By Civil Service World

18 Aug 2015

Four former members of the Number 10 staff recall the highs and lows of their time at the centre of government

James O’Shaughnessy was David Cameron’s director of policy between 2010 and 2011, where he was responsible for co-authoring the Coalition’s programme for government. He is now chief policy adviser at Portland Communications 

How did you come to work in Downing Street? 
I was part of David Cameron’s team in opposition, and so transitioned over when we – I hesitate to say won the election – but when the Conservatives formed the government. 

What was the most satisfying aspect of the role?
For me, coalition was a novel experience. And the process – particularly at the beginning – of bringing the two manifestos together and turning that into a single programme for government was very challenging, but incredibly satisfying.  

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What was your proudest achievement working in Downing Street? 
In general, creating the programme for government, which I think will stand the test of time. The government achieved a lot on the back of it. A more specific thing is school reform. I spent the best part of ten years working on school reforms, from my first job as a junior researcher in the Conservative Research Department, through to becoming director of policy in Number 10. Seeing great swathes of it being carried out – which I obviously only played a small role in – is immensely satisfying. 

What was the least satisfying aspect? 
I was lucky because I was there in probably the best, most productive period of the government. But I suppose what really shocked me, having never worked in government, was just how long everything takes and how many people are involved. If you’re in opposition, you don’t really control anything, but you control what you say. And going from conception through to commitment, as it were, is a very short process involving a small number of people. Whereas it is, in a way, shocking just how slow and cumbersome government is. 

How difficult was that transition from party to government? 
The jobs weren’t so different. Obviously you go from having responsibility just for the policy framework to responsibility for actual implementation and responsibility for things that actually happen, rather than things you say will happen. So the pressure and responsibility ratchets up.  

Why did you leave?
I left because I wanted to. Having spent ten years working on school reform and helping to create a school system which encouraged people to come from non-educational backgrounds and try and innovate and improve what goes on in schools, I thought it was time to walk the walk. So that’s what I’m doing. As well as working for Portland I’ve set up a charity, which is beginning to open primary free schools and academies.

I’m trying to do what I’ve been encouraging others to do for a long time. 

What advice would you have for those working in Downing Street now? 
I think two pieces of advice; one, be relentless. Government rewards relentlessness, so just keep going, and keep going till everyone’s bored of what you’re trying to do and just agrees to it, basically. It’s very hard, and there’s a lot of people involved in making a decision, so you have to persevere. 

The second thing is, always be guided by what motivates you, what you care about. Don’t just do things because they seem right politically or tactically. If you have that wonderful opportunity to actually influence what happens in a government’s policy agenda, make sure you’re doing what you believe to be right. 

Sir Michael Barber led Tony Blair’s Delivery Unit (PMDU) from 2001 to 2005. He is now Pearson’s Chief Education Adviser 

How did you come to work there?
After the 2001 election Tony Blair invited me to set up and lead a new Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit (PMDU), to focus exclusively on ensuring the implementation of the PM’s domestic policy priorities. He had seen the progress we had made on education in the previous parliament, and wanted the discipline of delivery we had shown there to be brought to bear across his priorities.

What was most satisfying?
The PMDU was an innovation not just in British government but globally – and it worked! During that parliament crime fell, health outcomes improved, NHS waiting times fell, school performance improved and even the trains became more reliable! I also loved being part of a great team dedicated to the PM, all pulling together during some tough times, especially before, during and after 9/11 and the Iraq War.

What was least satisfying?
Seeing genuine achievement across the public services trashed by the media, who preferred to listen to the voices of a handful of cynics, was frustrating. But that’s the way of the world; in fact, I loved every minute of being there.

Why did you leave?

By the time of the 2005 election, I had spent eight years working in and around Whitehall and saw the potential of what I had learnt to influence other governments around the world to improve government and the public sector.

What advice would have for those who are there now?
Humility – remember every day what a privilege it is to serve the country by walking through that famous front door.

How could it be improved?
In the end, the prime minister sets the tone and the key is for him (or her) to build a great and collaborative team with a clear mission. Then, no matter what happens – and a lot always does – it will be a marvellous place to be! The “police officer test” works; ask those at the front door about the atmosphere and you can tell whether there is a cohesive team in there!  

