Drawn from memories: MoD infrastructure director Sherin Aminossehe on her lockdown art and returning to the civil service

Sherin Aminossehe is director of infrastructure and race champion at the Ministry of Defence. She tells Beckie Smith about the MoD estate, drawing in lockdown, and why returning to the private sector wasn’t the epiphany she expected
Paul Heartfield for CSW

When the first lockdown came, Sherin Aminossehe began to draw the places the pandemic prevented people from visiting. Having always drawn for herself, she made an offer to her Twitter following: “Name a place that you can’t go due to Covid-19 and if I can do it justice I’ll draw it for you.” She was touched and surprised when the requests came rolling in: The Royal Courts of Justice; the back streets of Essaouira in Morocco; East Street Market in Walworth. 

“This is a railway station in Melbourne, requested by a fellow civil servant who is Australian. That place had been a really important part of his growing up because it’s where he would usually meet friends when he was a teenager, go to places when he was older, and meet family as he grew up. He hadn’t been able to go back to Melbourne for a bit of time and that was a symbol of his life in Australia.”

Clearly, her message resonated. “Sometimes we don’t realise it’s the small things that are really special to us until we can’t have them anymore,” she says.

“I thought, I’ll put up a request and maybe two or three people – if I’m lucky – might want something.  Within the first day I had 20 requests, and it kept on growing. So I continued drawing for about 134 days.” Soon, people were offering to make charitable donations to say thank you.

 

“This is a church spire in a small village in Lebanon which was designed by somebody’s great grandfather. She was used to being able to see that and being close to her family and lockdown had prevented that. It’s quite a simple drawing, it didn’t take that long to do. Sometimes we don’t realise it’s the small things that are really special to us until we can’t have them anymore.”

She decided to direct them to SSAFA, a charity that helps members of the armed forces, their families and veterans. The response to Aminossehe’s drawings has been so great that she has compiled them into a book, Road Untravelled, to be released this autumn in aid of the charity.

After drawing everyone else’s lockdown no-gos, CSW wonders which place Aminossehe misses most.

“What I miss is less about place and more about feelings,” she says. “I’ll see a really busy, bustling scene in central London on TV where people are interacting normally, there’s no facemasks, people go into a restaurant without thinking there’s a national pandemic. I miss that normality and the buzz around it.”

“A lady asked me to draw her old parents’ house in Aldeburgh. Her mother had died of dementia so the house was no longer in the family. She used to always go to Aldborough on holidays, but because of lockdown, she wasn’t able to do so. And she felt a real disconnect with her parents and her family. So that was really, really special for her. And I found that very moving.”

The last year must have been challenging, then, for someone who is used to working in a busy office and travelling around the country doing site visits.

But the Ministry of Defence’s director of infrastructure says it could have been “an awful lot worse”. Because her directorate is dispersed around the country, staff had some practice at working remotely, which helped. Aminossehe has had to balance her work with homeschooling her young son, and the days have become “a lot longer” – “but at least I didn’t start [this job] in lockdown,” she adds.

By the time lockdown came, Aminossehe was around six months into her current job overseeing the MoD’s infrastructure and estates programmes – a job she refers to as “lego with attitude”. August 2019 marked her return to the civil service after a stint in the private sector.

Just over a year earlier, she had left a job she “absolutely loved” as head of the Government Property Unit in the Cabinet Office. She had taken a high-flying job at a multinational construction, property and infrastructure company, where she wanted to spend more time on delivery after such a strategy-focused public-sector role.

Aminossehe had worked extensively in the private sector before, including as an urban designer and as vice-president of a global architecture firm. On leaving the Cabinet Office, she wrote an article headlined A private sector hitchhiker’s guide to the civil service for CSW – so she definitely hadn’t expected to be back so soon. 

“I realised going back into the private sector – whilst the salary is lovely – I really missed a lot of the things to do with government and the civil service. You don’t realise the level of complexity and scale that you deal with on a daily basis until you go outside,” she says. She found working in government had completely changed her perspective.

“I was expecting going back to the private sector to be, I suppose, a bit more of an epiphany – I expected decisions to be taken faster. But maybe it was my Cabinet Office conditioning that actually, you don’t realise how certain parts of government are really, really fast paced,” she says. 

