As Civil Service World celebrates its 15th anniversary, Beckie Smith has trawled the archives for some of our most memorable moments. All this week we’ll be sharing the best bits from articles and interviews, as well as some of the jargon that has stood the test of time. First up: some of our interviewees before they were (more) famous

Have we met before?

Years of interviews with the great and good of politics and officialdom have taught us things we never knew we needed to know. They have also proved that it is impossible to predict where our interviewees will end up years down the line...

Owen me Owen you, a-ha, Sue Owen – 1 Aug 2006

Much has changed since we interviewed Dame Sue Owen, then a director general at the Department for International Development, in 2006 – not least that, having risen to the upper echelons of the civil service, the Department of Digital, Culture Media and Sport perm sec is now preparing to retire. Back then, Owen revealed her career could have been very different. “In fact, I was on the verge of moving to Canary Wharf when DfID came up, but the choice between money and contributing to the eradication of world poverty was a no-brainer,” she said.

She added: “I’m open-minded about the future. It doesn’t do to plan too much because then you can be too fixated on one thing.” But our correspondent did have the foresight to ask about her post-retirement plans. She pictured a “sybaritic life – but I’d also like to keep my hand in as a non-executive director in between – as well as the gardening, travel and cooking”.

A law unto himself, Richard Heaton – 12 Feb 2008

Speaking to CSW in February 2008, Richard Heaton talked with passion of his job as director-general of the Department for Work and Pensions’ Legal Group – a role that he combined with that of solicitor to the Department of Health. “It’s great to be involved in the creation of laws, rather than simply applying them in front of a magistrate or a judge,” he said. “It’s a huge intellectual treat to work with policymakers to help them develop policy and get things done.” These days, as Ministry of Justice perm sec, he oversees the country’s vast prisons estate, the courts system and a fair share of highly complex Brexit work. Presumably it all amounts to an even bigger intellectual treat.

Taxing times ahead, Jon Thompson – 12 Aug 2008

Thompson, then at the Department for Schools, Childrens and Families, had just become head of the government finance profession when he sat down with CSW in 2008, and was reflecting on his career-defining moments up to that point.

One that stood out was splitting the then-Department for Education and Skills into two – which he said was “one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done”. His love of big challenges has clearly come in handy since: as HM Revenue & Customs perm sec he is tackling the not-inconsiderable hurdles of overhauling the digital tax system and getting the customs regime ready for Brexit.

Generally speaking, Rowena Collins-Rice – 27 Jan 2010

Rowena Collins-Rice now leads the Attorney General’s Office, but it wasn’t easy getting there. When she spoke to CSW in January 2010, she was director-general of the MoJ’s democracy, constitution and law group. The year leading up to our interview had been “beyond tough” because of – among other things – the speed at which the group had to work on legislation in response to the MPs’ expenses scandal, she said. But that didn’t deter her. “If I could have sat down and decided what in all the world I wanted to do, this would be it,” she proclaimed.

Little did EU know, Matthew Rycroft – 10 March 2010

Our March 2010 interview with DfID’s current perm sec seems particularly prescient in light of recent events. Back then, “Brexit” was merely an ugly neologism yet to be coined.

“For people outside it, there’s something scary about the EU. It can come across as very technical, very bureaucratic, full of processes and red tape,” Rycroft, then EU director at the Foreign Office (left), told CSW. Although Britain was seen as extremely influential by other member states, “in the UK that is not a common view; most people see the EU as something that is done to them,” he said.

But like most of us, he didn’t predict that a few short years later, those concerns would help swing a referendum on membership. “There was a big debate within the UK on the Lisbon Treaty and about whether to sign… but we’ve now moved on to an agenda which is much more about using the institutions,” he said.

Sir Mark Sedwill, or the Dark Lord? – 17 Feb 2016

CSW has had the pleasure of sitting down with Sir Mark Sedwill – now cabinet secretary – several times over the years, and each has brought new insights. One was the then Home Office perm sec’s revelation in a February 2016 interview that he hadn’t minded being portrayed as Darth Vader on the Home Affairs Select Committee’s annual Christmas card.

“In the end, you know, who am I to complain? It’s always better to be one of the stars, even if you’re the Dark Lord, than to be disregarded. I think he’s the coolest character in the pantheon – so I’m not that bothered,” he said of his Star Wars role.


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