ 

Greenway, who is now part of a small consultancy, Public Digital, alongside former colleagues from GDS including Mike Bracken, agrees that previous experience can help officials make the leap out, but notes that it doesn’t just have to be private sector experience. He also suggests that policy skills are more transferable than you might expect.​

“Policy is perceived as such a specialism in the civil service,” he says. “There’s sort of a mindset that says, ‘I can only really do this, in a meaningful way, here’. I think that’s not necessarily true.

"In many countries, Facebook, Google, the tech giants, have effectively put state level infrastructure in place. They are making decisions at that level about how they provide access to public services.

“So, there are other companies and institutions that are making policy decisions, [and they need people with] the classic good policy skills of being robust, being able to construct good arguments, knowing how to corral evidence, combining that with a bit of a digital mindset.”

And if civil service skillsets are becoming more marketable outside Whitehall, so might be their experiences – especially as they face in Brexit a project so big it is currently consuming the lion’s share of the workload in the civil service and beyond.

“One of the interesting things now is there’s quite a market externally for people who know a bit about Brexit,” says Rutter, who now leads the IfG’s work on Britain’s departure. “Everybody is sort of learning from scratch so having worked on Brexit potentially makes you more saleable externally.”

‘Let people go, I bet half will come back’

For generations the civil service sold itself as an employer for life, and only in recent years has it begun to view things more flexibly. Rutter left Whitehall for the second time in 2011, partly because she was disappointed by her department’s failure to recognise the value of her time at BP. “I slightly believed the rhetoric that getting private sector experience would be useful,” she says. “But from the point of view of my colleagues, that’s just regarded as six lost years.”

Whitehall’s workforce plan for 2016-20 acknowledges some of these failings, and commits to improving secondment opportunities and organising partnerships “that proactively operate with private sector organisations and the wider public sector to create opportunities for movement in and out of the civil service”. It also takes on board some of the comments in the Baxendale report on bringing outside talent into the Senior Civil Service, which recommends it do more to “develop an alumni network and maintain links with leavers”.

"I think we should have people go out there into the private sector, because I will bet you half of them will come back" – John Manzoni, civil service chief executive

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said that the civil service, in response to the report, established an alumni network in March 2016 to maintain links with talented SCS leavers and promote permeability. “Membership of the network is growing and we provide members with regular communications to keep them up to date with developments in the civil service, arrange events with senior colleagues and existing civil servants in order to build relationships and share experiences, and encourage alumni to support high-potential civil servants on our accelerated development schemes,” they said.

The government has also committed to advertising all SCS roles externally by default by the end of this Parliament, and has changed its recruitment and induction processes to improve permeability.

Part of it will be about having the confidence to make it easier for staff to leave, and here the civil service seems to be making progress. Top Whitehall figures including chief executive John Manzoni not only have a higher opinion than Priti Patel of the ability of staff to walk into new roles, but also believe they should. Manzoni told an FDA conference in 2015 that Whitehall doesn’t need to match the market on pay.

“I think we should have people go out there into the private sector, because I will bet you half of them will come back,” he said. “It is more challenging, it is more interesting and it is more demanding inside the public sector.”

Secondments

Some civil servants make the transition to another sector after getting to know a company by working closely with them through their day job, or by doing a secondment. Rutter recalls, for example, that the Treasury lost talented staff to the City when it was doing a host of privatisations in the 1980s.

But secondments are also a good opportunity to open up the civil service to new ideas. The Cabinet Office describes them as a way to help “support civil servants to be able to work confidently with other sectors, developing partnerships and enable individuals to develop skills that can be brought back into the public sector”.

They can be a good way to gain insight into the sectors in which a department works. The Department for Communities and Local Government, for example, organised 56 secondments for its staff between 2012 and 2017, with local authorities the most popular destination. The Department of Health organised 63 secondments between 2015 and 2017, more than half of them to NHS organisations including NHS England, NHS Improvement and NHS Trusts.

But not all departments hold data on where they send secondees, and it is difficult to assess how far they are making the most of these opportunities.

It seems logical that the civil service would want to send staff out to learn about digital, one of Whitehall’s most coveted skills, and Green Park’s Trainer suggests this might happen more in the future. “As digital and technology continues to mature as a profession, we should start to see more secondments… Departments may wish to consider placing conditions within their contracts with big technology providers, which commit them to offer secondments to their staff.”

But Greenway doesn’t think secondments with suppliers is such a good idea. “There’s a cosiness to that,” he says. “I think it is quite dangerous.”

He is sceptical in general of the approach to secondments taken by the civil service, which “notoriously sends its best and brightest out to banks” (Jeremy Heywood went to the American bank Morgan Stanley). Banks are institutions with similar bureaucratic problems to the civil service, he says.

Instead, he wants to see the civil service send people to a wider range of organisations, including start-ups. “Put them out of their comfort zone… It’s about understanding different ways of working.”

Senior leaders in the service can also broaden their understanding of other sectors through schemes such as the WIG Exchange, which was developed by the Cabinet Office and Whitehall and Industry Group (WIG). This provides an opportunity for directors general and perm secs to exchange perspectives with peers from the private and wider public sectors. 

About the author

Tamsin Rutter is senior reporter for Civil Service World and tweets as @TamsinRutter

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Susan Chan (not verified)

Submitted on 19 January, 2018 - 22:45
Very interesting and informative article. When I was a civil servant, my private sector experience was deemed irrelevant. I had to adopt the civil service culture completely, irrespective of what I knew from elsewhere. When I got beyond civil service retirement age, despite being prepared to work to private sector retirement age, I was ‘encouraged’ to leave. I was definitely not welcome to stay. But I’m enjoying retirement, travelling the world, using my digital skills as well as spending time with family, so who needs or wants to keep slaving away within the civil service to support the taxpayer when the civil service is not interested in your contribution.

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