Oliver Letwin interview: "It’s very destructive to have revolutions in public services"

Written by Suzannah Brecknell on 11 November 2016 in Interview
Interview

David Cameron’s policy guru ruminates on his career over lunch with CSW's Suzannah Brecknell

Who? Oliver Letwin has been Conservative MP for West Dorset since 1997, and was a key member of David Cameron’s inner circle. As minister for government policy under the coalition, and then as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster under Cameron’s Tory government, he was known for being the former PM’s “I need you with me every day” man. His media appearances may have been rare, but over the decades, this celebrated policy brain and backroom enforcer has been no stranger to the occasional blunder – including, famously, throwing some confidential documents into a bin in St James’ Park.


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We discussed
Changes in the civil service 
"When I started working with civil servants again in 2010 [Letwin was an adviser to Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s], there was an awful lot more jargon-ridden, nonsensical, useless, distracting management speak, which I’m afraid we’d begun to sponsor in the 80s. But it had clearly taken hold in a much bigger way in the interim. 

"My biggest worry about all the management speak stuff isn’t just the ghastly jargon and the waste of time. I think it can disadvantage people who are really remarkable at doing a really important job. Rather than reward them for doing their job well, they are asked to go and do something else which they might do much less well, or be promoted to some level at which they aren’t going to do anything except manage other people doing things. This is a terrible mistake. I think it’s a system-wide problem: the civil service needs to find means to promote and honour people who are not commanding large groups of people, but rather who are doing their jobs extremely well."

Jeremy Heywood
"Outstandingly the best civil servant I’ve ever worked with is Jeremy Heywood, who actually managed to avoid almost all of the management speak tendencies despite being at the helm, so to speak. He was incredibly good at actually getting things done. You sometimes do see people infatuated with process. Jeremy is completely uncaptured by that; he focuses on getting things done. But actually, I’m spoilt for choice in the sense that while I certainly have dealt with some officials who are of no earthly use, I’ve dealt with a very large number of officials who were actually extremely good and quite a considerable number who were brilliant."

Public service reform
"The point about public services is: it’s very destructive to have revolutions. What you have to have is progressive movement in the right direction. And I think it’s persistence, rather than speed, that’s the important thing. A fast reform which creates resistance, doesn’t have time to bed down, doesn’t achieve what was intended. Slow, progressive reform that can be gradually adjusted as you go along and which eventually changes things in a big way is, I think, much the better thing."

Passport delays
"There was a time at the passport agency when it became clear that there was a real problem with people getting passports late. When we tried to investigate from the centre, this thesis that there was something going wrong was stoutly resisted on the grounds that they were really quite close to their target. It took me a little time to unearth the fact that this quite aggravating problem was completely compatible with the information we were being given. It was the wrong target, or rather, an insufficient target, because it measured the proportion of people who were receiving a passport within a certain amount of time. And this had not altered very much.

"But if you have a small proportion of people not receiving their passports on time, and this goes on for several months, you begin to have an extremely large pile of people who have been waiting months and months for their passport. The fact that other people have on average been getting their passport within the approved period is really no comfort to them whatsoever. 

"This was eventually put right but it made me understand that you have to look very carefully at what the statistics are actually measuring rather than at the statistics only. So going through the pain barrier, so to speak, of having to discover really what was going on in the passport agency helped an awful lot in a lot of other cases.

Floods and forecasting
"Another productive failure from my point of view was that every winter for some time, I and whoever the environment secretary was would find ourselves wandering around in gumboots at Christmas, sploshing through water. It turned out eventually that the non-scientists, the ministers, officials and newspapers, were all significantly misinterpreting what the scientists were trying to tell us about the risks of these floods occurring. You might think it’s impossible for a modern government machine faced with a repeated problem over many years to be in a situation in which the whole of the administrative set up of the UK was misunderstanding what it was being told about forecasting, and in which – as we also discovered – the two agencies responsible for doing the forecasting were not connected with each other in a proper way. But it wasn’t impossible: it happened.

"It’s an example of the general phenomenon which is that an awful lot of what goes wrong in public administration is not about huge ideological choices, the presence or absence of great reform programmes, or corruption or laziness. Rather, it is actually about getting to a simple, clear understanding, and overcoming things that become obvious once you do have that understanding. Because of the vast complexity of the machine, it’s incredibly difficult to focus efficiently on each bit of it to be sure that it hasn’t gone – in some mysterious and unobserved way – wonky."

“While I’ve dealt with some officials who are of no earthly use, I’ve dealt with quite a considerable number who were brilliant”

Whether he would have made a good civil servant
"Probably not. I don’t really like hierarchies, and I’m very interested in the connections between the minute and the enormous. Politics which spans something from philosophy to paperclips suits me, whereas the point of the civil service machine in any country is to leave the big picture stuff to the processes of democracy and then to implement as well as possible what it is that those processes emerge with. So I think I would have got frustrated as an official. However I do find Whitehall a very congenial atmosphere in which to live and I would certainly have enjoyed the business of administration."

Yes, Minister moments
"I didn’t have very many, and I don’t buy into these conspiracy theories about officialdom.  Actually, I think on the whole if ministers know what they want to achieve and are willing to do the work of finding out how to achieve it, officials will help them to achieve it. If ministers don’t know what they want to achieve, officials will invent it for them – what else can they do?"

What makes a good permanent secretary
"I think successful, really useful permanent secretaries actually have to work out what kind of permanent secretary to be in the light of the kind of department and the kind of minsters they’ve got. So if you were perm sec in a number of different departments you might have to have very different incarnations."

The worst moment of his career
"I’ve had many terrible moments, but actually the worst moment of my political career was waking up to discover that we were leaving the European Union and knowing that that was also going to be the moment at which David Cameron announced his resignation. But there’s hot competition for the status of being the worst moment of my political career."

