The outgoing chief executive of The Whitehall & Industry Group – and a former senior civil servant in several departments – sits down with Suzannah Brecknell to discuss international negotiations, super departments, and the perils of hierarchies
Who? Peter Unwin joined the civil service in 1976 through the statistical fast stream, holding posts at the Inland Revenue, Cabinet Office and Ministry of Defence before joining the Department of Environment in 1983. He transferred to policy work, with roles in local government, finance and urban policy before working on the environment and climate change, leading the official delegation to the 1997 Kyoto Conference. He worked in a number of private offices, including as deputy prime minister John Prescott’s private secretary from 1998 to 2001. In 2007 he became director general in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs where he stayed until 2015, when he left the civil service to join The Whitehall & Industry Group.
The venue: Bon Gusto, serving smart but reasonably priced Italian food a stone’s throw from St James’s Park.
His proudest achievement
It was probably the Kyoto climate change agreement in 1997. It was a stroke of luck that I ended up running the negotiations for the whole of the EU. Luxembourg was next in line for the presidency, but they decided that they didn’t have the resources [to do it]. We were next in line for the presidency, and also had John Prescott going out, who would be the most senior European minister.
So in the run up to Kyoto there were nine months of intense negotiations, travelling all over the place. Then there was the conference itself, with 10,000 people and what seemed like the eyes of the world on us. It was, at the time, a massively important agreement. We got what seemed like a really good deal. Of course then it was followed by the US elections when George W Bush came in – we’d had Al Gore as the US representative – and the US dropped out.
Kyoto was never going to solve the problem of climate change, but the key thing was the international agreement that would be there once there was political will to do something.
In my final role at Defra I was proud of helping to introduce a new approach to the way we talked about the environment. From the perspective of other departments I’d worked in, I thought Defra came across far too much as a “green” department doing things simply because they were “good”. I had a strong view that you have to see the environment as an economic issue – human capital, financial capital, and as a country we need natural capital as well: water and soil and so on. So when I went for the job at Defra that was my pitch – seeing environment as an economic issue – and I think we achieved quite a bit on that.
Abiding memories from Kyoto
Probably some of the intense negotiations in the final three days, which were basically the first negotiations between the US, Europe and Japan as the three main blocs of developed countries.
And some of the people involved in the whole process are still on the world stage now: I remember a meeting at Heathrow Airport shortly before the conference with John Prescott – who was new in post – and the German and French environment ministers: Angela Merkel and Michel Barnier.
Actually, there are a few parallels watching Brexit because the EU negotiating position is always to not move until the last minute in any international negotiation, whereas the UK were always the pragmatists in the EU. In particular we saw ourselves as a bit of a bridge to the US. So as the endgame approached in Kyoto, the two sides were miles apart: the EU was saying “everyone must reduce by 15%”; the US was saying “everyone will pick their own number – and ours will be zero, by the way”. Several of the EU ministers were saying “we must leave this until the last minute”, and Prescott, who himself had experience as a trade union negotiator, wanted to do a deal. That caused quite a bit of tension – there were some big moments – but in the end everyone was very happy.
What makes a good minister
Someone who comes in with their own mind, who knows what they want to achieve, who listens to advice and takes account of it but then makes their own decisions. One who sticks to their principles. I worked quite early in my career with Michael Heseltine, who had very strong principles and wasn’t deflected by the Daily Mail, or even the prime minister too much. He stuck to those principles and when you look at what he was saying in the various roles he had more recently, before he was sacked because of Brexit, he was still espousing exactly the same principles: working with industry and local government to regenerate areas.
Everything was much more hierarchical when I joined the civil service. I think ministers quite liked that, but it had weaknesses. Take the poll tax, which I wasn’t directly working on, but I was in local government finance at the time. There was stuff that the department knew as it was being developed, which ministers didn’t hear because they weren’t listening to voices from within the department. I’ve had all sorts of risk registers in my life, and I always say the main risks in an organisation are normally known by those at the bottom. The civil service is quite a lot better at getting that information through to the top now but there are still too many ministers who listen to people at the top: their special advisers, a few trusted officials, and that’s it.
How he would like to reform government
In England we are still hugely centrally driven. To be fair to government, this industrial strategy and the work done by George Osborne – city deals and the mayoral reforms – recognises place in a way that his predecessors haven’t. The Treasury is a very nationally focused, centrally driven department. So I think a bigger move towards devolution within England would be beneficial, though it brings in huge problems for Whitehall accountability and departmental accountabilities.
At various times in my career I was involved with joining up budgets. For example, the single regeneration budget pulled together money from different parts going into the cities, so the local authority could have one simple product. That sounds massively sensible until you get into accounting officer responsibility and people saying, “I can’t have my money being spent there. My money was given to me for education, if it ends up being spent on housing how can I account for it?” In some ways I’m a fan of that departmental accountability, but it also constrains our ability to run the country sensibly at the local level. I don’t know what the answer is but I think it’s an issue that dilutes an awful lot of what we can achieve through public policy.
