By Matt Ross

29 Oct 2014

After seven years running the Met Office, John Hirst is returning to the business world. CSW gets his views on leading civil servants, working with politicians, and being in charge of the weather

John Hirst is explaining how to eat sushi. “Mix some of this wasabi into the soy sauce, then you can dip your tempura,” he explains. The Met Office chief keeps checking that he’s not teaching his gran to suck eggs, but he needn’t worry; your correspondent has been vegetarian for three decades and has never been east of Singapore, so Hirst is actually attempting something akin to training grandma in html coding.

That said, this granny is now ready to launch a tech start-up in Shoreditch: Uni’s Peruvian-influenced Japanese cuisine includes a surprising number of veggie dishes, and the fresh flavours and exquisite presentation of our Bento boxes soon win me over. Perhaps Hirst’s enthusiasm helps, too – for the food takes him back to his days travelling the world as a finance executive, and we’re soon swapping our plentiful stocks of travel stories.

Whilst my tales revolve around old 4x4s, however, Hirst’s are more jet-setting – reflecting a business career that shot up through PwC and ICI to leave him chief of a global car parts business by the age of 35. Seven years later, he was pushed out by chair Sir Peter Gershon – another businessman familiar to civil servants – and went into freelance consultancy. Then, he recalls, “I was on my way to becoming a partner at a private equity fund and somebody said: ‘Would you be interested in being in charge of the weather?’ So I came to do this, because it was fascinating”.

At the Met Office, Hirst concentrated on improving customer service and building up commercial work. On the former, the agency has excelled – it’s regularly listed among the Top 50 Companies for Customer Service – but he sounds frustrated by the pace of business investment in meteorological data. “It’s been harder than I expected to change people’s views,” he comments. Still, Heathrow now hosts a Met Office team to minimise flight delays, whilst Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer use weather forecasts to predict changes in demand for groceries. These businesses are now seeing “measurable improvements in performance,” Hirst adds, creating a helpful feedback loop: “Once you’ve got customers who are prepared to say: ‘Yeah, it worked for us,’ you start to get credibility.”

We cleanse our palettes with delicate slivers of pickled ginger, and dip Yasai Maki parcels into the pungent sauce. Then we’re onto trickier ground: how does this immigrant from business view the civil service? “A lot of private sector organisations would kill for the quality of people that the civil service has,” he says first. But Hirst has frustrations: he doesn’t want to indulge in a “whinge-athon”, but says the agency struggles to recruit enough science, IT, sales and marketing staff to build its commercial services. Met Office pay levels are “20-30% behind the market in really key jobs,” he says. “Out of 1900 staff, we have 110 vacancies, and we’re turning commercial work away because we just can’t staff it. We end up training people and then they go off and earn and lot more money.”

“I understand pay restraint and the necessity to have tight control of budgets, but when it gets to the point of putting at risk essential services or economic growth, you need to think a bit harder,” he adds. “Given the diversity of organisations in the public sector, a ‘one size fits all’ [pay policy] is a little risky.”

Hirst is painfully aware that “every chief executive will bleat that they’re a special case,” but argues that to make a living in the market, trading funds like his must enjoy the market’s freedoms. “I think it’s appropriate to run as businesses run; so if we’re not doing well we don’t get the pay, and if we are we get some benefit,” he says. “It’s the thing I’m most disappointed with: that I haven’t been able to get a sensible [pay] structure. It’s the first business I’ve run for 25 years where I have no control over 60% of my costs because that’s people’s pay.”

Hirst is much closer to the government line on civil service delivery skills. “I work with some fantastically bright and capable people around the civil service who have little development in getting things done,” he comments. “People’s careers are judged on managing ideas and policy work. But in the end, as someone said, all bright ideas degenerate into hard work sooner or later – and unless you get a little bit of both of those worlds, it’s difficult to judge whether an idea is just good in theory or whether it works. I’d love to see more civil servants with practical experience of delivery.”

He’s on a roll now. “The other thing I’ll lament is that people change their jobs every 18 months,” he says. “The corporate memory is diminished, you’re continuously restarting the dial, and it’s expensive because you’re reinventing everything each time.” 

The Bento boxes are starting to run dry. I give myself a day pass from vegetarianism to enjoy a slab of black cod – deliciously tender, it’s well worth the guilt pangs – and Hirst orders spoons so we can polish off the rice; it is, he assures me, not a faux pas. Then he urges top officials to emphasise outcomes over processes, and to “push responsibility and accountability as far down as you possibly can”. That puts decision-making in the hands of those who best understand local challenges and opportunities, he says, and encourages people to take responsibility.

Time for dessert. I head back west with the chocolate fondant: it’s beautifully presented, but after the refreshing, light eastern dishes it seems heavy and course. Hirst gets it right, plumping for the gelato. Then we’re onto politics: he comes from a line of Durham miners – becoming the first man in his family not to go down the pit at 15 – and admires how his grandad, an alderman on the county council, saw his role as an elected representative. “He never had any notion that he was managing the council’s affairs,” he says. “He was the voice of the people on the council, holding [officials] to account and saying: ‘This is what we need’.”

National politicians, Hirst believes, “often sell themselves as good managers” when the task that “their life experience equips them for” is that of directing civil servants. “The difference between these two things is quite important,” he adds; political leaders require a “separation and an objectivity about performance that is at risk if you’re involved in the day-to-day management.”

Despite his business background and his concerns about our civil servants and politicians, Hirst is no unthinking champion of the private sector. Asked whether the Met Office could helpfully be privatised, he notes that much of its data and scientific modelling is produced with fellow public and academic bodies around the world. “Getting that level of cooperation and free exchange of science is almost impossible in the private sector,” he points out. “I don’t have a philosophical bent towards private or public sector ownership, but in this case privatisation would lead to a degradation in our quality – and we are the best in the world.”

He’s equally cautious when asked whether the Cabinet Office is right to seek a businessperson as the civil service chief executive. “Business experience and training would be really helpful across the civil service,” he says. “However, it’s a different world, and I’ve seen some pretty good senior businesspeople come in and not quite understand just how much more complex it is, and get frustrated”. The right business appointee, he suggests, will be “a frontiersman, speaking two languages”.

The civil service is “chock full of bright people who work hard,” Hirst adds, but its values and processes “condition behaviours. So it’s not just about a demonstration and exercise of will to change these things: you have to put around systems, processes, training, rewards and recognition that encourage the behaviours you want to see.” He notes pointedly that when he joined the civil service, he “spent a lot of time trying to understand the issues, without making pronouncements”.

This particular businessman, though, is now returning to the private sector: Hirst has just handed over the Met Office reins to Rob Varley – a Met Office guy “man and boy; and his father was a Met Office man before him”. He’s got some non-executive work lined up, but few firm plans: in his experience, careers are best enjoyed, not predicted. After all, he left his mining neighbourhood for the world of international business and ended up running the Met Office; he notes with a grin that his daughter, having studied geography at university, is now playing Upsy Daisy in a musical version of In The Night Garden. 

Whatever he does do next, he’ll plainly miss the agency. “It’s been a massive privilege,” he says. “A fantastic seven years; I wouldn’t have missed it.” And he thinks back to his days travelling the world, buying and selling goods and companies. “I promised myself 20 years ago that I’d never fall in love with another business. The risk is that you cease to be objective,” he says. “I failed!” 
Then the waitress clears our table, and we return to swapping travel stories. Neither of us have tales as fresh as the sushi, but I suspect that Hirst will soon be restocking his inventory.

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