After three years away from Whitehall, Ian Watmore is back — this time as head of the organisation upholding the very values of the civil service. The new first civil service commissioner sits down with Matt Foster to talk reform, diversity, and why, as a departmental leader, you can no longer "just draft your way out of a problem”
It has, Ian Watmore concedes, been a long and winding road back to Whitehall. The former Cabinet Office permanent secretary’s initial interview for the job of First Civil Service Commissioner took place almost a year ago. But twelve unprecedented months of upheaval on the political scene conspired to slow that process to a crawl.
“I was interviewed multiple times,” he says. “The process started in December, and then I saw the Cabinet Office minister and the prime minister — as he then was. I then saw the new prime minister as she arrived. Then it was a hearing in front of [MPs on the] Public Administration committee, and then it was clearance through the opposition parties. And finally — an appointment by the Queen. So it's been one of those long, tortuous journeys — but now we're here.”
As we sit down for Watmore’s first interview in the role — which will see him act as both the guardian of the civil service's cherished values of honesty, integrity, objectivity and impartiality, and as protector of its commitment to recruit on the basis of merit — the new head of the Civil Service Commission seems pleased to have finally got his feet under the table.
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This is not, of course, the first Whitehall comeback for Watmore, who was drafted into the civil service in the Tony Blair years after decades at management consulting firm Accenture, holding senior government roles including chief information officer, head of Blair’s Downing Street Delivery Unit, and permanent secretary of the business department in one of its former incarnations.
In something of a surprise move, he then left the civil service in 2009 for a ten-month stint as chief executive of the Football Association (his “midlife crisis”, Watmore told MPs earlier this year), only to return to government the following year to lead the coalition’s heavy-hitting Efficiency and Reform Group, tasked with shaking up government policy on IT, procurement, estates management and HR.
The last time CSW spoke to Watmore, in 2013, the then-outgoing Cabinet Office perm sec told us he was heading off to spend more time with the family. So what prompted yet another return — albeit this time as an independent regulator, and not as a civil servant?
“I loved my time in the civil service,” he says. “But I'm living in the northwest of England, and my wife's the vicar of a parish that looks remarkably like Dibley. It's just been completely impractical in the last four or five years to have done anything in the Whitehall and Westminster world. And I also had the Rugby World Cup, which I was on the organising committee for.
“But this job became available and I think it hit my personal sweet spot of being something I could do, something I cared about, and something that, from a time commitment point of view, I would be able to commit to without changing my lifestyle. It's two days a week, I can do it, I know the system. But, most importantly, I really care about the civil service and its future, and in this role I think I can exert some influence on how the civil service develops over the next five years.”
Priorities and diversity
Watmore comes to the job with a clear set of priorities, and top of his list is seeking to "protect the traditions" of the civil service laid out in the 1854 Northcote–Trevelyan report, the Victorian-era stab at Whitehall reform described by the celebrated historian Lord Hennessy as "the greatest single governing gift of the nineteenth to the twentieth century”.
The report — which led directly to the setting up of the commission and established the principle of an impartial civil service recruited openly and on the basis of merit, rather than political patronage — is not some mere historical curio, either. Indeed, it was the fear that reforms launched by ministers during the last parliament risked undermining those principles and politicising the civil service that saw Watmore’s predecessor, Sir David Normington, frequently clash with the government.
Key points of contention included moves to give ministers more say over the appointment of their permanent secretaries, and the setting up of Extended Ministerial Offices (EMOs), allowing ministers to surround themselves with external hires and special advisers outside of the traditional civil service structure.
But, despite those high-profile disputes, Watmore himself seems relatively relaxed on the question of creeping politicisation. Asked whether he sees any threats from the current crop of ministers to the impartiality of the civil service, the new commissioner says the evidence he has seen in his "first few weeks in the job" points to an administration that is "looking for a period of stability”, and he makes clear that he does not anticipate a fresh wave of controversial changes to the structure of Whitehall.
"I think the new wave of [female] candidates coming through is stronger, after probably a lull of three or four years" – Ian Watmore
"I'm absolutely convinced that the current regime, the Theresa May government, is very strongly behind the civil service, wants to preserve Northcote-Travelyan, and the Cabinet Office minister, in particular, has emphasised how well he thinks the civil service is adapting to the early challenges of Brexit and how he is keen on incremental change, rather than radical reform," he says.
But that’s not to say Watmore sees his role as merely a steady hand on the tiller at the commission. He believes it’s also the job of the watchdog — which has a place on Whitehall’s Senior Leadership Committee, chaired by cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood — to "push for modernisation”.