I like the concept and I see the advantage of it – especially to the Treasury. In the Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions we had the housing budget, which is a huge budget, so there wasn’t much chance of asking for more money on the environment: we just knocked a bit of housing and stuck it onto environment.
I think the challenge is how you realistically join up the areas within a department. Despite our best efforts – I as private secretary, and John Prescott with Richard Mottram as permanent secretary – there was still a strong divide between transport and environment in DETR. Actually there was a slightly Yes, Minister moment as we set up DETR. On day one after the 1997 election we were called over to Eland House [where the environment department was based] to be told about the proposals to create this new super department. We were told there would be two permanent secretaries and they would run it as a federation. So basically “Labour wants to put these things together, but don’t worry folks, you’ll still be in the Department for Transport; you’ll still be in Department of the Environment; transport will still be sitting over there in Marsham Street and environment will be over here in Eland House”. Everyone went away thinking nothing was actually changing.
We were called back the next day or a few days later and told “slight change of plan, there is going to be one permanent secretary”. I think Prescott had been told of the plans and said: ‘Stuff this, it’s going to be run as one department, thank you very much!”
“In my time in government I worked a lot with industry – to make it work I think you’ve got to get people to understand that different perspective and build a relationship of trust”
The 1979, 1997 and 2010 changes of government
Thatcher felt like a huge change. As private secretary to the head of the Statistical Service I was in the equivalent of the Cabinet Office so I saw the cabinet ministers come in and I was part of the private secretary network. It felt like an absolutely massive change in the way that cabinet worked. The Callaghan government with the whole Lib-Lab pact, had got into a rambling stage as dying governments often do, but when Thatcher came we were told that cabinet papers had to be two pages or less.
With Blair and Cameron there was a similarity between them in the sense that it is a big challenge for the civil service to maintain, or gain, the confidence of a new administration when they’ve had a very long period in opposition. In both cases we had a set of ministers coming in, some of whom really distrusted the civil service. There were exceptions – Prescott was an example, or Caroline Spelman under Cameron – who trusted the civil service a lot, but others came in with a pretty aggressive attitude.
Sofa government and the return to process under the coalition
I do think the coalition was a great success for the civil service in one sense. Gus O’Donnell did a lot of work beforehand – he set up a whole bunch of DG teams, each led by a perm sec, to prepare various outcomes. I was on the one preparing for a hung parliament and it was fascinating. We did lots of scenario planning, including exercises with Gus where we all went in and played different roles. I was David Cameron. As well as thinking about the role of the civil service, we discussed mundane things like which door we would bring people through if we needed to hold these negotiation meetings.
That preparation really paid off, and then that quad machinery under the coalition brought back in an element of discipline across departmental policymaking that had been eroding previously. Having said that, sometimes I think sofa government is exaggerated. Go back to the days of Thatcher and although things were run through cabinet committees, every cabinet committee had a No 10 person on it to make sure that what Thatcher really cared about got through. The difference was there was a process and things were written down and at the end of the day a clear decision was made. With sofa government there were more examples of decisions being reopened because departments hadn’t been brought in through the proper process.
Differences between the public and private sectors
We all enter our careers with roughly the same set of skills. Organisations are good at developing you in the ways they need you to develop, so civil servants end up very good at handing complexity, dealing with trade-offs, and thinking about public reputation and public accountability. Whereas in the business world people think about the bottom line, and you develop those financial and commercial muscles. At The Whitehall & Industry Group we bring people together from different perspectives and you get a huge amount of learning from it, but at the same time I think that difference is becoming less marked, because the civil service has become much more commercial, more outcome-driven and with a greater delivery focus. And the private sector has to think much more about reputation than it did 20 years ago.
“I’ve had all sorts of risk registers in my life, and I always say the main risks in an organisation are normally known by those at the bottom”
Working with industry
In my time in government I worked a lot with industry – though I never went to work in industry which was a regret at the time. Sometimes that relationship works well and sometimes it’s a shambles.
To make it work I think you’ve got to get people to understand that different perspective and build a relationship of trust. The good civil servant wants to be able to try out their ideas outside; they want someone they can trust to say “If we did this, how would it affect your industry?” to. That’s quite difficult for a civil servant, so finding those relationships is important.
The best leadership programme I ever did in my time in the civil service was something called the Top Management Programme. It brought together people from different sectors and you attended a four-week course to learn and work with them. The Centre for Public Leadership is going to do something similar, and that’s the concept we developed at WIG, to bring together people – not to get told this is how to be a great leader but to sit down with leaders from a different background, take a big issue like Brexit or the impact of AI and discuss different perspectives.