By Joshua.Chambers

11 Jul 2013

After less than two years leading the coalition’s civil service efficiency drive, Ian Watmore has quit for a life as a vicar’s husband. Giving his press officers the slip, he explains to Joshua Chambers what he’s learned in the job

Ian Watmore is leaving. In fact, by the time you read this, he’ll already have left his job as permanent secretary of the Cabinet Office. He announced his intention to quit quite suddenly – just two months ago – but in the week of his departure, he popped into CSW’s offices to give an exclusive exit interview.

“The press office don’t know about this, by the way,” he says. “I haven’t bothered to tell them, because they’d be fussing.” Excellent news: with no tie, notes or press officer in tow, he’s relaxed, on the record, and untrammelled.

Of course, this isn’t the first time he’s left a high-profile job. He left his job as Football Association chief executive after just seven months in the role, subsequently joining the civil service in 2010. And this isn’t even the first time he’s left the civil service; he worked for seven years in various top government jobs before going to the FA in 2009.

So Watmore knows the drill when it comes to departing – but this isn’t to make him out as a job-hopping gadfly. In both of his stints in the civil service, he’s held a string of top posts and can point to real results. His exit is of interest, but his career is far more important than that – with transferable lessons for civil servants in all departments.

The axeman departeth
Watmore came into the Cabinet Office after the coalition took power, becoming chief operating officer of the newly established Efficiency and Reform Group (ERG). The ERG was set the task of quickly seeking out big savings from all government departments: renegotiating contracts, restricting expenditure, and reducing back-office costs. While the coalition set the political direction on reducing the deficit, Watmore became its cutter-in-chief.

Two years on, Watmore is proud of the level of savings his organisation managed to deliver: £9bn at the last count, “and it’ll be more than that,” he says. What’s more, he says, “people have generally agreed that it’s been trying to save money in areas where it ought to be saved, as opposed to [having] a philosophical debate about cutting services.”

Rather than trying to cut every area of government work by similar amounts, the ERG clamped down hard in particular fields. For example, consultancy expenditure has fallen 70 per cent since 2010, while marketing and communications spending has been reduced by a similar amount – with the Central Office of Information being scrapped completely. “There are areas where people don’t expect their tax pounds to be spent in vast numbers, so they generally support it when you cut back on that sort of expenditure,” Watmore says. These savings mean that, at a time of government belt-tightening, smaller cuts were imposed on frontline services than would otherwise have been possible within the departments’ budgets.

Not a popular man
Watmore’s job was not an easy one, and it certainly didn’t make him popular with all civil servants. “People found it uncomfortable when the thing they’ve been involved with all their lives, or they’re currently championing, gets cut off at the knees. They found that personally difficult,” he admits.

There was also animosity to Watmore’s ERG at permanent secretary level. In order to dramatically reduce expenditure in a short space of time, the ERG put in place tight spending controls – meaning that departments had to ask permission to spend on services that previously they had a free reign in choosing. That created tensions that persist to this day. “The trickiest thing, overall, is that people generally agree with saving money in the sorts of areas we’re talking about, but they don’t like the fact that they have to ask for permission from the Cabinet Office to be able to do anything. That’s the tension in the system,” he says. “It’s rarely about the objective, it’s always about that particular transaction. [They say]: ‘I’m the department, I should have the ability to spend the money as I want. I shouldn’t need to go for permission.”

That difficulty will always remain, he thinks, but there are ways to overcome this resistance and ensure that departments comply. From a leadership perspective, he’s had to win over some of the most powerful people in the country; what’s his secret? “As a civil servant, you can say: ‘Ministers have decided this, it’s there in the spending review, both the minister for the Cabinet Office and the chief secretary [to the Treasury] set these rules: get on with it.”

However, he adds, a much better line has been to explain the logic behind spending controls. The ERG has also helped share knowledge across departments, he adds, meaning that potentially hostile organisations have warmed to the unit’s work. Departments have now started to adopt the ERG’s approach when dealing with their own arm’s-length bodies, he says.

The importance of ministerial support
Clearly, though, political support from the very top has been vital for Watmore, who thinks it’s difficult to enact any sort of change without it. “If politicians are lukewarm about it, then the system doesn’t respond as well. When the politicians are clear and giving clear directions, the system, in my experience, quickly responds and changes.”

