By Joshua.Chambers

11 Jul 2012

In an increasingly open society, even MI6 has to change the way it operates – and at Civil Service Live, the Secret Intelligence Service’s head Sir John Sawers made a rare public appearance. Joshua Chambers reports

“Every day, I have coming across my desk reports of groups around the world wanting to blow up our citizens; wanting to attack this country; wanting to work with others to go against our interests overseas and to attack our partners,” the head of MI6, Sir John Sawers, told a session at Civil Service Live last week.

The issues he deals with are often matters of life and death – both for the citizens of this country, and for the agents he deploys in the field. Yet there are lessons for all civil servants from the work of MI6 (otherwise known as SIS), Sawers thinks, and he wants to share his thoughts on leadership in the public sector.

In previous years, it would have been unheard-of for the head of MI6 – known within his organisation as ‘C’ – to give a public address. Yet Sawers recognises that Britain is becoming more open, and knows that as a leader he must adapt so that his organisation remains relevant within government and trusted outside it.

The international picture
International terrorism is one of the many threats to the UK that MI6 must deal with on a daily basis. Another troubling international issue is that of Iran’s drive to build nuclear weapons – a challenge that Sawers has dealt with numerous times during his career.

“The Iranians are determinedly going down a path to master all aspects of nuclear weapons; all the technologies they need. It’s equally clear that Israel and the United States would face huge dangers if Iran were to become a nuclear weapon state,” Sawers said. MI6 must therefore “delay that awful moment when the politicians may have to take a decision between accepting a nuclear-armed Iran or launching a military strike against Iran.” After all, when that moment comes, says Sawers, “I think it will be very tough for any prime minister of Israel or president of the United States to accept a nuclear-armed Iran.”

Iranian nuclear development has been significantly delayed by the international community: in 2003, Iran was believed to be five years away from having the bomb; but nearly a decade later, they’re still thought to have two years to go. However, Sawers warned that it’s not clear how much longer Iran can be delayed.

While the international community has enforced a set of economic and military sanctions against Iran, MI6 has “run a series of operations to ensure that the sanctions introduced internationally are implemented, and that we do everything we can within the Middle East to slow down these remaining problems,” Sawers said. “I take great pride in the fact that, in the last ten years over a number of jobs, I’ve been involved in an issue of global concern, and I feel that I as an individual [have made] an impact in the outcome of events.”

Sawers, unclassified
Sawers became head of MI6 in 2009, having previously been the UK’s representative on the UN Security Council. Both jobs have entailed tackling Iranian nuclear proliferation, as have other posts he has held in Downing Street and the Foreign Office.

He was candid at CSL in detailing his earlier life: he’d never expected to be dealing with international politics at all, he recalled, let alone running an intelligence agency. He studied physics at university, then joined the Foreign Office – but he was “too young” for a “serious job”, he said. He dropped out, and at the age of 25 he was working in a bar.

He then rejoined the FCO, however, spending some time in MI6 before moving through a number of prestigious international diplomatic roles. He’s clear that, whatever public sector organisation people work for, they need to stick to their public service ethos.

Values are particularly important in organisations that can’t always take decisions using as much information as they would like, he noted. “When you don’t have enough information, you rely upon your values; your integrity; the value of making a difference; the value of being firmly within the law.” Stressing MI6’s values publicly, he thinks, gives the organisation greater operational space. “It gives us our freedom to do what we do as professionals, because if you have a bad reputation then you start miles off the pace; you start behind the starting line.”

Internal wrongdoing
There are allegations that MI6 lost hold of some of its values during the last decade, though, and there is now a judicial probe – the Gibson Inquiry – into charges that the organisation colluded in torture.

On that point, Sawers said that “I see it as important for me to address the genuine challenges about the legality of the work we were doing immediately after 9/11. Countries were facing a huge new threat, and all our people were out there trying to deal with that, but were they as well-prepared as they should have been?” MI6 has pledged to cooperate with the Gibson Inquiry, and separately “there are one or two chilling cases involved in a criminal investigation. We have to front up and say: ‘Yeah, okay, the police think this is sufficiently serious for them to investigate it’.”

MI6’s reputation has also struggled in recent months after one of its operatives, Gareth Williams, died in suspicious circumstances. Williams was a GCHQ operative seconded to MI6, and disappeared just before he was due to return to Cheltenham. Yet nobody noticed that he was missing for a week; and when his absence was finally spotted, managers first launched an internal organisation before eventually calling the police.

Sawers responded to a question about this, saying: “We have to admit our weaknesses in SIS, and one of the first things you have to do when a management failure [occurs] is face up to that, not give a series of explanatory reasons. There is always an explanation!”

Sawers added that “sometimes there’s an attitude – and I find it in parts of my service – where management is seen as something for your spare time, not the day job. The day job is operations, or delivering intelligence, or whatever it is. But actually, I tell people: ‘Management is the core of your job, and you can deliver a whole lot more through other people than you can through yourself on your own’.” Therefore, Sawers has instructed his managers to spend 20 to 25 per cent of their day managing others, giving feedback, helping people prepare, responding to concerns in a timely way, and being accessible.

Ultimately, Sawers believes, “management is a skill that people still don’t treasure enough in the public service.” After all, he says, “you can achieve a whole lot more by being a good manager than you can if you’re an indifferent manager.” And for Sawers, part of being a good manager involves rebuilding the reputation of MI6 – both as an employer of people, and as a responsible part of the UK’s intelligence community.

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