By Jess Bowie

05 Jan 2016

The Met Office's first home-grown chief executive talks to Jess Bowie about leading the award-winning organisation, grappling with the effects of public sector pay restraint​, and his concerns over the BBC's decision not to renew its contract with the national weather service

At mealtimes, during their Gloucestershire childhood, one Varley sibling felt rather left out. “My two brothers and I were all seriously into science, but my sister is an artist and had no interest in it at all. She will tell you that the conversation around the dinner table was always dominated by meteorological or scientific things,” Rob Varley recalls with a smile. 

That the nation’s favourite conversation – the weather – was an inescapable topic at home is perhaps unsurprising given that Varley’s father worked at the Met Office. And it was a calling to which Varley, after some mildly nonconformist musings (“When you're a teenager you think, ‘I don't want to do what my dad does’”), soon succumbed himself. Father and son even overlapped for a year before Varley Senior retired in 1984. 

“My dad then spent the 29 years of his retirement watching from the sidelines,” Varley says. “He was my greatest supporter and, on the other hand, my greatest critic – he would always let me know if the Met Office forecast wasn't right!” 

Varley’s father died two years ago, so he did not live to see his son become CEO, in 2014, of his beloved organisation. But perhaps he sensed Varley, 53, would go on to do the top job: by 2007 he was already very senior, and busy helping former CEO John Hirst transform the Met Office and extend its reach. 

“I joined the executive team two weeks before John arrived, and over that time the Met Office changed enormously. It became much more self-confident,” Varley says. “We have increasingly sought to drive greater and greater benefit, and that means being imaginative about who out there is vulnerable to or dependent on the weather or the wider environment, and asking if there is a way that we can help them to better achieve their goals. With that as our driving ambition, we're now doing a whole load of interesting things that we wouldn't have dreamed of eight years ago.” 

Stepping up to lead the organisation was, then, not much of a culture shock. “John and I had been on that journey together and when he left I just took up the reins and carried on,” Varley says. Acclimatising to the top job was also surely helped by the fact that Varley is a homegrown CEO – surprisingly the first the Met Office has had since it was founded in 1854. 

“In the 160 years up to my appointment, there was never an internal candidate,” Varley says. “So I have very much seen it as a vote of confidence in the Met Office, because what it says is: ‘We trust you to grow your own. We don't feel the need to impose somebody on you to keep you in line.’ There is the sense that if I can do it, the door is open to anybody else.” 

CSW’s interview with Varley on a blustery day in late November takes place in London, rather than at the Met Office’s glass and steel Exeter HQ. It comes towards the end of a busy, and largely positive year for Varley’s organisation – an arm’s length body which has variously been part of the Board of Trade, the Air Ministry and the MoD, and is now an executive agency of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Between the daily business of weather forecasting and guiding two thirds of all global long-haul air traffic (to name just two of its many functions), the Met Office installed phase one of its new supercomputer (of which more later) and helped prepare evidence for policymakers before December’s climate talks in Paris. 

It was also picking up prizes, taking first place at the UK Top 50 Customer Service Awards and winning at the 2015 UK IT Industry Awards for its big data work. Capping off a good year was the latest Public Weather Service Value for Money Review, which concluded that the benefits of the Met Office to the public realm were “likely to be close to £1.5bn per annum”.

But not all the news was so positive. Last August, it emerged that, after 93 years of collaboration, the BBC would not renew its contract with the Met Office. As of this October, the broadcaster will no longer use Met Office forecasts. Instead, Dutch and New Zealand firms are said to be in the running for the contract. Though the BBC will continue to use Met Office data for its severe weather warnings – which were once again out in force during the Christmas floods – MPs of all stripes expressed shock at the broadcaster’s decision. Ben Bradshaw, whose Exeter constituency is home to the Met Office, said the decision was “madness” and highlighted the importance of the decades-old strategic relationship for emergency planning and national resilience.

Did the news come as a surprise to Varley?

“Our concern, which we've expressed to the BBC and to government, is that the public are well served – particularly at times of high-impact and dangerous weather,” he says. “The Met Office has a key role in that we're part of the civil-resilience community, so whether it's a weather-related hazard, or some other emergency where weather is a contributory factor, like a nuclear disaster, we are part of the government response. 

“At the moment, all of that is completely joined-up. So our concern is that by [the BBC] choosing to seek an alternative provider, the public get conflicting messages. That's where our attention is now directed, and we're in conversation with the BBC as well as with the Cabinet Office and others in government to find a way of ensuring that the public continue to be well served.”

A few days after news about the contract broke, The Guardian – not generally known for its public sector bashing – published a surprisingly critical editorial, referring to the Met Office’s “bad record of technological innovation”, and pointing to the lack of a good enough mobile phone weather app as “a key problem in the latest tendering”. It also cited the comments of former weather forecaster John Kettley, who said the Met Office lost the contract because they wanted too much money from the BBC. What would Varley say to those criticisms?

“All I would say is that almost everything I've seen reported in the press in the days and weeks after that story broke was wrong. Completely misinformed,” he replies.

So what was the reason for the BBC deciding to go elsewhere? 

“I think it's complicated, and it's not an easy thing for me to verbalise in this context. They are a free and independent organisation and they've made their own choices for their own reasons. My view is that the consequence will be that the interests of the nation will not be best served. And that's my concern.” 

