Changing places: What it's really like to work in the Treasury, and the inside story of its Darlington campus

The Treasury has a long history, and its reputation as Whitehall’s most intimidating department casts a long shadow. But two DGs tell Richard Johnstone that perception doesn’t match reality
Chancellor Rishi Sunak working at the Treasury's Darlington campus Photo HM Treasury

By Richard Johnstone

26 Oct 2021

The Darlington sunshine is streaming into the Zoom screen when CSW joins a call with Beth Russell, the Treasury’s director general of tax and welfare.

“It’s been sunny every day pretty much since I’ve been here,” says the official who is leading the department’s work in setting up an economic campus in the town, as part of the government’s plan to move civil service jobs out of London. “I’m not sure that’s going to continue, but it’s given me a very good first impression.”

Indeed, the sun is so bright that what we are seeing is a reflection, as the shine would have been too much if she had sat in front of the windows directly, Russell says – “you wouldn’t see me because it was so bright.”

It is, though, a fitting backdrop to examine how the Treasury is changing. The department is always in the spotlight given its crucial role in Whitehall, and it is now helping drive the government’s levelling up agenda, as well as working to demonstrate that the Treasury is no longer a cold-hearted number-crunching monolith – if it ever was.

Russell is speaking alongside Cat Little, the Treasury’s director general for public spending, and they offer different perspectives on changes in the department. Little joined the finance ministry in early 2020, having been finance DG in the Ministry of Defence. Russell, on the other hand, has worked in the Treasury since 2000 in a range of policy roles across tax, welfare and public spending, and has been in her current role since 2017.

She joined the department “because quite a lot of people said the Treasury is a great place to work, and you would enjoy it”. But she was also aware of a broader perception that “it’s an institution with a lot of history that is full of very clever people and a little bit scary”.

“I think there’s quite a perception from outside that Treasury is perhaps not a very friendly place to work, not necessarily a very supportive place to work, perhaps a competitive place to work,” Russell says, but adds: “I think that is just not the case at all.

“I’ve lost count of the number of people who have come into the Treasury from other departments, or from outside government, who have commented about how the reality is very different to the perception as a place to work.”

Each DG came to the department with their own perceptions, too. Russell acknowledges that she didn’t appreciate early in her career the full range of things that the Treasury was involved in across government, and the extent to which it needs different skills.

“I came from a background of working on social policy. I’m not an economist [and] I thought a lot of the jobs were accountancy or economist roles. I actually didn’t realise how many of our jobs are in policy, or are project managers or business support.”

Little’s view of the department was shaped by her time in the MoD. “A lot of my perceptions were based on working with the Treasury on tough Spending Review negotiations,” she says. “I suspect, like many people in Whitehall, perceptions are based on those limited interactions rather than the full scope of what the Treasury does. I certainly felt that the Treasury was humble, kind, hardworking, intellectually curious and tough to negotiate with. And I’m pleased to say that is still the case.”

However, she also acknowledges that many departments think that the Treasury – which, despite its historic role, has an age demographic younger than most of Whitehall – can be full of “relatively inexperienced people who may not have had all the battle scars in the frontline departments dealing with very big complex policy issues”.

“Quite junior people [in the Treasury] do get huge amounts of responsibility,” she says. “There’s obviously a lot of balancing that we do to manage that feedback. But from a development perspective it’s great, and the Treasury as an institution is very keen to maximise our opportunities to give people as much exposure to big policy issues.”

“I certainly felt that the Treasury was humble, kind, hardworking, intellectually curious and tough to negotiate with. And I’m pleased to say that is still the case” Cat Little

 

These negative perceptions are ones that Treasury is working hard to correct. The department holds what Little calls “360 events”, where it invites partners across Whitehall and beyond to share their view of the august institution. Another recent event brought together four frontline public sector workers – a prison officer, a teacher, a social worker and a police officer – to discuss how they would make spending decisions.

Another widely-held view is that the Treasury is, in Russell’s words, “very white, posh and male”. She says that although the department does need to do more on diversity, this picture is already out of date.

“I’ve definitely seen change in the organisation over the last 20 years,” she says. “We’re now 50-50 in terms of gender, including in the senior civil service. And while we’ve got a long way to go in other areas, like ethnic diversity, and particularly socio-economic diversity, it is something where the perception doesn’t quite meet the reality.”

The Treasury’s culture, Russell (left) says, “definitely feels very different to me from 20 years ago”, though she notes that it’s still underpinned by an “enduring set of objectives” for well-managed and good value public spending.

She highlights the change to an open-plan office around the turn of the century as a marker of the culture change.

“Our move to open plan had a fundamental impact, I think, on our internal openness and team working.

