First principles: Ian Watmore’s reflections on his time as first civil service commissioner

The outgoing first civil service commissioner reveals what made him proudest – and what still causes him regret – during five tumultuous years
Photo: ECB

By Suzannah Brecknell

04 Nov 2021

At the end of the second world war, the civil service introduced a new way of selecting the brightest and best to join its ranks. Known colloquially as the House Party, the weekend-long selection process was based on methods the army had begun to use in recruiting officers and was intended to create a fair playing field for men and women who had begun military service straight after university and who might not perform as well in a process based only on entrance exams.

The Civil Service Selection Board – as it was formally known – was developed by first civil service commissioner Sir Percival Waterfield. He had begun working on a new method to assess possible entrants in 1941, keen to ensure that the service would be ready to meet the challenges that would face it when war ended and it resumed permanent recruitment (which had been stopped during the war and replaced with centrally directed temporary recruitment).

Though it attracted a great deal of criticism, the CSSB remained in place for many decades and is a direct predecessor of the Civil Service Assessment process which still forms part of Fast Stream recruitment. In developing it, Waterfield had carried out the central task of the Civil Service Commission – ensuring that the long-held Northcote-Trevelyan principles of fair, open and meritocratic recruitment are upheld – while also helping the service to adapt and modernise.

Six decades later, another first civil service commissioner was managing the same balancing act as the civil service geared up to deliver another complex policy change: Brexit.

Ian Watmore was appointed first civil service commissioner in late 2016, after a career spanning the private and public sectors, including 20 years as a management consultant, and two stints as a permanent secretary – first in the business department and then the Cabinet Office.

When he joined the commission, parliamentary and political fights over Brexit had not yet got into the bitter stalemate of subsequent years, but already Brexiters were raising concerns about establishment attempts to thwart the referendum result. At the same time, departments needed to rapidly bring in new skills and capabilities as they geared up for EU exit.

“It would have been very easy for [the Civil Service Commission] to be blamed as a blocker to enabling Brexit. There was a lot of deep suspicion that the civil service was a remainer organisation in disguise,” Watmore says. “So, we went out on the front foot. We had a lot of difficult conversations with ourselves about how to do this because what we wanted to do was to enable the government outcome without obliterating the Trevelyan rules.”

The commission did this by adapting existing exceptions which allow departments to recruit outside the normal rules in certain circumstances, allowing departments to fill senior roles in bulk for up to three years by exception without specific commission approval (though they did need to fill out a business case). It also re-introduced an exception for specialist skills as these became more in demand. The organisation also took on more commissioners as it anticipated increased recruitment into the service.

In 2020, the new systems were then put to use in another context. “The way we went about that meant that when Covid came along and said to Brexit, ‘Hold my beer’, the principles had already been established and we were able to scale them up,” Watmore says.

“I don’t think in modern times, a previous commission has had to face anything like either [Brexit or Covid]. You have to go right back into history, into war times.”

His office, he said, was home to “some wonderful books” about the history of the commission – and commissioners such as Waterfield – which did provide some insights in these discussions, but the scale of the pandemic dwarfed even the challenge of Brexit.

“Brexit was more about just moving the right policy people around and then getting some recruiting in specialist skills,” says Watmore. “Covid was a complete unknown and it was like a tsunami happening to you.”

Like his predecessors, Watmore had an eye on preserving the Northcote-Trevelyan principals.

 

Reflecting on the changes, Watmore says: “What we tried to do, and only time will tell if we succeeded, is enable resources to be brought in at the right time in the right place, but at the same time not let fair and meritocratic recruitment go by the board. There’s plenty of time after the event to get those things sorted out, so what we mustn’t do is forget about those [principles]. It’s a very live issue for us all.”

Supporting the government to deliver Brexit was one of four priorities Watmore set when he took up his role at the commission. The other three were improving key skills within government, increasing diversity, and using government recruitment to support social mobility.