Whitehall must, he says, do more to improve the diversity of its leadership. While Watmore describes it as a “big disappointment” that the representation of women at permanent secretary-level has "fallen way back" from its 2011 high-point, when 50% of departmental leaders were women, he says he is confident that the organisation is now "acutely aware of that as a problem”.
"I think you might find, in the next year or two, more female appointments as perm secs," he says. "I think the new wave of candidates coming through is stronger, after probably a lull of three or four years in which only people like [DCLG perm sec] Melanie Dawes and [Defra perm sec] Claire Moriarty have come through. I'm hoping — there's no evidence until its complete — that we will see more women coming through to perm sec posts, probably in the next two or three years, and then we won't be having this conversation in two or three years' time."
But Watmore says he is “particularly” concerned about the poor representation of black and minority ethnic staff at the top of the civil service. All of the organisation’s current departmental chiefs are white, and although BAME representation across the civil service has improved in recent decades, the senior civil service remains unrepresentative of the country as a whole — indeed, just 4% of SCS staff are BAME, according to the latest figures.
Tackling this will, he says, require the civil service’s leaders to look carefully at what they are doing to cultivate the next generation of BAME leaders. ”We need to bring to more people through whatever ceiling is holding them back and we need to position people in key roles to enable them to occupy really good director general posts and then perm sec posts. Because it's just not acceptable to have an entirely white top table in the system.”
Skills and leadership
Watmore also wants the Commission to play its part in the civil service’s ongoing drive to improve the mix of skills and experience possessed by those in its top ranks, pointing out that those leading government departments and projects will increasingly need to possess digital, commercial and programme management know-how to succeed — or at least be able to surround themselves with a team of “skilled people” able “to bring about solutions to today's problems, not to try and resolve yesterday's problems”.
To hammer home the point about the changing nature of civil service leadership, Watmore — who will personally chair interviews for Whitehall’s top jobs — brandishes a battered hardback version of the commission’s inaugural 1855 annual report.
“The most remarkable thing about the book is that in the beginning it talks about civil service entrants and it uses the word 'he' everywhere. And it isn't just shorthand - they mean 'he'. There were no women in the civil service in this period, it's just crazy. And they all took exams in Latin and things like that in order to be able to get in.
"The modern day civil service leader [...] is not somebody who is male, who went to the right school, and does Latin" – Ian Watmore
“So the civil service has evolved in 160 years to something unrecognisable from its origins when the commission was set up. The modern day civil service leader, therefore, is not somebody who is male, who went to the right school, and does Latin. Nor, I think, is it the person who is characterised on television as Sir Humphrey or as a character in The Thick Of It.
“I think it is somebody who is very much in tune with modern Britain. I think it's somebody who understands the values and the culture of society at large, and isn't doing everything from their own narrow personal perspective. And it's somebody who has the values of the civil service running through them like a stick of rock."
As a civil service leader, Watmore says, you can no longer “just draft your way out of a problem in a Sir Humphrey way”, and while the new commissioner is keen to stress that the civil service will “always” value the kind of generalists and policy-focused officials that have traditionally been favoured for perm sec posts, he says more and more officials are bringing a “different skill set” to the role.
“You know, [Ministry of Defence chief] Stephen Lovegrove is now on his second perm sec job,” Watmore points out. “He’s a commercial guy who's come into the civil service through the Shareholder Executive and is now perm sec of one of our biggest departments. You've got Jon Thompson who is an accountant, who came into the system from outside. He's now on his second perm sec job — having run Defence he's now running HMRC.
“And you've got John Manzoni, who's come in from a private sector background, being the chief executive of the civil service. So there are three people, right at the top, who have completely different skill sets to the ones that normally we would say are the skills that cause people to rise to the top of the perm sec tree.”
Brexit and compliance
Watmore also says he wants the commission to help the civil service respond “flexibly, nimbly and appropriately” to the major public policy challenges of the day, not least of which is the mammoth task of untangling Britain’s membership of the European Union after this summer's referendum.
Heywood, the head of the civil service, has already made it clear that Whitehall — which has widely-acknowledged skills gaps in key Brexit-focused areas, including trade negotiation — will need to open itself up to external help as the UK leaves the EU. So how will the commission under Watmore ensure that any influx of outsiders — potentially on short-term contracts — does not dilute the values of the civil service?
“The primary responsibility for bringing people in to the system lies with the department,” Watmore says. “But there is no doubt that we as a commission will be putting — and we do already put — a lot of pressure and onus on the departments to make sure that anybody they bring in, through whatever route, understands and owns the values of the civil service and operates as a civil servant."
