By Geoffrey Lyons

16 Mar 2020

As the UK’s largest provider of broadband, mobile, and fixed-line services, BT sees itself as an institution and a company combined. Director of government relations Simon Godfrey sits down with Geoffrey Lyons to discuss the global telecoms giant’s role in the UK economy and why the public and private sectors ought to work more closely together


It doesn’t take much for Simon Godfrey to work the room. The gregarious self-described “government futurist” can usually be spotted at civil service receptions with a small and eager audience. “I enjoy the company and I really enjoy the conversations,” he says. And challenging conversations at that. Among Godfrey’s favourite topics – reserved for the most willing interlocutors – are economics, technology, philosophy, and “the future of mankind.” That, or American football. “I absolutely adore the sport,” he says. “I watch the Super Bowl religiously with my son every year.”

Godfrey joined BT in 2017 with over two decades of government affairs work under his belt. He says the telecoms giant really stood apart for its “family philosophy,” something that over twenty years earlier had drawn him to Fujitsu’s forerunner, International Computers Limited (ICL). “At BT, just like at ICL, it’s about more than just the paycheck,” he says. “It’s about trying to do the best you possibly can for your customers.” He says what makes BT unique is not just its history – dating back to 1846, it’s the world’s oldest communications company – but also its workforce. “Everyone means well and tries to put the customer front and centre,” he says. “There’s so much talent around BT.”

“At BT it’s about more than just the paycheck. It’s about trying to do the best you possibly can for your customers.”

But it’s talent that, according to Godfrey, needs a bit of guidance to understand the complexity, diversity and direction of the public sector. And that’s precisely where he comes in: as the “go-to sector expert”, Godfrey works tirelessly to align BT’s core objectives with government policy. One way he’s doing this is by cultivating relationships with senior public sector officials, whom he meets with regularly. “I’m close with many senior officials and try to take a genuine interest in their priorities, motivation and challenges. I’m genuinely interested in helping and using BT’s considerable clout to make a difference and go beyond expectations.”

Straddling the private and public sectors, Godfrey thinks ties between the two have come a long way but that there’s still room for improvement. He says that on a practical level, policy changes aren’t always congruent with aspirations from senior leadership – that there’s a disconnect between what’s talked about at the top and what occurs on the frontline. He says procurement is a case in point. “The talk [in procurement] is about partnerships - you know, ‘we're in this together’ - and yet the models that are being used don't always reflect the ambition of the senior management.” He says a lot more work can be done to achieve a more efficient relationship between government and its suppliers, “and not just with BT, of course.” Areas such as risk, rewards, and fairer T&Cs for all need a rethink and a new conversation.

To Godfrey, the solution to these problems is simple: public and private sector leaders need to interact more. He says techUK, where he’s a member of the public sector board, is his “go to” simply because it’s one of the few places where one can witness exemplary synergy between the two sectors. “If we don’t collaborate for better outcomes, then we’re frankly not doing our jobs,” he says.

But there needs to be more clarity on what those outcomes are, Godfrey says. “The question is ‘what does value really mean?’ and I think that’s still out for discussion,” he says. “We need to come closer to an agreed format of what value actually looks like. It’s not cost and price – it's a whole series of things. I certainly understand that it means different things for different people and different sectors, but I also think that if we continue a transaction-based relationship – and I'm still seeing evidence of that to this day – then, if I’m honest, I don’t think we are doing the best that we can for the country.”

As the UK’s largest provider of broadband and mobile services – returning £22.8bn (Gross Value Added) to the economy and employing nearly 100,000 people – BT tends to view itself more as a national institution than a company, serving not just customers and shareholders but the larger UK citizenry. Philip Jansen, BT’s CEO for just over a year now, has been driving the point home that the company’s mission is so much more than just growth. “Philip’s view is that we do what’s right for the country, and he’s very clear on that,” Godfrey says. “The envelope for BT stretches well beyond the norm to include the obligation to be an integral part of the UK success story.”

“The envelope for BT stretches well beyond the norm to include the obligation to be an integral part of the UK success story.”

But Godfrey is quick to point out that there’s a paradigm shift coming in the way that government and business work together. The old days of price being the key arbiter of a fair deal are slowly being replaced with a more holistic view. “Businesses should add value to the people and the areas they serve,” he says. Core to this is the work BT is doing around the Social Value Act – which calls for public sector commissioning to account for environmental, social, and economic well-being – the upskilling 10 million people in ICT skills, an aggressive commitment in improving supply chains, and its own carbon-neutral targets, which are some five years in advance of government’s. All in all, Godfrey believes BT’s value far exceeds the sum of its parts, and that a business who’s focused on its obligations to the country in which it’s domiciled really matters.

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As CSW goes to press, the BT rock band Change Bandits has been diligently rehearsing for the upcoming charity concert performed alongside Cabinet Office counterparts. One would think Godfrey has his hands full rehearsing and performing as the band’s guitarist, especially since he and his bandmates have taken things seriously enough to win the company’s annual Battle of the Bands contest. But Godfrey also composes his own music, writes poetry, and has ambitions to write a play, “I have a lot of passion for my work,” he says with a laugh. “Perhaps that’s why BT hired me!”

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