Looking back now at the end of his tenure in the role, Watmore gives himself a mixed review. On diversity, he is pleased with progress made around gender. Though challenges remain, such as pay gaps, “we are edging closer towards a 50-50 type situation in almost all levels of service so it’s becoming normal, as opposed to an act of requiring a positive diversity programme,” he says. When he joined the commission there were 10 female permanent secretaries. There are now 19, out of around 40 people at that grade in the civil service.

“But when you look at ethnicity,” Watmore continues, “the challenge is much more stark. There have only ever been, in my knowledge, four non-white permanent secretaries. The last one was Sharon White, who left before I started.

“That can’t carry on. It is a real problem because it starts to create a situation where very talented people don’t see [the civil service] as an organisation for them if they can’t see people like them at the top. That would have been true, probably, for women in the 90s in the civil service. So it’s a long journey [to change that].”

While there has been progress at lower grades, he says, it is still hard to identify a pipeline of talent which will see a good number of permanent secretaries from ethnic minorities in the near future. “I think until we get to that point, it will be a defeating position,” Watmore says. “It’s really important that top quality leaders are found to run government departments who are non-white.

“What mustn’t happen,” he adds, “is that people be put in those jobs for reasons of ethnicity – they are really tough jobs. But if we can find those top quality people and attract them to the roles then. we can create a pipeline of aspiration.”

This, he says, is the part of his role where he feels he has failed – not through lack of trying. “We’ve been pushing at it for five years, but haven’t seen progress,” he says.

The work of which he is proudest is that which provides employment for disadvantaged individuals, through the Going Forward into Employment Scheme (see box). As with the Brexit discussions, this programme also demonstrates how Watmore and his fellow commissioners see themselves as a “modern regulator” – one which enables and supports change rather than simply enforcing rules.

“The commission could be seen by some as ‘the computer that says no’,” Watmore says. “But we took a view right at the beginning of my time here that while there would be times when we need to say ‘no’ – and that role is important – more often, nine times out of 10, we wanted to be the organisation that said ‘yes, and this is how you can achieve your outcomes’.

“[Going Forward into Employment] is possibly the best example of this,” he continues. “It would have been dead easy for somebody to say ‘Recruiting ex-offenders? Commission says: ‘No, move on’. Whereas we took the baton the other way round. Commission says: ‘Yes, and by the way this is a really good thing and here’s how to do it’. By doing that, we’ve achieved really positive change.”

On skills, Watmore has recently stressed the importance of tying the work to recruit in-demand skills to the drive to move civil servants out of London

“If we’re only fishing in the pool for London-based people, you’re up against everybody in the financial services sector or the technology companies with all their big trappings of pay and so on,” he says. “If you can get real meaningful civil service jobs in those areas [outside London] you can you can draw exceptional people in, and you’re not competing with Goldman Sachs or whatever it is in London.”

Another potential benefit to creating meaningful jobs across the country could be to improve movement across the public sector. In a hearing in 2021, Watmore told the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee that the civil service used to be good at attracting talented people from local government and the health service but this had become “less of a well-trodden path” in recent years as pay in central government declined against other parts of the public sector.

He tells CSW that changing this trend will be “primarily for departments” but “the commission can influence things if it sets a priority” and it could well be something for his successor to think think about. “As the Treasury locates [in] Darlington they may well find that some of the best people to draw on are from local government, and healthcare workers in that part of north Yorkshire and Durham and so on,” Watmore says.

As well as working through seismic policy changes and public health challenges, Watmore has also had the unusual experience of working with three cabinet secretaries during his tenure as first civil service commissioner. The first, Lord Heywood, was diagnosed with cancer in summer 2017. A year later, Heywood told Watmore that it was time to start thinking about how they would recruit his successor.

Watmore was surprised to find that there was no guidance on how cabinet secretaries should be recruited, beyond one sentence in the cabinet manual which says the prime minister will appoint a cab sec “on advice from the outgoing cabinet secretary and the first civil service commissioner”. So Watmore created a “framework”, as he puts it, “in which that advice can be given in a way that means the prime minister will get the best choice, not just the best individual, but the individual that will have the most wind in their sails to do the job”.

