A private sector hitchhiker’s guide to the civil service

Written by Sherin Aminossehe on 1 December 2017 in Opinion

As she leaves government to return to the private sector, Sherin Aminossehe shares her lessons from working in Whitehall – from the ministers to the acronyms

Sherin Aminossehe Photo: Paul Heartfield

It’s been nearly seven years since I had to swim through a flood in Jeddah.

What is the relevance of that flood?

It is what made me question where I was working, and set me on the path that took me to to the civil service. Six years later, I am venturing to pastures new in the private sector.

Reflecting on leaving, I remembered that I am frequently asked what I would tell private sector entrants into the public sector – who ask as if it were an exotic foreign country.


So here for the first time (with apologies to Douglas Adams), is the private sector hitchhikers guide to the civil service, in nice friendly letters:

1)   It’s not that complicated (honest!)… you haven’t just landed on an alien planet. People are people and deserve the same respect that you gave your co-workers in your last place. Everyone just wants to deliver a good job.

2)   …but realise that you’re not in Kansas anymore and that it’s not exactly the same. There is no real profit motive here, it is genuinely about the greater good of the country (what better motive than that?).Collaboration is the key word in Whitehall and persuading departments that your wonderful idea is really beneficial for their businesses too is how to get things done.

3)   Then there are ministers… we hear about them in the press, we see them promoted, demoted, elected and also lose seats. They are not some special breed (see point 1) but coming from a service industry and dealing with clients helps – especially clients who call you at the weekend and suggest that you might want to radically change the project you have spent months refining. Speaking truth to power really does work though.

4)   …and acronyms… I once went from a CEX meetings to MfGRE to MCO then saw the NAO and the GIAA to talk about NPM becoming the GPA and discussing its relationship with DDCMS, DCLG, DWP, BEIS, CO, DEFRA and…I rest my case. If you’re confused just ask someone to translate. People think civil servants use language to confound. No, it has become second nature and as easily as a bilingual speaker slip between English and my mother tongue, you too will be able to go between English and Acronym Mandarin (AM) in about 6 months.

5)   …and bureaucracy… Yes things can move slowly, but there are legitimate shortcuts once you understand the system. Do always question if there is another way to get things done as there usually is. Remember that government is held to a different standard, and that rules are there for a reason and I have yet to come across a private sector firm who allows their employees to randomly spend whatever they want from their company coffers.

6)   Finally: diversity matters this isn’t about lip service or recreating the same team you had previously or, even worse, recruiting identikit people. The civil service truly embraces difference and the talent and innovation it brings, good people are not just mini versions of you.

So you have got to the end of the list and you’re still not put off. Congratulations, you’re about to enter into a great workplace, where you will literally be able shape the way the country is run. I can guarantee that there is no other place like it.

Some day I may be back and until then, goodbye and thanks for all the fish.

About the author

Sherin Aminossehe is the chief operating officer at the Government Property Unit & Head of Government Property Profession in the Cabinet Office.

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