Ensuring departments recruit on the basis of merit is a key part of the commission's role, and under reforms kicked off by Normington, the watchdog stepped up its monitoring, moving from yearly to quarterly audits of government bodies. The shift to more frequent checks has not, Watmore says, led to complaints of extra burdens on the departments. “I haven't heard anybody whinging about it,” he laughs. “Usually if people are really worried about these burdens they are quick out the door — and the word 'burden' gets used”.
"If the picture is not changing or is deteriorating then I think we have to have some serious conversations higher up the chain and try and get things sorted out" – Ian Watmore
The commission’s latest annual report does, however, paint a mixed picture of how well some departments are complying with the watchdog’s rules, and the extent to which they are using proper, open competition to hire the best staff.
While 39 out of 79 government organisations are given either an “amber/green” or “green” rating for sticking to the recruitment principles in the commission’s report, it also warns that the majority of recruitment — some 76% of civil service hires in the past year — have been made in departments which the commission has given an “amber-red” grading, indicating "moderate compliance risk to the organisation and/or significant concerns with capability to achieve successful recruitment".
Watmore stresses that the response to this problem must come from the departments themselves, and says it is “really important that line managers who are doing the recruiting are aware of the principles”, which may be poorly understand further down the chain of command.
“I think it is the responsibility of the departments — we monitor, we audit, we scrutinise,” he says. “If the picture is an improving one then I think we're doing our job. But if the picture is not changing or is deteriorating then I think we have to have some serious conversations higher up the chain and try and get things sorted out.”
A lot of the compliance failures picked up by the Commission are, Watmore says, “accidental” — on the “cock-up not the conspiracy end of the spectrum”. But, the new Commissioner says, departments need to ensure they are recruiting fairly and openly “not because there's a set of rules to follow, but because we want the right result”.
“The right result is to get the best outcome for your department, or for your agency in terms of recruitment — not the most expedient route. I think that's the message we keep having to push out.”
As First Civil Service Commissioner, Watmore himself benefits from something many of Whitehall’s leaders would look on with envy: job security. With a fixed-term of five years, the new Commissioner — barring another career change — now has the time to make his mark on the organisation, and to help shape the next generation of civil service leaders at a time of major upheaval. So what should CSW be pulling the civil service’s chief interviewer up on at his next exit grilling?
“If I can say, at the end of five years, that the civil service has preserved those great things — its traditions and its Northcote Travelyan roots — and that it has improved its diversity, with many more women at the top table, and an increasingly strong pipeline of candidates coming through in the other diversity categories, that will be great,” he says.
“And if we can continue to find more examples of the Thompsons and the Lovegroves and the Manzonis of this world – those people who bring those different skills and are able to succeed at the top table — while playing our part as a commission in helping the civil service and the government overcome its huge challenges — of which the one we can see most obviously today is Brexit — then I think taht will be a very strong legacy for my successor."
...why the civil service's values matter
"People flock to the civil service partly because they like the business issues, they might have a particular interest in Policy A or Department B. Some of them get attracted by the buzz of the politics, and the "Thick Of It"-type environment. But the vast majority come to the civil service because they believe they're joining an organisation that's going to make a difference to society, based on its values."
...responding to staff complaints about the Civil Service Code
"Our job has got to be take all complaints involving the code very seriously. Now, of course, people sometimes have a beef with the system that doesn't fit the code and we reluctantly have to tell them it's not really in scope.
"But normally, when we get any sort of issue that's right in the crosshairs of what the code covers then our response is first: have you dealt with this in the department? And quite often they don't know who to talk to in the department, and so we can signpost them there, and a large number of issues then get dealt with there.
"If they're still not happy with the department they come to us, and I have a whole team of people next door who investigate those complaints very seriously and try to get an outcome that they think is fair to all parties but which is upholding the spirit and the letter of the code."
...his personal view of succeeding in the civil service after a career in the private sector
"I'm absolutely convinced that the people who have the best careers in the civil service after joining from the private sector are those people who bring something with them – some skill or speciality that they have.
"But this is the crucial point – they recognise that they are joining an organisation full of fantastic people which is already very good at what it does and which deals with complexity in a way that you never, ever see in the private sector.
"And if you can get that mindset right, that you're coming to add some talent to a talented team, to be able to solve even more complex problems than you have in the past, you can suceed. If you come in with the mentality of, 'The public sector are all a bunch of inefficient wasters and I'm here from the private sector to tell you how to do it and to sort you out', you will fail, and rightly fail. First of all because you'd be wrong. and secondly because the organisation will antibody reject that sort of behaviour."