She hadn’t previously appreciated, for example, government’s ability to make decisions about “relatively large amounts of money relatively quickly”. “It might not feel like that at the time. But then when you go on to the private sector and you’re in your third investment appraisal committee about whether £2m needs to be spent…”

But the bigger issue was that – while she doesn’t deny a £1bn development is a “really, really big deal” – some of the work began to feel “quite two dimensional”.

“Because actually, all the other things that we take for granted in government – in terms of policy, links with socio-economics and how it impacts people on a much more profound basis, rather than how they just use their development and so on – is not really part of the day job, and it’s left to somebody else. And to a certain extent, for me, it became quite transactional.”

"I realised going back into the private sector – whilst the salary is lovely – I really missed a lot of the things to do with government"

Complexity has always been important to Aminossehe, a trained architect who was drawn to the field because of the scale and intricacy of urban design. And, she says, “government is almost that ultimate complexity.”

“And it’s about the difference you make,” she adds. “You do make a difference to people’s lives by creating a better quality of public space and built environment, but it’s not really the same. And I really missed that.”

Something that stuck in her mind while she was away from government was her work on the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower tragedy shortly before she left in 2017.

She was working on Grenfell “almost 24/7” for about three months, attending Cobra meetings and briefings with then-prime minister Theresa May. She says that experience imprinted on her an understanding of how policies can impact people in a way civil servants can miss when they move between departments every couple of years.

“If you move from one technical area to another, you don’t always see some of the unintended consequences of things that have happened. And it’s ultimately where you see that as government, we have a responsibility to regulate and legislate and make sure the wider industries who use our standards are using them in the way that they are meant to. And you see that there need to be checks and balances across the system.”

If Aminossehe’s last job wasn’t complex enough, that’s not the case for this one. There is, she puts it simply, “an awful lot going on”.

For one, her directorate is finalising a new strategy for defence infrastructure that will consider, among other things, how to support progress towards government’s net-zero goal. Then there’s the defence estate optimisation programme, which aims to ensure the MoD has the right accommodation and training facilities. And the government’s recent integrated review of foreign, development and defence policy set out the capabilities the MoD should have in future and created a “template” for the infrastructure to support those capabilities, Aminossehe says.

She points out that armed forces equipment and combat aircraft are only useful if they are surrounded by the right infrastructure. “I always say: concrete and infrastructure’s sexy. You can have as many F-35bs as you want, but if you don’t have a runway, they won’t land anywhere.”

The department is also mindful of the link between the quality of infrastructure and buildings, and recruitment and retention of staff, she says – but it hasn’t always had the financial backing of the Treasury it has needed. In 2016 – the year the estates programme kicked off – the National Audit Office said funding would be a “huge challenge”. It came after years of budget constraints had forced the MoD to take short-term cost-cutting measures at the expense of longer-term savings, the watchdog said at the time.

Aminossehe acknowledges the effect austerity had on estates across government. “Because our estate is really, really substantial, you see that impact a lot more. And also, because we own a lot of our estate… we are responsible for latency, et cetera. So it becomes much more pertinent.”

But Aminossehe says those days are behind the department, now it has greater financial backing from the Treasury. Ahead of last year’s Spending Review, the MoD got a cash boost adding £24bn to its coffers for the next four years.

Aminossehe also says the MoD is getting a grip on the way it manages contracts with outsourcers – another area that has been criticised by the NAO and other watchdogs.

Unsurprisingly given her own experience working outside government, Aminossehe is a great advocate of drawing on the private sector where it’s useful and effective to do so. “I very firmly believe that the private sector and public sector can have a good relationship, if they are open to actually understanding each other’s needs,” she says.

But she says a drive by the department over the last few years to develop and retain specialist skills – as well as the government’s creation of the infrastructure and project delivery profession – has reduced its reliance on contractors. That drive has included building up commercial skills so the department can not only handle individual contracts better, but also “make sure that the procurement strategy is right”.

