By Jess Bowie

18 Feb 2016

The former permanent secretary of the Ministry of Justice – and before that the Ministry of Defence – looks back on her Whitehall career over lunch with CSW editor Jess Bowie

Who? Dame Ursula Brennan joined the civil service as a fast streamer in 1975. She held a number of high-profile roles in Whitehall, including as the Ministry of Defence’s first female permanent secretary. She became perm sec of the Ministry of Justice in July 2012 and retired from the civil service in July 2015. She currently sits on the board of the National Theatre and on the council of her alma mater, the University of Kent.

The restaurant Bank Westminster: Seasonal food served in the pleasant surroundings of a huge conservatory overlooking a courtyard. Less than five minutes’ walk from St James’s Park tube.

The menu – Starter: Bread basket | Main: Arctic salmon with roast pumpkin; butternut squash and goat’s cheese tart | Drinks: Tap water; single espresso; white coffee

Dame Ursula on... 

Why she left 
I’d been in the civil service for 40 years, and I’d done two years in the GLC before that. So frankly after 42 years of full-time work, it seemed like the opportunity to do some different things. It was as simple as that, really. It was sensible to stay until after the election – long enough for a process to find my successor. But actually people had known for a very long time. They kept saying to me: “Oh, you haven’t gone yet?”

What she’s most proud of in her career
That’s quite difficult to answer because some of the things you do as a civil servant are very associated with the government of the time. I’ve done things that I was proud of, that have been undone since – and that’s what democracy is. So there is an irony: you have to try to avoid being too invested in, or associated with key policies because it could then conceivably be your job to tell your officials to march in completely the opposite direction on the same area. 

In a way, what you feel most proud about are the people you’ve worked with. The young people you were able to help in their careers. When you work in a place for 40 years, you can look back and see what’s happened to those people later. I can think of people who were lacking in confidence and who weren’t sure that they were as talented as other people. They’d probably not had the kind of education where people were constantly telling them how clever they were. And just by giving them the space, supporting them, encouraging them, you can see them develop and grow. That’s been the thing that I most enjoyed.

The birth of the Ministry of Justice
The creation of the MoJ was an announced-on-television-one-weekend affair, so its birth wasn’t exactly a long-considered thing!

[Labour home secretary] John Reid had been saying for about a week that the Home Office wasn’t fit for purpose. He said it in a select committee, and then he kept repeating it, and finding other things that weren’t fit for purpose. And then suddenly, one evening on TV, he said: “And one of the reasons is, it’s too big. And therefore I propose to separate off the prisons and probation.” The judges knew nothing about it; I was a civil servant in what was still the Home Office at that point – none of us knew anything about it. And so then there was a frantic scramble to create the department that had just been announced.

“I think if you’ve worked in defence you can’t help feeling that there is something so incredibly engaging about it. It grabs you by the vitals”

Dealing with negative media coverage
The truth is, actually, that most of the people you know don’t read the negative coverage. One of the things that’s striking when you leave is how little coverage there is of stuff that seemed terribly important to you. So when people talk about a crisis, frequently it’s only a tiny and fleeting reference. And there are people whose jobs put them much more in the public eye than I was. 

I think there’s a really difficult thing you have to do as a leader and a manager, which is not to be so crushed by things people say about you that you never venture anything, and not to be so teflon that you don’t notice the criticisms. 

The most trivial query she’s ever had to deal with as a perm sec
Ministers and their parking arrangements – that kind of thing. There was one occasion when the business of ministerial cars, and where their drivers parked, became an issue. One of my colleagues was really cross that it had somehow landed with me – he didn’t think I should have to deal with it. I told him that there were occasions when actually it makes no sense logically for me to deal with this trifling thing, but the junior minister had got themselves into a state of agitation about it, and for the purposes of the relationship it was worth just saying: “Ok, come to me and I’ll sort it out.”

