By CivilServiceWorld

24 Oct 2012

Matt Mercer, who edited Whitehall & Westminster World from 2004 to 2008, recalls its launch and sketches out the paper’s development from a niche Whitehall periodical to an influential, UK-wide publication

When we launched Whitehall & Westminster World, as it then was, it was a very niche publication targeted at the 3000 or so senior civil servants (SCS) based in Whitehall. We’d identified a gap in the market for a sister title to Dods’ publication The House magazine, and wanted to produce a newspaper for SCS designed to strengthen links across departments. I began as the chief correspondent, and pretty soon I was editing it.

Our launch was very timely, because civil servants were increasingly appearing before select committees and edging into the spotlight, and we quickly established ourselves as a good source of information about what people were up to. Our profile pieces also enabled more junior civil servants to better understand senior officials, helping to destroy the ‘Sir Humphrey’ caricature and revealing them as people with hopes and aspirations and enthusiasms.

Initially, many press officers were quite nervous about arranging interviews with their permanent secretaries. I’ll always remember the first permanent secretary who made the leap – it was Suma Chakrabarti – and after that it just snowballed. In fact, it would have been a waste not to have interviewed these permanent secretaries: I always found them incredibly fluid, impressive, and on top of their briefs. Talking about their departments, their priorities, was a natural extension of their job and a way of reaching an audience beyond their own staff.

The cabinet secretary at the time of our launch, Lord Turnbull, and his successor Gus O’Donnell used us to get their key messages out to the civil service. And when Gus came in, he pointed out that it wasn’t all about Whitehall; that most civil servants were based outside London – so we altered our content to cover the whole of the UK.

Soon we started doing other things with the civil service: the Civil Service Awards were really important in firming up the links with the Cabinet Office, and Civil Service Live also helped us get entrenched in Whitehall. I left in 2008, and it’s been nice to see the paper develop since: it’s still got the reach within the SCS, but it does much more in-depth analysis, investigations and news. There’s a real rigour to the analysis: every line has been examined to make it as good as it can be, and the quality of the conclusions and the information is excellent. It’s a tribute to the value of the paper that it continues to get great access, and that there’s been a seamless transition to a new cabinet secretary.

So the newspaper has moved on, and these days so have I. But I’ll always remember my days at Whitehall & Westminster World: it was a fantastic opportunity, and I really enjoyed it. It was a real thrill to get behind the scenes, meet all these very senior people, and help them to get their message out there.

Matt Mercer is now a senior editor with Ernst & Young


Eight years of change


Former cabinet secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell on how the civil service has changed since our launch in February 2004, and the role of CSW

“Since 2004, we’ve had a period of expansion followed by one of contraction – and I think the civil service has shown its ability to manage both. In the first period, it was: can we do more with more? And in the second it was: can we do more with less? We’ve faced both those tasks and, I think, delivered.

Meanwhile, the civil service has definitely continued to become more diverse and more professional. We’re keeping up with a world that needs us to be more professional, and my drive for pace, professionalism, pride and passion had some impact. But there’s no room for complacency; we need to go further, no question.

Nowadays the civil service is doing something that it hasn’t had to do since the war: working for a coalition. It’s a brand new skill, and I think it’s stretched the Whitehall end of the civil service. Meanwhile it’s been forced to learn how to innovate, to take more risks, because there’s no more money. This change is patchy, but it’s happening in places such as the Behavioural Insight Team.

As for Civil Service World, it’s remarkable that it didn’t exist earlier. The civil service is a massive employer and a major part of the economy; CSW has filled an important niche and, I think, improved the quality of the debate. Previously, many of the interviews you run would simply not have been published; I can’t remember permanent secretaries ever giving interviews in the newspapers until CSW appeared, but you’ve managed to tempt them in. And those interviews give a lot of people a window into the range and diversity of the civil service and its work, and the nature of the debate.

CSW has been a critical friend to the civil service. It’s definitely a friend, but it’s also critical – and that’s the right balance, I’m sure.”


A rapid evolution

Department for International Development permanent secretary Mark Lowcock gives his views on the evolution of the civil service since 2004, and the role of CSW

“February 2004 feels like a different world. Before MPs expenses, bankers’ bonuses, tabloid phone hacking, LIBOR and G4S, those were the cosy days when most of us thought Jimmy Savile was just a harmless eccentric, and hosting the Olympics was just a gleam in the eye.

The seismic event that shaped the world we now face was, obviously, the financial crash and the subsequent global – and British – recession.

How has the civil service coped? We have cut costs and delivered billions in savings – a major contribution to deficit reduction. We have learned to welcome greater scrutiny and transparency, and to improve value for money. At the top of the service – directors-general, directors and deputy directors – we have got better at developing talent, and we need to take that further down too.

In a rapidly-changing world, we have learned that we need to change faster too, to help the country cope with today’s challenges. But we have also learned that some things are timeless. Like our commitment to serving the public. And our values, which matter now more than ever: honesty, integrity, impartiality and objectivity. We have also learned how much timely and honest communications matter if we are to engage our people through all the change; and Civil Service World has done a public service in support of that.”


Handling high pressure


Met Office chief executive John Hirst says that recent years have seen public servants find new ways to deal with old challenges – and CSW is spreading the word

“Since 2007, when I joined the civil service as chief executive of the Met Office, some things have changed dramatically and some things don’t appear to have changed at all. What hasn’t changed is the importance of the mission and the genuine sense of purpose and commitment of the people I meet. Nor has the feeling that getting things done is sometimes harder and slower than it needs to be, but this is where I see some things are changing. Departments and agencies are working hard to break down barriers and combine capabilities to provide better services and release the massive potential of the excellent people we have.

One example is the Flood Forecasting Centre – a partnership between the Met Office and the Environment Agency – that now provides world class service to the UK. The Natural Hazard Partnership and Environmental Science to Services Partnership are similar.

Civil Service World offers real help in promoting the civil service’s successes and achievements and plays an important role in sharing news, ideas and insight to keep civil servants up to date with what others are thinking.”


Permanent Secretaries' Round-Up Awards

Every Christmas, CSW publishes Q&As with a set of top officials – including a daft seasonal question. Looking through the last three years’ Round-Ups, we’ve picked out the permanent secretaries’ most entertaining answers...

2009: Dame Gill Morgan, permanent secretary, Welsh Assembly Government
What is your favourite national, local, or family Christmas tradition?
“Dressing my son as a Christmas tree. It started when he was 18 months old, and he is now 22. I have the photos! He regards it as evidence that his mother is not quite normal, but tolerates it – although he draws the line at electric lights.”

2010: Lin Homer, then chief executive, UK Border Agency
What was the best Christmas present that you’ve ever given or received? And the worst?
“My best Christmas present (one I get every year) is Christmas with my family in the snow. We ski in Chamonix, and when they were small my three girls were a little line behind me. Now they’ve all grown into young women I don’t see them for dust; but fresh air, clear blue skies and good company is a great treat. The worst? Early in our marriage, my husband gave me an iron. He learnt quickly!”

2011: Paul Jenkins, HM procurator-general and permanent secretary, Treasury Solicitor’s Office
Which historical, mythological or contemporary figure would you most like to join for Christmas dinner?
“I’ll be in Denmark where we will be joined by Nisse, the elf, who is kind and helpful all year round but who causes great mischief at Christmas unless plied with rice pudding with a pat of butter on top – sounds a bit like me!”

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