Who was Chris Martin, and what was his impact on the civil service policy profession?

Written by Tamsin Rutter on 18 July 2018

With nominations open for the Civil Service Awards 2018, we explore the man who inspired the Chris Martin Policy Award

Credit: Crown Copyright

The late Chris Martin, principal private secretary to the prime minister from late 2011 to 2015, was “quite simply one of the finest civil servants of his generation”, according to Sir Jeremy Heywood.

In an obituary published on Civil Service World, the cabinet secretary described a man who “embodied with selfless humility the enduring values of the civil service he loved”, and whose commitment to his team was renowned.

Former civil servant Ed Whiting, a member of Martin’s No 10 team, attests to this depiction, remembering a boss who balanced dedication and discretion, and who provided “fearless advice” to prime ministers while being a “relentless advocate for the government they were trying to lead”.

He tells CSW: “He would say to me, ‘You’ve got to remember, for us in this building, we’re the only people who work for the prime minister, and just the prime minister and… there is a dedication that that requires of you in terms of thinking, well what does the prime minister need?”

Whiting, who is now the director of policy and chief of staff at the Wellcome Trust, joined No 10 in January 2014 working under Martin, and took over the PPS role on an acting basis after Martin died of cancer aged 42 in 2015.

For Whiting, the decision to rename one of the categories in the Civil Service Awards to be the Chris Martin Policy Award was “a really appropriate way to recognise what he brought to both No 10, the Treasury and the system as a whole”.

“It felt like exactly the right thing,” he adds.

This is because Martin’s approach to his job reflected “the way the policy profession should work within Whitehall”, he says. The late PPS valued expertise, and ensured that departmental experts in areas No 10 was covering were brought in, listened to and respected. But he also constantly reminded his teams of the prime minister’s current priorities.

“That for me is what good policy looks like,” Whiting adds. “It is that fearless, evidence-based, analytical, rigorous approach – but it’s an approach that to be effective also recognises the context in which the advice is being given, and the full breadth of issues that political leaders making those decisions may be grappling with.”

Towards the end of his life, Martin was helping to develop ideas around what an effective policy profession looks like. Heywood and Sir Chris Wormald, the policy profession head and Department of Health and Social Care perm sec, have continued that work – and Whiting believes “you can see some of the flavour of the way that Chris worked and what he brought to his job in the way the policy profession now looks and now works”.

Many of the ideas he espoused – such as giving advice in a context, and listening to a broad range of views – are particularly important for the profession now given the “broader contexts around Brexit and many other pressures that are completely unignorable and need to be balanced very carefully with the way that civil servants give advice”, Whiting says.

The former civil servant says he’d love to see nominations in this year’s Civil Service Awards that demonstrate the practice at which Martin excelled: giving honest and evidence-based advice, in a way that is practical and useable by ministers.

The civil service policy profession is 18,400 people-strong, and works to develop cross-government policy capability by improving government’s use of evidence, its understanding of the political context and the links between policy and delivery.

Last year, the Chris Martin Policy Award went to the Department for Education’s Teaching Excellence Framework Team.

As a leader, Martin also displayed a good balance between offering support and trusting others to get on with their jobs. Whiting recalls his role during big events such as election planning and the Scottish referendum, where he would ensure there was a process for advice and that key issues were flushed out and worked through. “But he would then stand back and… let the machinery of government do its thing, and would then help to stress test near the end,” he says.

“He wasn’t the kind of leader who would be running around Whitehall to be in the middle of every single conversation on a particular issue. He would give space to people to work up what the right answers might be, to bring together recommendations, and he would hold us to account [for those].”

Martin entered the civil service through the Fast Stream after graduating from the University of Bristol. He joined the Treasury, did a secondment in MI5, and rose to become press secretary to chancellors Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling, including at the time of the 2007-08 financial crisis, before joining No 10.

David Cameron, paying tribute to his PPS in Parliament just after he died, said: “I’ve no idea what his politics were, but he would go to the ends of the earth and back again for his prime minister, for No 10 and for the team he worked for.”

This ability to put aside one’s own political convictions, Whiting says, is “at the heart of what a civil servant needs to be”.

Nominations are now open for the 2018 Civil Service Awards.

The Civil Service Awards Community is a new section on Civil Service World that aims to celebrate past winners, inspire people to nominate in 2018, and help us all to learn from good practice. If you’ve ever won or been shortlisted for an award, register your interest to hear about future events and projects for awards alumni