As the past few months have proved, it’s difficult in a coalition to ensure unity at all times. Sometimes, political initiatives will be pushed by only one party. How can government make changes in areas where there are disagreements? “Politics is, at some level, all about making trade-offs and coming to a decision point. We’re seeing that in Greece as we speak, on a big scale,” he replies. “The coalition government has made its mind up on the sorts of areas we’ve been charged with doing early on and has stuck to it. So we’ve had very strong support from the politicians right across the board… That’s been terrific for us as civil servants.”

Reading between the lines, there’s another argument that emerges from this point. The ERG has been fortunate because politicians came to a “decision point” on deficit reduction very soon after taking office, and so pushed and supported civil servants to make rapid changes. However, if the coalition partners fail to negotiate a strong agenda for continuing reforms when the Coalition Agreement has been completed – a point we’re likely to reach this year – then there could be a period of inaction within Whitehall because civil servants lack clear political direction.

Property and procurement
The ERG hasn’t been universally successful; some savings were much easier to find than others. One area that was initially trumpeted, but quietly petered out, is property. Why has it been difficult to find savings here?

“The reality is that that best way for government to save money in a downturn on property is to keep releasing all its leases. We’ve been ruthless on releasing leases,” Watmore says. However, “in a difficult property market, there aren’t a million people queuing up to take them off your hands, so you nearly always have to wait for the lease-break clauses to come through in order to exit them – or you’re offloading them really cheaply, which would ultimately cost more money.”

That said, the Cabinet Office recently took control of the Government Property Unit, signalling a change of direction. This fits a pattern of the ERG taking over organisations that were previously run by different departments or had complete autonomy.

Watmore defends this “successful” centralisation of power, although it was also “hard work, because each one has required a different form of restructuring.” So both the COI and the National School of Government were scrapped, with small centralised units replacing them and outsourcing the work to the private sector.

Meanwhile, IT and procurement reform brought about the establishment of two new centralised agencies: the Government Digital Service (GDS) and the Government Procurement Service, which has been set new procurement targets from the centre such as doubling purchasing from SMEs. Watmore notes that pursuing this objective also allows civil servants to buy more from British businesses, while sticking within the rules set by the European Union: “If you do buy from smaller firms, they’re much more likely to be domestic firms, local firms,” he points out.

Watmore also clearly warns main contractors who attempt to squeeze SMEs in their supply chain that “we expect all of our contractors to be responsible prime contractors and deal with their subcontractors in a responsible way. If we find people [engaging in] sharp practices then, ultimately, we’ll try and rectify that in a particular case – but in the long run, that’s not the sort of company we want to do business with.”

Future IT
Watmore first joined the civil service in 2004, leaving the management consultancy firm Accenture to become the government’s chief information officer. It was the era before Facebook, and before government’s drive to deliver services on a ‘digital by default’ basis.

Watmore centralised various online government campaigns into the single DirectGov portal; and seven years on, a follow-up effort has taken things further – seeking to remove departmental websites altogether and put all public sector information in one place.

The biggest change, however, has been in the approach that government takes towards web development. “It’s about getting users to lead on it, not the provider. It’s also [about] a willingness to throw things over to the community, who come back and chastise and improve in a way that the more traditional methods didn’t do,” he says. Involving users in the design and construction of systems also helps to get them built more quickly, Watmore argues: “You can’t afford any more to have a two or three year hiatus between having the idea and having it implemented.”

Another change has been in the faces delivering IT projects: the past couple of years have seen the departure of several high-profile figures. Watmore will join the former CIO Joe Harley, his deputy Bill McCluggage, and the head of the G-Cloud, Chris Chant. Why are so many big figures leaving at the same time? “The people you’re talking about are largely the people that came in 2004 and have been leading the [government IT] world for the past six to eight years,” he replies. “All of the people you’ve mentioned are really strong, credible people, but they’ve all reached the retirement point and want to move on.” Watmore adds that a new group of professionals have been recruited, including new CIO Andy Nelson and Mike Bracken, the head of the GDS.

So there are new faces delivering civil service IT, but much of the civil service is using old equipment – as Watmore admits, describing some of it as “steam age.” Are civil servants able to fully utilise the benefits of the internet? “We’re coming from a long way back, and trying to get technology quickly up to date is difficult, which is why people use their own mobile phones,” he says. Watmore himself uses his own technology to access the internet, and says this trend of people using their own devices is something the civil service will have to adapt to.