The most embarrassing moment
"There’s hot competition for that, too. I think the most embarrassing moment was when I arrived back at Heathrow from a trip abroad to discover a very large part of the British press corps greeting my plane because it had been discovered, clearly as a result of one of the police officers selling the story, that I had ended up being burgled by a burglar whom I had in fact invited into the house to go to the loo. It’s almost impossible to explain that sort of thing to anybody. In point of fact I suspect that about 50 million of my fellow citizens, if faced with someone in the early hours of the morning covered with grease, maintaining that they’d broken down and desperately needed the loo, would probably do the same thing as I did. But of course it doesn’t ever sound that way."

Proudest moment
"I think probably sitting round the cabinet table for the first time in 2010, which was very far from inevitable. I’d certainly invested a lot of emotional energy in that process [setting up the coalition]."

Policy decisions he regrets
"I didn’t really make any policy decisions, because in opposition you don’t get to make policy decisions. I certainly regret some things that I sponsored as opposition policies, but they never became Britain’s policies. By the time I arrived in Downing Street I was simply part of an apparatus: it always fell either to cabinet, a cabinet committee or a secretary of state to make any actual decision. 

"So I think the nearest example is when we were sitting in the National Security Council and I was making decisions as part of a collective: the one I most regret was the decision to try to get parliament to vote for action in Syria the first time round. The reason I regret it is not that I think it was the wrong decision. On the contrary, in retrospect it would have been absolutely the right thing to do. I very much regret that we did it then and in that way and hence got a raspberry from parliament. I think we could have saved untold human suffering if we had waited until we’d accumulated support sufficiently to make it across the line."

His dream dinner party guests
"Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Aristotle, that’s the dinner party I’d most like to be at."

Implementation units
"There is a sort of Weberian principle here – knowledge is power. If the implementation unit actually knows what’s happening, in general all the people responsible for whatever is meant to be happening will co-operate in making it happen. You need to prove to them that it isn’t happening, and indicate what it is that will be required in order to make it happen. Of course there may be some deep resistances to fixing the issue, but I don’t think an implementation unit by itself – at the centre or anywhere else – will ever be able to overcome those strong cultural issues.

"Our implementation unit operated on the basis of a genuine, frontline, properly analytical understanding of what was happening – that was its strength, and that led line departments to work with us, and then to start copying it and introducing their own."

“Politics which spans something from philosophy to paperclips suits me” 

Cabinet committees
"The most useful cabinet committee by far was the National Security Council which met very frequently and with heads of agencies and armed forces and so on, as well as relevant outsiders. It brought all the key people together, and then there was a continuing conversation. Yes, there was an agenda but not prepared speeches: we actually tried to get to grips with the issues. 

"To make a committee successful you have to know what the purpose in any given case is. Most of the binary decisions – weighing up between two options or competing concerns – are better made on paper. In the year odd that I chaired the Home Affairs Cabinet Committee there wasn’t a single meeting of it. I didn’t see the need for it. A lot gets argued out on paper, and little groups of people meet from different departments to try and resolve questions."

Standing up for the civil service
"I quite frequently found myself at select committee hearings and so forth causing consternation by defending the civil service. I think it’s important that we do that.
There has been a huge tendency in the media and to some considerable extent in parliament to be dismissive about the bureaucracy. Conspiracy theories abound and the image is frequently propagated of well-heeled people looking after their own interests. My experience is very different from that. There are all sorts of things one would wish to improve but actually we’re incredibly lucky: we have a very good official machine.

"I think it’s really quite important that somehow or other we correct some of those mythologies. The operation of democracy and a free press will always seriously limit the amounts we’re able to pay senior officials by comparison with the commercial sector. Of course jobs in the civil service have an intrinsic interest which attracts people, but I think the only hope for maintaining the quality [of civil servants], which the whole country desperately needs us to maintain, is if the social standing of people in the civil service is high enough to compensate for the financial limitations. 

Managing red boxes
"I tried always to clear the box in the working day and at weekends in the morning because I found that I needed to be very awake. I find it’s much easier to keep myself alert if I’m writing something late than if I’m reading something late. I need every ounce of wakefulness to keep reading with meaning.

"I didn’t have any signals from officials to say which documents were most important and which could be ignored, because one of my roles, so to speak, was to make that distinction for David. I needed to see it all so that I could spot what I thought was the small subset that really had to go up to him, and I made a rule for myself never to write him a note of more than two pages so that he could grasp the key issues."


The venue
Roux at Parliament Square: Exceptional modern European cuisine served in elegant surroundings a stone’s throw from the House

The menu
Marinated tuna with cucumber, radish and rye; crispy pork with apricot, onions and thyme; roast sea trout with peas, salsify, girolles and a seaweed butter sauce; tonka bean custard tart with cherry and almond.

Author Display Name
Suzannah Brecknell
About the author

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

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Comments

Civil Servant? (not verified)

Submitted on 14 November, 2016 - 13:48
I've said it before, and I'll probably say it again, but why, oh why when people refer to Civil Servants are they only referring to those who work in Whitehall and Westminster??? They are only the Senior Civil Servants, what about the rest of us?

Anon (not verified)

Submitted on 14 November, 2016 - 15:48
There are plenty of non SCS who work in Whitehall and plenty of SCS who don't. I agree it would be nice to hear Ministers (current and former) acknowledge the existence of the Civil Service that outside SW1

rick aston (not verified)

Submitted on 17 November, 2016 - 13:51
i am surprised to read my colleagues views on civil servants outside whitehall etc, we are invisible, the downtrodden, the nobodys that whitehall and above could not care less about, the ones doing all the real work inside the civil service.

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