From Yes, Minister to On the Buses: Lessons on how Whitehall should work with the private sector

Written by John Dowie on 13 June 2019 in Feature
Feature

Does it really matter who represents your department at stakeholder meetings – or whether you’ve done a secondment outside Whitehall? Yes, says insider-turned-outsider John Dowie, who moved to work for First Bus after a 27-year civil service career. Here, sharing his observations of government from the other side, he explains why

Buses on Whitehall Photo PA

The notion that business is simple and government much more complex is a myth.

And it’s a bit of a self-justifying myth at that. The bus sector may be towards one end of the spectrum, but it can hardly be unique in having to deal with safety, economic regulation, environment, industrial relations and technology transformation. And looming above all are our customers, with their changing needs and rising expectations, and our investors, with their demands for disclosure and sustained returns. The basic building blocks of customer-centred delivery – driver behaviour, reliability, ease of ticketing, fare levels, information, cleanliness, safety – all require disciplined, sustained corporate commitment. So civil servants should remember that the lives of people in business are also complex.

Never underestimate the burdens imposed by the policymaking process.

The bus sector is affected by the transport department, obviously, but also Defra, MHCLG, BEIS (because of climate change, energy and innovation); regulators (such as traffic commissioners, DSA, DVLA, the HSE, and the CMA); and advisory bodies such as the National Infrastructure Commission. If you work across the UK then you also have to engage with the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments. And, of course, there’s local government, including the alphabet soup of city-region and subnational transport bodies, such as Transport for London, Transport for Greater Manchester and Transport for the North. There is a deluge of policy proposals, consultations, guidance and regulations. Some of them are excellent, but too many are badly written and unfocused. It is impossible to keep up. The trade press becomes ever more important as a filter and intermediary.


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Be careful how you delegate stakeholder engagement

I used to wonder why my part of the Department for Transport fared badly in external stakeholder surveys, but no longer. The answer is all too obvious now. The talent, imagination and all-round excellent work of the civil service is too often invisible, directed inward toward ministers or departmental process. Time to reach out externally is pressured and rationed. Dealing with stakeholders is all too often delegated to junior staff. Some are good, but some are not – whether through lack of experience, lack of clear guidance or lack of empowerment. The civil servant who is “only here to listen” is all too real. And, at the other extreme, I’ve witnessed the junior official who thinks they are entitled to tell CEOs of major operations with annual turnovers of hundreds of millions of pounds how they should run their businesses. And don’t neglect the ministerial speech – they are attentively listened to outside and can set the tone for relationships, yet often drafting is delegated downwards as a chore and speeches are padded with boilerplate. Ask yourself what impact a bland, self-regarding speech is going to make to key delivery relationships. These are the contacts that shape the stakeholder view of your department and the civil service as a whole. My plea to the Senior Civil Service is to lead by example: make sure you allocate more of your time to getting out and engaging. And stick to it through the barrage of day-to-day pressures. You will learn much and, what is more, the people you’re speaking to will begin to understand your world.

Sector knowledge is more than just a nice-to-have.

Civil servants probably don’t change jobs more often than people in the private sector, but they are more likely to change subject matter. The delivery world places great store by sector knowledge, professional and tacit. It’s essential if you are to understand a sector’s business, how it delivers, how it co-operates. Limited mutual understanding undermines effective collaboration. Neither party understands the pressures and challenges faced by the other. It’s not just the overhead costs of repeated re-learning, it’s the cost of the ill-informed decisions while the re-learning is underway. Surfing implementation – riding over the top of the issue on the basis of flimsy evidence and a few anecdotes – is not a sustainable strategy. Continuity and reinforcement of sector expertise is critical when building and re-building teams, whether at divisional or departmental level. You need a strategy for inward and outward secondment. And you need a strategy for getting newcomers up to speed. You neglect all this at your peril.

“The talent of the civil service is too often invisible, directed inward toward ministers or departmental process”

Developing your career across boundaries is the way to become really effective.

I changed sectors in the last quarter of my career. In retrospect, I would have learnt much, developing my personal impact, if I had stepped outside the government bubble earlier and travelled more flexibly across the public/private divide. A narrow view might suggest sticking to the civil service greasy pole, beefing up your CV with internal secondments to the right departments, staying visible and playing the internal game are the way to go.  But that doesn’t necessarily make for a better civil servant who is well-placed to make a difference. Civil servants would be well advised to think about what they could learn in terms of different ways of working, tools and experience. And, indeed, how much more interesting they could be to future line managers.

Local government is seriously under the cosh, and that makes it harder to get things done.

All too often talk of “place leadership”, “partnership” and “enabling authorities” is just that: talk. That’s not to say there aren’t still excellent authorities, it’s just that their number is diminishing fast. This is light years away from my experience of local government in the 2000s. Austerity has bitten, troubleshooting is dominating agendas and the headroom for strategic leadership is rapidly diminishing. The end result is that actually getting things done is becoming harder and harder. There is an irony here – the decade of devolution, real if perhaps piecemeal, is also the decade in which the means to deliver is dissipating.

Stepping out helps you appreciate the strengths of the civil service.

From the viewpoint of an outsider, there is much to admire about the civil servant’s ability to sift and disentangle complexity, separate wood from trees and translate the results into action. The same can be said for inclusive policymaking, engaging and involving all with a stake in the outcome as a matter of course, and the discipline of writing it down with clear process. Done to excess, this can all degenerate into wasteful bureaucracy. But its value shouldn’t be underestimated: it clarifies tasks and takes us halfway to delivery. It’s a skill set that has real value in a world that is more informal and pacey, but also less inclusive and process driven. Drummed into the civil servant through years of practice, these skills translate into a big part of your unique personal selling point.

I would encourage civil servants to take time out to examine their own impact beyond the civil service community. How can you use your stakeholders’ experience and deep knowledge? What are you doing to understand, engage with and partner your delivery chain?  It’s not too late to make the effort. Who knows, you may even enjoy it!

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John Dowie
About the author

John Dowie spent 27 years in the civil service, most recently working as acting director general of roads, traffic and local in the Department for Transport. Prior to this he worked in a range of departments across England and Scotland including the Treasury, the Scottish Executive, the Government Office for East of England and the transport, energy, and trade & industry departments. He now works at First Bus, operator of 5,750 buses in 22 markets across the UK

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