By Suzannah Brecknell

12 Apr 2016

The former first civil service commissioner Sir David Normington breaks bread with Suzannah Brecknell, and talks about his time regulating top civil service appointments, his four decades in Whitehall – and his concerns over the government's plan for public appointments

Who? Sir David Normington joined the civil service in 1973 as a graduate trainee in the Department of Employment. He went on to become permanent secretary at the Department for Education and, subsequently, the Home Office. For the past five years he has served as first civil service commissioner and commissioner for public appointments. His term ended on 31 March this year.

The restaurant Osteria Dell’Angolo: Refined Italian dishes in quietly elegant surroundings which are popular with the Westminster crowd – we spotted two senior MPs having lunch with political journalists on the tables around us

The menu Prawns with green beans and orange dressing; Neapolitan sausage with aubergine and spinach; grilled swordfish with rocket, cherry tomatoes and lemon; Sparkling water, cappuccinos

We discussed
Life in Whitehall before the digital revolution
Well, I know you can’t go back but life did seem a little bit more orderly. You knew when you sent something off that you wouldn’t get an immediate reply. There was much less of a sense of that frenetic atmosphere which is created by the instant response, the ability to send a message to a dozen people and all of them respond and copy in everybody else. 

On the other hand, it meant things happened very slowly. We had great big typing pools in those days. If you wanted something typed you had to send it in an envelope to the typing pool which was on the next floor down. It could take 48 hours to come back. You could put a priority sticker on it, but everybody was trying to do that so they had a great pile of priorities. So when you wanted something urgently you went down to the pool, and the task was to be very nice to the superintendent of the typists to persuade them to promote your job into a real priority. 

I don’t want those days to return, it was just crazy really. It did, however, mean you had to have very nice writing: if they couldn’t read your writing they sent your document back full of mistakes and you had to send it back. So it could be three days before something you’d written got back to you.

Being nicknamed ‘the smiling assassin’
I’m fine being associated with a smile, I’m not really fine with being associated with an assassin. This is all about a period in the Department for Education when we were required – I didn’t volunteer, despite what people thought – to cut the size of our department by a third. We were called into Number 10 by Tony Blair and told to draw up a plan for reducing the size of our head offices. As a good civil servant you have to get on and do that. That’s where the assassin bit came from. If it means there’s a bit of steel behind the smile I’m fine about it but I try not to kill people off, even metaphorically. 

The disconnect between policymaking and implementation
I don’t think it’s necessarily got worse just recently, but if you take it over a longer period, it’s definitely got worse. Let me qualify: 40 years ago the civil service in Whitehall weren’t particularly in touch with ordinary people and I think possibly that’s better now, but if you’re talking about the policymaking process I think there is a sense of urgency about it now.

There are brownie points for both ministers and civil servants for being very active, for taking a grip, for getting things done, for driving things forward. That’s great, but policy has to be made practically implementable. If the people on the receiving end of this have had no involvement, don’t understand what’s required, don’t like it, then you will have a problem.

The best thing we did in the Department for Education was we brought in lots of people from the education world to provide us with a reality check. Sometimes of course they provided you with a “We don’t like this”. That doesn’t mean you have to take their advice, but if you decide to go ahead with the policy you need to have that reality check so that you know what you’re up against. 

His proudest moments
The first is when we turned round the Home Office. We had a capability review in 2006 which said we were a disaster and two years later we had zoomed right up the league table. It wasn’t problem free but it was a proud moment for me.

I’m also very proud of my time in DfE, particularly when I was head of schools, when education standards began to increase quite sharply. I look back at what’s been happening since – a lot of that is built on what happened at that time. I’m very, very proud of what happened in London – I think the turnaround of London education is probably the thing that looking back I’m most pleased about.

How he met his wife
She was an administrative trainee – the equivalent of a fast streamer – and we met in 1974 while working on the trade union legislation of that time. We did sometimes talk civil service over the dinner table – not the issues, really, but we talked about people. After all, this was our world.

Socialising with civil servants
My wife and I were in a group of friends, all of them graduate entrants. We used to meet on a Saturday evenings. The reason this started was because I went to an evening class somewhere in Kentish Town called “Cooking in a Bedsit”. I was telling this story to a group of civil servants and they all said, “Right, shall we come to yours next Saturday and you can cook us something?” Then they all had to return the favour, so that’s how it started. We would gather every weekend and show off our cooking skills. I’m glad my turn didn’t come round very often...

Watching ballet [which Normington lists as an interest in Debrett’s]
It’s my wife really who’s the really keen ballet-watcher and we always had this arrangement that if we were going to go out and see something I would book to see theatre shows and she would book to see ballet, so we’ve seen awful lot more ballet than we have theatre over the years. 

Indecisive ministers
One of the ways this manifests itself is that a minister asks for more and more information – I can think of one who just kept asking for information. It became clear that this was a way of putting the decision off. 

I think a number of things happen in those circumstances. One danger is the civil service fills in the gaps and much more decisions are taken or almost taken by the civil service. That’s a bad thing because we don’t live in a system where unelected people take decisions. 

Also you can sense the atmosphere in a department going downhill, it has a dampening effect. It’s noticed by people outside who say he or she’s not very good. Number 10 start saying that and then you find yourself in a situation where the department’s stock is going down because it doesn’t carry any influence. 