However, he’s also clear that civil servants must be cautious online; using social media can only go so far. “There is a difference between [opening up and having] the community of interested users come to us and tell us what they think, and people randomly tweeting their personal views as though they speak on behalf of government,” he says.

The future civil service
Digital delivery will require new skills across the civil service, Watmore thinks. “That needs a new breed of person – the Mike Bracken type – and that needs to be taught as well as brought in,” he says.

There are other skills that the future civil service will require, he adds – in particular commercial skills, which he stresses are separate from procurement skills. “Procurement is how we purchase things in a slightly less bureaucratic way, with more innovation in the system,” he says, but commercial skills are required to work out whether functioning markets can be created in new areas of public activity.

Both skills will be improved under the new Civil Service Reform Plan (see interview with Sir Bob Kerslake and Sir Jeremy Heywood, p7; plus pages 10-15). Watmore is coy on the plan, which was published the day after this interview – although he does mention his role in it: inserting provisions to tackle the technological frustrations created by the government’s poor IT kit.

Briefings and bugbears
Just before the reform plan was published, there was a wave of hostile briefing in some newspapers about the civil service – some of it from advisers, and some from ministers. Watmore has spoken out in defence of the civil service in the past, notably writing a letter to the Financial Times praising officials’ skills and abilities.

Won’t hostile briefing have demoralised civil servants, and make it harder for the civil service reform package to be greeted with any enthusiasm? “I don’t think I would limit what I say to the last few weeks: in general, press headlines – which you only get in certain categories of the press – that criticise civil servants in a variety of ways not only don’t help people do their job; they are manifestly untrue. I have come from a private sector background, I’ve worked in the civil service now for seven years, and the people of the civil service are fantastic: the motives, the morals, the ways that they try and help their fellow citizen is something that most private sector businesses would give their right arm for.”

Has he seen any behaviour in the civil service that would cause ministers to brief to newspapers against them? “I’m saying I don’t believe that the reality of what the press writes and what I see on the ground match up. I don’t know who’s doing the briefing, I can’t tell you that, but I can tell you that civil servants have adapted massively fast to the new government.”

There have been many suggestions, including in Parliament, that some hostile briefings came from special adviser Steve Hilton. Will they die down now that he’s gone? “The press talks about his departure being a catalyst for some of the briefings. I always had a good relationship with Steve. I found him to be interested in the sorts of issues I was interested in, he cared about the same sorts of things that I did. I think he...” Then Watmore corrects himself: “I think what we need to focus on is the problems the country is facing.”

Why are you leaving, Ian?
Unprompted, Watmore explains why he’s leaving the civil service: “I will be in the North West of England, becoming the spouse of a vicar as my wife takes up her role as a vicar in Manchester in a few weeks. That’s why I’m leaving the civil service, to go and support her.”

Some civil servants suggest that Watmore was finding it difficult to make his voice heard by Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, who was turning towards others in the Cabinet Office. Did he find that the role of Cabinet Office permanent secretary, which he took in October 2011, was sufficiently well defined? And how was it different from that of head of the ERG? He leaves the first question aside, answering only the second: “It does change the job, because you’re recognisably the accounting officer for the whole of the department – and I think that’s the bit that’s probably most different.” With the Cabinet Office’s policy responsibilities falling within his remit as well as the efficiency brief, says Watmore, he was taking the public lead on a wide range of agendas. “Ultimately that’s a choice for a particular government,” he adds. “Do they have someone doing that like me, or do they give it to somebody else who’s already in the Cabinet Office.”

With the ERG growing so fast within the Cabinet Office, Watmore says, its leaders must work out how to weight its different elements. Its work as a “corporate headquarters for government” has “been turbo-charged by this government,” he says. “Going forward, there’s a job to get that balance between being the government policy driver and the corporate headquarters.”

When he became permanent secretary, was he still able to do the corporate side of things? “Yes, I don’t think there was an inherent conflict; and actually, a lot of our projects and programmes are the other half of some major policy initiatives, so having oversight over both tied some things together quite nicely,” he says.

Certainly, he says he’ll always look back on his time in the civil service with fond memories. “All of the roles I’ve had in the civil service have been fantastic. I’ve done them for three different prime ministers; and for somebody who’s got a business background to come in and be given the chance to be a permanent secretary in three different roles in three different governments is unbelievably humbling. I shall remember my time in the civil service with complete pride and a sense of achievement.” Watmore is there to say?

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