Career reflections with Simon Ancona

The outgoing chief executive of the Whitehall & Industry Group – who has also held various senior Ministry of Defence roles – discusses memorable career moments, civil service reform, life on a warship and the blues harmonica
Simon Ancona as British Royal Navy maritime component commander in 2014. Photo: REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed/Alamy Stock Photo

By Tevye Markson

31 Oct 2022

What was it like moving from the navy to Whitehall?

I spent over 10 years in the Ministry of Defence in various jobs, which were a fusion of military and civil service. So quite a lot of what I did in the MoD was effectively civil service practice. Moving in and out of the MoD is pretty seamless. The civil service has moved to meet the military and the military has moved to meet the civil service. 

Each party understands the constraints and restraints of the other and of course defence language is pretty much the same. I think the first time you go to a government department, it takes quite a long time to just understand how things are done. Once you’ve done one job there, going back there is reasonably straightforward. 

What civil service reforms would make if you were prime minister?

I’m not sure I can be drawn into suggesting a policy. If you are forcing me into saying something, though, I’ll give you two words: “continuity and consistency”. If you provide those two things to businesses, they’ll work with it. If you deny a business that, then it’s very difficult for them to conceive strategy and deliver and grow. So those are the two things that, in my experience, business yearns for more than anything else. If I was forced to add a third, just for the sake of alliteration, it would probably be communication.

Is the civil service working well with other sectors?

When there’s an existential threat, communication is very good. We saw that during Covid. At the moment, you’ve got a government setting policy around corporation tax and various other things. Businesses, depending on the business and the segment within the private sector, will have different views on whether that is actually helpful to them or unhelpful.

The private sector don’t necessarily want a great deal. They tend to want a fair chance, certainty and situational awareness. And they like a reasonable regulatory and legislative environment. Incentives would be nice, but they are not the top things that they look for. 

They do want a joined-up government. I’ve spoken to private sector businesses who are dealing with four different government departments on energy policy – or something similar – and they find that very difficult to do. And I don’t think anyone has really cracked the challenge of access. I think it’s getting better. I think there are things in the digital space that are making it easier. But the inevitable churn in the civil service, the movement at ministerial level, in recent months and years, has made none of that particularly easy, which is why WIG does what it does. WIG is never as popular as when people yearn for a bit of certainty and information. 

Civil service unions have claimed civil service morale is at its worst  in decades amid regular criticism from ministers. How were relations when you worked in Whitehall? Have they always been this strained?

One of the things WIG doesn’t do is that we don’t go near politicians. WIG is set up specifically to deal with officials and the private sector. I have a great deal of sympathy with the civil service, mainly because of a lack of certainty and continuity. In the last three years, not only have there been the huge challenges around Brexit – and there are residue issues there – but there’s been Covid and also quite a lot of political change. When you’re asking departments to move through the various phases of setting policy, conceiving policy that is compatible and conducive to what ministers want to achieve, then designing strategy to deliver that policy, and then moving, which is the trickiest bit, that strategy into operational delivery, that’s fine if departments can be left to get on with that. But when in that cycle things change mid-stride, that makes life very difficult for departments. In the current circumstances, I don’t think any department, apart from perhaps one or two, has a full expectation of their three-year comprehensive spending review settlement maintaining any sort of consistency or surviving.

What was the most challenging day or moment in your career?

Different stages in your career offer different challenges because you’re a different person as you mature. I can name you difficult days in helicopters off Kuwait in the first Gulf War for instance. But equally I could offer you the challenge, which was a pleasurable one, of bringing together a coherent global defence engagement strategy. Wedding the MoD’s non-war-fighting efforts and influence globally with the plans of the [then separate] Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Department for International Development, was a really interesting exercise in policy alignment and delivery. That was something I enjoyed a great deal. 

I was also lucky enough to have four commands at sea. So I remember being captain of a patrol boat around Hong Kong in the lead-up and through the handover of Hong Kong. 

And your proudest achievement?

I’m tempted to say it was capturing £200m worth of cocaine off Colombia... Sadly, I have to point out that none of that money flowed into my pocket as it would have done in the 18th century. We don’t do prize money anymore. 

But I would focus on WIG, which is now larger, and does more things with more people, with more members, than it ever has before. 

Creating value through collaboration is central to what WIG does. A key focus at the moment is developing a collaboration methodology or a ‘how to’ playbook, working with the Blavatnik School for Government. The aim is to establish the academic underpinning for collaboration, and provide a practical guide on how to approach it effectively.  This would have huge utility for all three sectors, and we hope it will serve to improve interaction between government and the private sector, not-for-profits and academia, as well as central to local government.

What advice would you give to your successor?

I think it’s got to be: conversations with the civil service are a constant thing. It’s not the business of forming a network, resting on one’s laurels, using those contacts. It’s such a moving, living thing, even at the senior level, that my piece of advice is that building those relationships is a constant endeavour. The other thing I would point out to them are the four truths: no-one knows it all; more unites the different sectors than divides them; some form of coordination, cooperation or collaboration is no longer discretionary; and greater understanding and cooperation results in better decisions. 

What was the best and worst part of life on a warship?

I think the worst part of life on a warship, if you’re away for six-plus months, has got to be separation from family. Being isolated in a tin box for that amount of time, there are psychological tricks to be played there. The best thing about it is the sheer unity of effort, teamwork and common endeavour that you can generate within a ship’s company. You can take a warship, deploy it to the other side of the globe, where it is ostensibly on its own, where it needs to run itself, be ready for anything, adapt to circumstance, make its own decisions and sustain itself, and that is a real buzz for anyone who’s part of that close-knit team. So that for me is the zenith of teamworking against which I suppose I compare all teamworking. 

CSW has read that you play the blues harmonica…

When I was doing flight training, there was a local band – this is down in Cornwall – that was made up from another squadron and they had a guy there who played the blues harmonica and I thought if there’s an instrument that’s convenient to take anywhere, that’s got to be it, because it could fit in your pocket. So I started to dabble way back then. And I’ve sort of kept it up, really. It was a good way of earning beer in various bars around the world. And if pressed to do so and enough has been imbibed, then yes, I have been guilty of whipping it out and playing it sometimes. I’m by no means an expert, but after a few it sounds alright. 

Ancona left WIG on September 30 and Vicky Browning has been appointed as interim CEO. Recruitment for his permanent successor is now open. You can apply here:

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