Having difficult conversations with ministers
Mostly by the time you get to perm sec positions you are used to having these conversations and as long as you have built a relationship with your minister and they trust you, you ought to be able to close the door and have frank conversation about anything. That’s what you’re always aiming to do as a perm sec. Where you don’t quite get to that situation you feel disempowered because one of the jobs of a perm sec is to provide a bit of extra advice, a bit of extra judgement. If you don’t get that chance because you’re not trusted, then you’re not doing your job.

Building ministerial trust
You have to be on the wavelength of the secretary of state. You have to listen very hard to what it is they want, and really try to get under their skin. One of my secretaries of state was infuriated by those lights that turn off if you don’t move. These particular ones used to turn off in the middle of meetings. She mentioned it about three times and it was obviously a real frustration, so I went off and sorted it out. Not literally, with a screwdriver...I asked the people who ran the building to change the settings. She said to me a bit later on: “What happened to the lights?” I said “Oh, I sorted that.” It’s a jokey example but it’s making sure they know you’re on their side. 

“In its pure form, the EMO model is setting up a whole group of quasi civil servants around the minister, with the civil service separate. And I do worry about that” 

It’s also important to be present at the things that the secretary of state considers important. You may be doing a brilliant bit of work with a group of staff, but if the minister has been having what they consider to be their key meeting of the week and you’re not there, they will notice that. 

Leaving parties
I won’t be having a big one this time – I had a great leaving do when I left the Home Office. The staff clubbed together and commissioned a cartoon for me. I’m a cricket fan, so this depicted me as a batsman, surrounded by a team made up of the home secretaries I had worked with. Charles Clarke was the bowler; John Reid the wicket keeper, David Blunkett the umpire and others were fielders. Theresa May wore kitten heels with her cricket whites – it was beautifully done.

Advice to ambitious civil servants...
You won’t love your work all the time but generally you should enjoy it. But there are some quite ambitious people who seem always to be planning their next move, and I would just say: enjoy the job you’re doing and get maximum satisfaction, because these things don’t come round again. One of the great jobs I had as director general for schools I did for about three and a half years. They were precious years and you look back and think to yourself, “Wow. I wish I’d done that longer because it was so engrossing.” So don’t always spend your time worrying about the next job, enjoy the one you’ve got and see if you can get maximum satisfaction from it. 

...And to civil service leaders
Continuing to stand up for the values of the civil service is not just a slogan, it’s absolutely vital. The values of objectivity, impartiality and honesty are the things that define the British civil service, and as soon as they are lost we won’t have the civil that we have known, grown up with, and admire.

Civil service impartiality
I have tried to stand up for the impartiality of the civil service not just because it was part of my job as first civil service commissioner, but because I deeply believe that it is right. Therefore the issues that have concerned me most have been the ones that appear to have been niggling away at it. One was ministerial choice of permanent secretaries and the other is the creation of Extended Ministerial Offices (EMOs). Neither has developed in a way that causes me concern…yet. You can hardly say from the five examples of EMOs that have been set up that there is a problem – there’s no major change going on. But it’s never the people who introduce it who are the problem in my view, it’s a question of what happens next, and next, and next.

I have tried to stand up for the impartiality of the civil service not just because it was part of my job as first civil service commissioner, but because I deeply believe that it is right.

I think the EMO model has the potential to change very fundamentally how the government works and I think that some of those who proposed it actually intended that it should. In its pure form, it is setting up a whole group of quasi civil servants around the minister, with the civil service separate. And I do worry about that. But there’s a public debate to be had. There are plenty of other countries with those models, they are not disastrous, but I’d rather that happened through a conscious decision rather than us sliding into it.

Giving the prime minister final say in perm sec appointments
I was very influenced by the fact that people wanted this change across the political spectrum. The commission has to live in the real world. We made the change in a way which I think provides quite a lot of protection [to civil service impartiality] and I have no worries about what has happened so far. First of all the prime minister has used these new rules really well. He has continued to apply the test of merit, he has often interviewed the people himself, and has taken the advice of the panel.

Secondly, there has been a pulling back to some degree from opening up perm sec competitions to external applicants. Even where we’ve opened them up we’ve had very weak external fields so very often the prime minister has been choosing between civil servants. Of course my worry is much reduced when that happens because those people have already grown up in the civil service: they know about impartiality; they’ve been through a merit based process.

I still think that down the road you cannot be quite sure what will happen next because all the developments, it seems to me, are in one direction. If you take the long view I think there will be more political influence on the top of the civil service over time. It’s not happening now, though, so I can go away saying I’ve held the ground.

After our lunch, government published the results of the Grimstone review into public appointments. Normington publicly criticised Grimstone’s recommendations, suggesting they could remove the checks and balances which prevent undue ministerial involvement in public appointments. Over email, we asked if he sees these recommendations as part of the same trend towards more political influence on senior appointments. 

He replied: “Public appointments – to the boards of organisations like the Arts Council or the Low Pay Commission – are quite different because ministers have always properly had a bigger say and made the final choice. But, as I step down, I am concerned at proposals which would, if implemented, give ministers much greater control over these types of appointments and weaken the powers of the public appointments commissioner, which is the other role I have held for the last five years. As a result I am much less confident that merit will always be the guiding principle in public appointments if the proposed changes go ahead.”

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