In the latest of our series about civil service leavers, we meet former deputy principal private secretary to the prime minister Ed Whiting, who is now director of strategy for the Wellcome Trust
Tell us about your career as a civil servant, and what you do now
I joined the short-lived Department for Constitutional Affairs in 2003, on the Fast Stream. After a few years there on various courts and legal aid jobs I moved to the communities department to work on preventing extremism, then in August 2008 to work in the Financial Stability Unit (either the best or worst-named team in the history of government) through the financial crisis. Following the 2010 election I worked in and eventually led the Bill team, taking through the 2012 Financial Services Act (that chopped up and reordered the financial regulatory authorities), then went part-time for a year and a half to launch a crowdfunding website for arts projects. In 2014 I ended up in No 10, where I was the PM’s private secretary for public services and deputy PPS, until after the transition in 2016. Since then, I’ve been at the Wellcome Trust, where I’m the director of policy and chief of staff.
What did you enjoy, and not enjoy, about working in the civil service?
I loved my time in the civil service, and hope to come back someday. The civil service gives you an unrivalled chance to work on some of the biggest and thorniest challenges facing the country, and to help to address them in an evidence-based way. My favourite times were always when we were facing the knottiest challenges and most pressing crises (from supporting British citizens affected by the Cyprus banking crisis, to dealing with floods and Ebola). There is nowhere better at pulling together with real ingenuity and creativity and simply getting the job done; and the underlying dedication and commitment of the teams I worked in was incredible.
Conversely, I found the job really frustrating at those moments when the political direction was unclear and as a result we ‘drifted’ in our work without a clear sense of purpose, which happened a few times. The challenge of providing direction through periods of ambiguity and making sure everyone is aligned and motivated to give the best they can to their jobs is a really important aspect of leadership in the public sector, and was often the difference between good and really great leaders in the teams I worked in. It’s hard in any job to deal with the troughs as well as peaks of activity – doubly so when you are (rightly) not fully in control of the overall strategic direction of your policy area or department.
It’s been inspiring to watch the civil service continue to reform since I left. Generally speaking, from what I can see, civil servants are becoming much more open and engaging on social media and in real life, which narrows the gap between the towers of Whitehall and the front line where the work really gets done. The continuing focus on creating a diverse and inclusive public sector as a critical route to better decision making has also created an energy that has reached far outside the civil service, which I hope translates into a more and more inclusive organisation better equipped to respond to the needs of everyone in the UK.
Why did you decide to leave and what attracted you about your current job?
I decided to leave the civil service for a number of reasons – firstly, I felt really burned out after a couple of very full-on years in No 10 and some emotionally exhausting weeks following the EU referendum. I also wanted to have the chance to play a role in setting a strategy and mission, and to do so in an organisation with ambitions to grow and have greater influence around the world.
Wellcome was a great fit for these aspirations – and since arriving here, I’ve been hugely fortunate to work with a wide range of experts around the world on Wellcome’s response to some of the great health challenges of our time, including epidemic-risk disease, antimicrobial resistance and mental health. We’ve found real enthusiasm from international organisations for charities like Wellcome to play a positive role in speaking up for science, evidence and international cooperation in an era when many of these things are under great pressure. We work much more closely with the World Health Organisation than we have historically done before, for example.
The experience of fronting up for controversial ideas – including our recommendations on a continuing science and research partnership with Europe, and most recently in my enthusiasm for us to trial a four-day week, which we ultimately decided not to take forward – has also given me an insight into the resilience and persistence that politicians, activists and advocates need in spades, and continuing respect for their efforts. It’s also been a great experience to be fully accountable (alongside my colleagues on our executive) for our strategy and decisions, drawing on what I’ve learned from government about getting the key facts across clearly and persuasively with a focus on what matters most.
What have you learnt in the new role about yourself, your skills, and how did your experience as a civil servant prepare you for the job?
While I’ve still got an enormous amount to learn here, my experience from the civil service in problem-solving alongside those with much more expertise than me has been really helpful at Wellcome. I’ve learned a huge amount from the expert scientists and researchers who we work with every day, while preserving a belief in asking the “so what?” and “now what?” questions that help to clarify direction and purpose – something I learned from my time in the civil service.
What advice would you give to civil servants thinking of moving into the charity sector?
The skills you develop in the civil service are both useful and needed in the charity sector, and I’d definitely recommend working in the sector – not least as you’d be working in organisations motivated by a similar public good-oriented mission, but with more control over their direction and strategy than you tend to enjoy in government.