You want to establish a relationship where people will bring you things. Nine times out of 10 you’ll then get someone else to sort it, but occasionally, if people are behaving in an excitable way, you have to say: “Ok, this is drivel. But it’s drivel that I need to resolve, because it’s just causing so much noise, and because it builds a relationship with ministers.” 

The relationship between the perm sec and the junior ministers is a slightly odd one: there’s no textbook about how it works, but I always found that keeping a dialogue with junior ministers, not least because your department is doing massive amounts of work for them, was quite valuable. So whether they’re anxious about something, or behaving badly, one of the things I realised was that it was important to give them a conduit for conversation. 

“Policy development is fun, but doing things that impact on real people’s lives is why lots and lots of people turn up for work every day in the civil service”

What it’s like to work on controversial policies
If things attract a lot of opprobrium then sure, it’s difficult – because everything that’s done is attacked. There are lots of departments that have controversial plans and a big stakeholder group who are unhappy – and each group uses different levers. In the case of the MoJ, you have the subtlety that you’re dealing with the courts, and lawyers, solicitors and barristers. So if they’re unhappy, they immediately take you to court to a much greater extent than in other departments.

The MoJ produced a load of policies which were perpetually subject to judicial review and lots of people said: “That shows you were doing things that were illegal.” It didn’t – we were really careful to say: “It’s our job to establish whether or not it’s possible to do something.” It’s true that quite often ministers wanted to push things further and faster and people challenged that and sometimes we lost those challenges. I know a lot of people got very agitated about that. I think it’s up to ministers to say: “I want to push and try and if I fail, okay.”

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One of the things that has changed in the way we advise ministers is that we used to say: “You can do that, you can’t do that.” Now we more often say: “If you do that, there will be a legal challenge, and it’s quite likely we’ll lose.” And some ministers in those circumstances will give up, and others will say: “No, actually, if there’s a chance we might win, I want to try. And as democratically elected politicians that is their prerogative. But of course it does make it difficult if you’re trying to plan: because you have to factor in that if you’re doing something controversial, it’ll be judicially reviewed and then you don’t know how long the process will take, what changes you might be forced to make. That’s a part of life.

Her early career
One of my first jobs in the civil service was in the Department of Health, working on the regulation of contact lenses. One day during a committee meeting I suddenly noticed that whereas I was wearing contacts, all these ophthalmologists – the best in the country – were wearing spectacles. I said to the guy who was chairing the meeting: “I notice that you don’t wear contact lenses.” And he said: “Good heavens! I wouldn’t put a foreign body in my eye!’

Government U-turns
One of my jobs, as what you would now call a grade 7, was secretary of a body called the Social Security Advisory Committee, which advised government on social security regulations. The government – it would have been the Thatcher government – wanted to cut housing benefit for students, and my committee wrote a very strong report saying that this would be wrong, that actually housing benefit was all to do with income, and that students’ income was low enough to entitle them to housing benefit and we should therefore pay it. So the government backed down. A couple of years later, I got promoted and I found myself in charge of housing benefits. And the government had another go. So it was my job to came back to the committee with a paper saying: “We think the time is right to remove housing benefits from students.” And because I was now bringing a proposal that was contrary to the report that I’d helped write for them, one or two members said: “Have you changed your mind?”, not understanding that it had nothing to do with my mind…

"You also don’t want the entire organisation going into stasis as it sits around asking itself whether it’s for the chop."

Headcount reductions
It’s a difficult message to say to people: “We’re going to take staff out and we don’t yet know exactly where from.” You also don’t want the entire organisation going into stasis as it sits around asking itself whether it’s for the chop. A second thing that’s difficult in this business is that, over a period of years, you’re just perpetually trying to take savings out of the same things. And people say: “We’ve looked at that already, and we’ve taken every penny out of it that we can.” Trying to energise them, and having to say: “Well, we’re going to look at that again” – that’s difficult to do. Finally, in human nature, people want to be able to see the light. They’ve been through tough times and they want to know there will be something better ahead. And if you’re just offering them more difficult times, that’s hard. 