Aminossehe is also race champion for the MoD – an organisation that she admits does not have the most welcoming image to all communities, and is not especially racially diverse. Does she think the department has a long way to go to change that?

“MoD has a certain reputation in terms of what we do: people probably think about war; there are particular areas which we have engaged over the past couple of decades that would probably make certain groups or communities more hesitant in terms of joining defence,” she says. Understanding and overcoming those perceptions is not something that will change overnight.

“Concrete and infrastructure’s sexy. You can have as many F-35bs as you want, but if you don’t have a runway, they won’t land anywhere”

Part of what she wants to communicate is that the department is “not about dropping bombs on a country – it’s about defence, it’s about security, it’s about making the United Kingdom a better place”. She hopes having more diverse role models in place will help to change those perceptions. The department meanwhile runs a range of outreach activities, including some in schools, to try and encourage a more diverse range of people to work there.

Aminossehe – who was born in Iran – recalls that a couple of her mentors even warned her off taking the director job, “saying ‘it’s full of white men of a certain age, you won’t like it, it’s really traditional and they always do things in a certain way’”. Did that factor into her decision to take it – that she would be one less “white man of a certain age” in a senior position? She bursts out laughing. “I’ve worked throughout the whole of my career in a male-dominated industry. As an architect, where I started, only about 12% of qualified architects were women. It’s marginally higher now, but not by much; in construction, the number of senior women is lower. And in property…”

She says while she has found the MoD welcoming, and her directorate is one of the more diverse ones, there is more to be done elsewhere in the department. But she says she has seen a “real willingness” from senior leaders – both civilian and military – to do that work, and to signal that discriminatory behaviour will not be tolerated.

“Personally, I’ve seen the culture change over the past year,” she adds. The Black Lives Matter movement, while it showed that “actually, we could be doing better” on diversity and inclusivity, was a catalyst for “a number of really helpful conversations”.

Unfortunately, those conversations have not always gone smoothly. Last June, The Times reported that senior management had taken disciplinary action after “deeply offensive” comments were made on an all-staff Zoom call that addressed – among other things – the department’s zero-tolerance policy on discrimination.

Aminossehe was part of the call, along with then-permanent secretary Sir Stephen Lovegrove and General Sir Nick Carter, chief of the defence staff. “It was basically talking about what we expect [from staff]. But also saying, ‘this is what it can be like, for people within defence, when things like the Black Lives Matter protests happen and this is how people feel. And it’s important to be open when we talk about these sorts of matters.’”

Then came an anonymous Q&A that included some questions Aminossehe describes as “not what we expect of people in defence, in any shape or form”. According to a stern memo sent by Lovegrove to staff after the call, they included comments “conflating ‘indigenous’ with white Britons [and] claims that any focus on diversity was at odds with fairness”.

Aminossehe says: “The issue about race which is, I think, always very worrying and upsetting and sad is: there are some people who feel that their positions might be threatened if we have a more diverse community. Or there’s people who actually fundamentally don’t understand it, because their experience from where they are is quite limited.”

Like Lovegrove, Aminossehe says these comments are completely unacceptable. “But also, we firmly believe as a department that you don’t close down communications because of a limited number of voices who may not understand or have issues with certain things,” she adds.

That leads her back to why she values her role as race champion. “The more you talk about it, the more you normalise [talking about] this kind of thing, some people will either decide that this isn’t the place for them and they will move on – or they’ll realise, ‘actually, I was wrong’… Only by continuing that dialogue and not shying away from it can you actually change those attitudes.”

Conversations about diversity certainly seem to be happening, with cabinet secretary Simon Case and civil service chief operating officer Alex Chisholm signalling that they want it to be a priority across government. Many who have gone before them have said the same – but Aminossehe says she does think there has been a change for the better in the last few years.

“Maybe I’m an eternal optimist, and you have to be as an architect for so long. Where I do feel that it’s been different to the time when I was previously in government, is I think there is real action behind the words. I don’t think it’s going to suddenly change tomorrow – it is something that needs dealing with sensitively, and there’s lots of things that need to be put into place before we start seeing real change.

“But it’s something that we have to build on and not just give up on because we think that we can’t make the world a better place tomorrow.” 

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