In 2014, Varley’s predecessor John Hirst told CSW that pay levels at the Met Office – which, despite being a trading fund is still subject to public sector pay restraint – were 20-30% behind the market in many key technical jobs. Hirst said that of 1,900 staff he had 110 vacancies; that the Met Office was turning away commercial work because it couldn’t staff it, and that his organisation found itself training people only to lose them to better paid careers elsewhere. 

“Everything is the same and the problem is worse,” Varley replies, when asked if Hirst’s comments still ring true. 

The situation was compounded by the chancellor’s announcement in July of five more years of pay rises capped at 1%, he adds. “We've argued passionately that there needs to be some relief from this to enable us to maximise our value to the nation. That's all I'm interested in. And I'm not asking for any more money for this, because within the trading fund I can spend the money I have either on more poorly-paid staff or fewer higher-paid staff, I can flex between hardware and software, and systems and people – I have that freedom. So I'm simply asking for the freedom to spend the money I have in the way that I judge to be the most effective. And given the choice I would spend it in such a way as to give those specialist people higher salaries in order to achieve more for the nation.

“I completely understand the concerns within government about controlling public spending. But from my own point of view, this is just becoming more and more of a serious problem, and ultimately we risk our ability to deliver what we deliver. We are world-leading. And we deliver fantastic value. One of the reasons that we do is that the people who work for us work for less money than they would otherwise have to be paid, and of course the public get the benefit of that cheaply. But it won't continue. If we carry on with the differential getting bigger and bigger, we'll get to the point where it simply can’t keep people, and then the quality will begin to drift.” 

In an early episode of The Simpsons, viewers are treated to a flashback to the 1970s in which Springfield’s resident mad scientist, Professor Frink, offers his prediction for the future of IT. “Within 100 years, computers will be twice as powerful, 10,000 times larger, and so expensive that only the five richest kings of Europe will own them,” he declares. Frink’s prophecy is, of course, wildly inaccurate. But it’s hard not to think of it when hearing about the Met Office’s new supercomputer: occupying the same amount of space as several football pitches and costing a cool £97m, it will – when fully installed in 2017 – be the largest and most powerful weather computer in the world.

It isn’t the computer’s size that quickens Varley’s pulse, however. “It's not an impressive statistic. They're just boxes. They don't look very exciting. It's what they do that's exciting, and the kind of statistics we're going to use. For instance, we're already transacting more numerical calculations per day than the entire British banking system,” he says. 

The new system can perform 16 quadrillion (that’s 16 with 15 zeros) calculations every second – something which, Varley says, “gets techie people very excited”. But this is “not money being spent on some wacky project to satisfy a load of geeks”, he adds. 

“The atmosphere is like a hugely complex four-dimensional fluid that we're modelling and monitoring and it's a very difficult challenge to predict how it will change from one moment to the next. The bigger your supercomputer the more precise your calculations can be, and so we're always nudging towards the better and better outcome. If you look at the last 40 years, we have steadily improved forecast performance, and it's remarkable how steady that's been – almost a straight line on a graph. And without any shadow of a doubt, that nice straight line will continue with this new computer.” 

Weather forecasting isn’t the only thing that will benefit from the new investment. Climate change predictions will improve, too. The Met Office’s Hadley Centre for Climate Science and Services is the best in the world, Varley says, but there is “a huge amount” more to do.

“With this computer we'll increasingly be able to drill down into the detail and move beyond broad-scale averages and statistical estimates of risk, through to a much more detailed assessment of just how warm it will be at a particular point on the planet for how many days in a typical year in 2100. 

“You start being able to answer the more critical questions like: ‘How many days will the temperature be above 40° in London in the middle of summer?’ or ‘How strong will the winds be on the windiest days – and how is it going to affect the efficiency of renewable energy; how is it going to affect the ability of nuclear power stations to keep themselves cool?’” 

The Met Office’s role in predicting and assessing the risks of climate change have made it a focus for sceptics. The BBC had to apologise last October after Radio 4 broadcast a documentary by the Daily Mail columnist Quentin Letts which described the Met Office’s position on climate change as “political alarmism”. Varley, like the vast majority of the climate science community, diminishes the idea of any debate. “We should all be very concerned about what the future holds,” he tells CSW in the run-up to the Paris talks, when world leaders will sign an historic agreement to keep global warming to “well below” 2°C.

One wonders what Varley’s father would make of the new supercomputer. Over the years, the two talked extensively about developments at the national weather service and Varley says his dad “was always keen to hear what was going on”. At the same time, Varley Senior was “completely mystified” when his son showed him around the Met Office’s high-tech headquarters in Exeter, which opened in 2003 at a cost of £80m. 

“He couldn't understand what all of these people were doing. Where were all the big pieces of paper, the big fat pencils, and all of the old stuff that we used to do? He just couldn't get his head round the way we do things now.” 

Weather was both a profession and a hobby for Varley’s father, and as the Met Office chief executive talks animatedly about his passion for the outdoors, it’s clear the same can be said of him, too.

“I love being in the weather. I love the clouds, and I take a lot of photographs of sunsets and cloudscapes. And because I live in Devon and we have fantastic countryside all around, I will walk on the moors and explore and swim in the sea,” he says. “Wherever I go, the weather is there.”

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