Why it can be tricky to cut senior civil service roles
When you look at what happened after 2010, in many departments you can see that it was at the clerical level that the jobs were shaved off. And everyone says: “Oh that’s typical, the people at the top protected their jobs and they sacked all the junior staff.” Of course, one reason why those junior jobs go is because frequently you just stop doing something, or you automate it. And when you automate something, in general it’s junior jobs that go more than senior ones. 

Actually the SCS did come down in size in many departments, but it then grew again because there were so many projects being managed. And I think that’s the thing that’s difficult: you can cut your leaders if you’re not asking them to implement lots of change. But actually if you want lots of projects to change things, you need project managers, project directors, lawyers, accountants and so on. And those are mostly not very low-paid, low-graded jobs. 

Working in a coalition
Actually one of the things I thought the coalition did well was to be quite punctilious about ensuring that the relationship between the junior ministers and the secretary of state became more formalised. In some ways that was really rather good. It forced you to be explicit about the advice you were giving. There have been single party governments in which no ministers in the department ever spoke to each other, and hardly ever got together in the same room. The coalition, for many of us, just put in something slightly more formal. And sometimes it was quite useful to be able to [follow the process] because you can get ministers who say: “I want you to do this for me, and I don’t want you to tell the secretary of state.” In those circumstances I just had to say: “Look, I’m sorry, we all work for the secretary of state and we can’t have two separate policies going on here.”

"When is a leak a leak? That’s one of the funny things when you’re invited to investigate leaks."

The most Thick of It moment of her career
I remember an occasion, again from my time in Social Security, when a green paper was about to be published and, as always, the final details had been left to the last minute. I can’t remember what the title of it was, but one of the spads wanted it to say “A strategy for Great Britain”. One of my colleagues, who was Irish, said: “Actually, social security is a United Kingdom policy” – and whoever the spad was said: “Yeah, but Great Britain sounds better.” And this argument went on about “Well, does it really matter?” And so some of us said: “Well, actually it is a UK strategy and our Northern Irish colleagues might feel a bit left out…” And so there was this ridiculous thing going on where, because it supposedly sounded better, there was a desire to completely cut across the United Kingdom. I can’t remember who won the argument. I think we just changed the title altogether in order to avoid the awkwardness. 

Whether most leaks come from ministers and spads, rather than civil servants
I couldn’t possibly comment on that. When is a leak a leak? That’s one of the funny things when you’re invited to investigate leaks. There have been one or two occasions when you’ve thought: “Am I punctiliously going to have a leak inquiry when I know perfectly well…” So sometimes you just have a conversation where you say: “We can’t have this.” [Asked if she means with a minister] Yes, and with a spad, of course.

The uniqueness of the Ministry of Defence
The MoD is just different from anything else. That’s the only thing you can say about it, really – it is a world unto itself. It is huge, it has its own language, and its rationale and purpose are...people are always talking about things being a life-or-death matter. Well, in the MoD, it jolly well was. 

Whether she has a favourite department
I think if you’ve worked in defence you can’t help feeling that there is something so incredibly engaging about it. It grabs you by the vitals. You feel physically engaged and emotionally engaged, to an extent that you don’t perhaps feel with some of the other things you do in life, and I’m just so grateful to have had the opportunity to do something there. But most of the rest of my career wasn’t doing that and actually what I really liked working on were things that were close to people. In Social Security, working on benefits for disabled people, that was really quite “real-time”. You could see the impact on people’s lives. Similarly in Justice. Something that the justice department did – nothing to do with me – but they sped up the whole process of a child being taken into care. The legal process used to take 12 months; 12 months in the life of a child, who is probably in very difficult circumstances. So it’s about saying: “If everyone works together, we can get that down to six months and move it further from there.” Policy development is fun, but doing things that impact on real people’s lives is why lots and lots of people turn up for work every day in the civil service. ​

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