Dan Corry was Head of the Number 10 Policy Unit and senior adviser to Gordon Brown on the economy from 2007 to 2010. He is now chief executive of New Philanthropy Capital

How did you come to work in Number 10?
I had been chair of the Council of Economic Advisers at Treasury and became head of the Policy Unit and senior economic adviser at Number 10 when Gordon Brown became prime minister. I am an economist by profession, and worked as a civil servant in Employment and Treasury in the 1980s, at the IPPR think tank in the 1990s, and for various Labour ministers for much of 1997-2010.

What was the most satisfying aspect of the role?
Being in a position to be able to try to make a difference to the social and economic well-being of the country, especially to those most in need. I think the steps we took to minimise the effects of the world financial meltdown on families and businesses was a job well done, given the circumstances. I also enjoyed working with a terrific set of people in the Policy Unit and the wider Number 10 – civil servants and political appointees alike. 

What was the least satisfying?
Seeing much less of the prime minister than I had of secretaries of state when I was a special adviser in departments. This made it harder always to know the prime minister’s mind and to move agendas on. It’s also impossible to achieve as much as one wants – and the constant 24/7 feel of the agenda made time for thinking very rare. The work-life balance left something to be desired too.

Why did you leave?
Labour lost the election in 2010. After a period at FTI Consulting, I am now chief executive of charity think tank and consultancy New Philanthropy Capital, trying to use my knowledge and experience to help make the social sector more effective in helping beneficiaries.

What would your advice be to people working there now?

Keep focused or you will drown. Pay attention to detail, but keep an eye on the overall narrative of the government – if Number 10 is not worrying about this nobody else will. And enjoy working in the place – it is an honour and won’t last forever.

Can you suggest how it should be improved?
There should probably be more support in terms of civil servants. Cabinet Office can be very helpful, but compared to working in a department as a special adviser, official support is pretty thin in Downing Street. The rooms (and bathrooms) upstairs where the Policy Unit worked could also do with a bit of modernisation! 


Viscount Monckton worked in Margaret Thatcher’s Policy Unit between 1982 and 1986 

How did you come to work in Number 10? 
Sir John Hoskyns, the first head of Margaret Thatcher’s Policy Unit, asked me to join in 1980. Nervousness at letting loose a Catholic in Number 10 delayed my appointment for two years. I ended up praying weekly at Downing Street with the evangelical Protestants who had wanted me excluded. Our common enemy was the drab, atheistic humanism of a classe politique that today cheerlessly petitions our unelected masters in the European tyranny-by-clerk for the power to ban the wearing of crucifixes at work. I wear one daily. 

What was the most satisfying aspect of the role? 
It was a delight to work for a prime minister who was fascinated by ideas and – quite contrary to her carefully-nurtured reputation for steely inflexibility – was always willing to change even a long-held political opinion when confronted with hard evidence that it was untenable. The Downing Street wonk has one real power: to stop costly nonsense before it happens. If I had still been there at the time of the Maastricht Treaty, I should have tried to prevent the handover of our law-making from elected hands here to unelected hands elsewhere. I was born in a democracy; I do not live in one; but I intend to die in one. 

What was the least satisfying? 
I was saddened by the myopic disloyalty of those of the prime minister’s colleagues who eventually cast down one of modern history’s greatest leaders because the towering generosity of her global vision of universal liberty overshadowed their Pooterish little-Europeanism. Events have shown that she was right on all counts: but there is nothing more fatal to a political career than to be right when everyone else is wrong. 

Why did you leave? 
The normal stint at Number 10 was two years. I enjoyed four. I wish it had been eight. 

What would your advice to be to people working there now? 
The Dalai Lama once wrote: “In love, as in cooking, be bold.” Likewise for policymaking: you cannot do the unthinkable unless you think it first. But remember Canute’s warning: if even the divinely-anointed King could not stop sea-level rise, still less can you. You are the people’s servant, not they yours. It is the people’s money, not yours, so count the beans, for nobody else will. Fashion, in politics as in dress, is as costly as it is pointless. Be merry: policymaking should be accompanied by the popping of champagne-corks. Above all, let every policy be formed and informed by the precept of precepts from the king of kings: love is all you need. 


This article first appeared in The House magazine's Guide to Number 10

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