Speaking to PACAC, Watmore said that in 2018 he sent the advice to then-prime minister Theresa May, who replied: “I really hope I never have to use this, for obvious reasons, but if I do, thank you.” Within months, Heywood’s health had deteriorated so far that he had to step down. May judged – and on consultation Watmore agreed – that she “really needed to make an appointment then and there to cover the crisis that was around,” Watmore told the MPs.

Her choice was Sir Mark Sedwill, whom Watmore told MPs “would probably describe himself as a reluctant cabinet secretary but a man of great duty”. When Sedwill stepped down in 2020, Watmore “dusted off my dormant bit of paper, gave the same advice to [Boris Johnson] and he accepted it”.

The process Watmore had set out included creating a written job description with clear priorities and inviting serving and former permanent secretaries to apply for the job. Watmore advised inviting only these individuals to apply, he told PACAC, because the role of “cabinet secretary is such a unique job. If you had not been exposed to something very close to it, you would have no idea how it worked”. Watmore and Sedwill then assessed each applicant for the job and gave their views to Johnson, who interviewed each of them and made his choice – Simon Case.

This choice was “probably not expected by most people going in,” says Watmore. “But everything we did during that process convinced me [Case would] make a great cabinet secretary, and everything else since validates that judgment, so therefore I think the process will be seen to have produced a good outcome.” This in turn means the process is “more likely to be used again, not from the civil service point of view but from a prime ministerial point of view”.

Does Watmore ever feel the hand of history on him as he sets about this kind of precedent-setting work, which feeds into the unwritten British constitution much as the cabinet manual did on its publication in 2011? 

“When you’re doing the job you do what you need to do to get stuff done,” he says. “But, whether I’ve been in business or in government, I’ve always thought it’s good if you can do something that’s good for the here and now, but if it can also create a positive precedent for the future then that’s better.”

Take a chance on me

The Going Forward into Employment programme, run by the Cabinet Office and CSC, allows departments to flex the usual principles of civil service recruitment and appoint people whose “circumstances and previous life chances make it difficult for them to compete for appointments on merit on the basis of fair and open competition, without further work experience and/or training opportunities”.

Individuals can be employed on contracts lasting up to two years, at which point they might move full time into the civil service – going through normal recruitment channels – or use the skills they have developed to move into other jobs. Broadly, the GfiE work focuses on three main groups: ex-offenders, including those who have left prison within the last two years; veterans; and care leavers. But the principle of helping disadvantaged individuals to flourish while meeting skills gaps in departments can be used for a wide range of groups.

GfIE’s senior responsible owner, Andrew Ashworth, tells CSW that a large part of his team’s work is educating – rather than persuading – departments to work out which skills gaps the scheme could help them fill. Recently, for example, the team has been discussing how the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency could recruit veterans or prison leavers with mechanical experience.

In July the government pledged – as part of its Beating Crime plan – to recruit 1,000 prison leavers into civil service roles by the end of 2023. The GfIE team is working to agree another commitment around recruiting veterans with the Office of Veterans’ Affairs. But as the schemes grow, Ashworth says, his team also wants to ensure the programme is still supporting each participant.

“From day one when a person comes in, we stay in touch with that individual right up to the last day when they become a permanent member of staff, or choose a different route,” he says. “We make sure we provide support and touch points for them because, as much as it’s about getting in through the exception route, for me it’s more important that we help them get on, build a career and make the right choices.”

Of the 100 people recruited so far through the exception, around 20 have gone on to permanent employment in the civil service.

Not everyone has reported what they did after taking part in a scheme, Ashworth says, but he knows that some of those who joined in early 2018 have gone on to earn multiple civil service promotions and built a new life outside work. He adds: “There have also been some who joined us and left after around 18 months, taking up better external jobs following the experiences they have gained with us – an equally great outcome.”

Read the most recent articles written by Suzannah Brecknell - Budget 2021: What we know, and what we don't

Share this page