“When I first arrived, I had my own office, even as quite a junior person in the department, which I think had a real negative influence on the culture.”

Other milestones include a greater focus on leadership and management across the department. “There weren’t conversations about wellbeing, about mental health, about flexible working, and about diversity in the way that there is now. That has definitely been a massive shift over the period.”Little, with her more recent experience of joining, can testify to these changes.

“The organisation is incredibly able to talk about how it feels,” she says. “If I compare and contrast to lots of organisations I’ve worked in, feelings are not often the first subject that comes up.

“I think that’s real credit to a lot of our people. In particular during Covid, team meetings would start with asking, ‘How are you all feeling?’ and people were really able to respond to that. We’ve moved from very polite thumbs up in Microsoft Teams to now there’s a lot of love hearts.”

“It’s really important that we are going to be able to say to people that you can have a whole civil service career in Darlington, or in the northeast” Beth Russell

The most high-profile example of how the department is changing is simply Russell’s location. The development of the new Darlington office is a physical manifestation that it is no longer what she calls “probably the most London-centric of government departments”.

“[We] totally recognise that [London-centricity] is a problem in terms of us listening, understanding, feeling close to people right across the country, and that’s why the Darlington office is going to be a big part of the change.”

The location shift is leading to other changes too. The Treasury is tweaking how it recruits to make sure it can reach out to those around the new campus, by thinking about the language that it uses and the places that it advertises to make the most of its new location.

“This is quite a new thing for the Treasury to be recruiting outside London,” Russell says. For example, this means creating an accessible set of explanations about what it’s like to work there that eschew words like ‘policy’ which might be easily understood by those looking to work in Whitehall, but could be a barrier elsewhere.

The Treasury held a jobs fair in early October in Darlington with the other departments that will share the northern economic campus – the Department for International Trade, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the Office for National Statistics, and the Department for Education.

This will also demonstrate one of the key benefits of the Darlington base, Russell says – that there is more than one department for those who join to build a career.

“It’s really important that we are going to be able to say to people that you can have a whole civil service career in Darlington, or in the northeast, if you want. There’s going to be 750 of us here in the medium term, right up to and including director general level. So between all the departments, you can have a really interesting, varied civil service career if you want to stay here out of London. I think that’s really important.”

The jobs fair also included a mock spending review exercise “so people can think about what it’s like to work in a spending team in the Treasury”, says Russell. Treasury minister Lord Agnew took part in the session, which – in a sign of how important the initiative is – took place just 20 days before the announcement of the real Spending Review by chancellor Rishi Sunak.

Reflecting on the mood of the department after the pressures of the last 18 months, Little says there is a real excitement about working on the three-year review.

“This is the first multi-year spending review that we have run since 2015, and it comes at a time where we’re dealing with some of the biggest issues that the country has faced. People are genuinely excited about getting stuck into [questions like]: What do we really mean by levelling up? How are we going to make sure that we get the right balance of investment in resilience with the public sector recovery from Covid?”

Indeed, according to Little, the pandemic response has “shifted the dial” in perspectives of the Treasury.

“I joined the Treasury just as we were about to go into lockdown. The conversations [with departments] have probably gone from [discussing] a tough Spending Review settlement in SR2019 to: ‘There’s a clearly a crisis on the frontline, how do we help?’

“I think that’s built a lot of collaboration and common endeavour across Whitehall, I’d like to think that’s helped to shape a more holistic view of how the Treasury works.”

Ahead of the Spending Review, both Little and Russell worked closely on the landmark health and social care package that provided a £36bn investment in services and set out a plan to cap an individual’s lifetime care costs at £86,000.

Little (left) hopes to embed this kind of cross-government working with enhanced the joint bidding processes in the upcoming review.

“The big themes – net zero, levelling up, public service recovery, building back better, global Britain – are all cross-cutting issues and you have to have departments working in a different way with us to coordinate that,” she says.

This, insist both Russell and Little, demonstrates the type of department the Treasury has become – open, collaborative and problem solving. And all these skills have been demonstrated in recent times.

“I had the privilege of being involved in designing and delivering the furlough scheme, and that’s something that has genuinely impacted positively on millions of people’s lives and businesses,” says Russell

“We knew a lot was riding on it, but there was great teamwork with HM Revenue and Customs, and really innovative and creative thinking in a situation that we’d never come across before, and just a really great team spirit.

“It’s something where you immediately saw the impact in the real world, and it’s just been immensely rewarding to have been involved in that.”

For Little, this crystallises the role of the Treasury. “To try and find solutions is what gets us out of bed in the morning,” she says. “If you’re someone who really wants to improve outcomes for citizens, and get involved in some of the biggest changes to do that, then the Treasury is a fantastic place to be.”

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