By Jess Bowie

29 Sep 2015

The former top official at the Department for Work and Pensions shares his Whitehall reflections with CSW editor Jess Bowie

Who? A career civil servant, Sir Leigh Lewis joined the then Department of Employment in 1973, and rose to become permanent secretary of the Department of Work and Pensions in 2005. He retired from the civil service in 2010 and is now chair of Drinkaware and vice-chair of St Mungo’s Broadway.

The restaurant
Shepherd’s of Westminster: Nestled in the heart of SW1, this stylish restaurant – once owned by Michael Caine – offers classic British dishes with a modern twist and an emphasis on UK-sourced ingredients.

The menu
Starter: Crispy organic duck egg x 2
Main: Shepherd’s pie; Chargrilled artichokes with borlotti beans
We drank: Tap water

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We discussed
The perm sec/secretary of state relationship
All relationships matter in a huge government department, but the one that matters almost more than any other is the relationship between the permanent secretary and the secretary of state. If that works well, the department tends to be both an effective place and also a reasonably happy place.

That doesn’t mean it has to be a love-in. Indeed, it shouldn’t be, because there are different roles and different responsibilities. But it’s got to be based on mutual trust, and a recognition of each other’s experience and abilities. I was very fortunate: in my five and half years as the perm sec at DWP, I had five secretaries of state – no less – and I can honestly say I had good, strong relationships with them all. I even wrote a book with one of them! [How To Be A Minister, by Leigh Lewis and John Hutton, was published in 2014]

“Complete bastard” ministers 
The “complete bastard” category of minister, vs. the “reasonable man or woman” category, was a distinction John and I included in our book, but it was a sort of ironic inclusion, designed for maximum effect. But in my experience they [“bastards”] were few and far between: I’d say it was about 90:10 in favour of the reasonable man or woman minister. The intriguing thing was they tended to get vastly less back in terms of productive, supportive assistance and work from their officials. This is because civil servants are like anyone else: if they think they’re going to get bawled out every time they open their mouths, the inevitable reaction is – if you possibly can – say nothing. Because saying nothing is the safer course of action.  

As a minister, you don’t need to be on overly familiar terms with your officials, you don’t need to go in for indulgent and lavish praise. You just need to be professional and courteous, and it takes you a terribly long away. The ministers – and again, they were the great majority, and irrespective of party – who worked that out tended to do vastly better than the few who didn’t.

The media
None of us would want to live for one microsecond in a country which didn’t have a free press, so you just have to accept that with a free press goes some disadvantages as well as some huge advantages. But it can be very frustrating when you know the truth of something to then read a completely garbled or inaccurate account of events in a newspaper. I’ve never been a shouter or a table-thumper, and life is too short to become deeply irritated every time you read something inaccurate about your department.

That said, if you want an example of where even my then secretary of state used to say “Leigh, calm down” it was when – during the recession of 2009/10 – newspapers were forever writing about people “waiting for hours in the dole queue”. We absolutely did not have dole queues! Amazingly, due to the quite remarkable efforts of thousands and thousands of people, we handled that workload incredibly well. The numbers claiming did go up sharply in a very short period of time, but we didn’t have people queuing round the block and we didn’t have great delays in payments.

But the media just loved the image of the huge dole queues – they wanted it to be true. And they always managed to find an archive photo. Newspapers tend to have very good photo libraries, so if they have a dole queue picture from circa 1964, well, why not trot that out again? 

Attracting outsiders into Whitehall
I think that the civil service, in the nearly 40 years I was part of it, was a seriously improving organisation: it’s become far more professional, effective, customer friendly and focused on outcomes. I slightly worry, however, that some of the more recent trends have been less helpful. Of course, there’s always the terrible temptation at this stage in your life to say “it was all better in my day”, but I do think that over the last four to five years, we have made the civil service as an employer less attractive to very able people from outside. By the end of my time as perm sec at DWP, my top team had five people who’d come up through the civil service ranks and five who’d come in from outside – including from a local authority and a major advertising agency. Undoubtedly, the department was better for that mixture of skills and experience. 

My concerns that Whitehall is now less appealing aren’t just based on my own perceptions: with my other hats on I still have contacts with recruitment agencies and so on, and I’ve been told on a number of occasions that it’s become harder to get very able people from outside to consider roles in government.

It’s partly to do with pay. In the civil service we will never – and nor should we – pay some of the levels typically paid in the private sector. But we do have to pay sufficiently to be taken seriously by serious people. I worry that some of the recent trends have gone in the wrong direction in that respect. 

It’s also about value and risk. Those who are considering coming into a serious career in the civil service will make a calculation and ask themselves: “What are the potential advantages, what are the potential risks?” People need to feel that they’re going to be valued for what they do, and some of the notes which the trumpet has blown over the last five years have been confused in that respect: not everything has reflected civil servants and public servants feeling valued.

[On whether he is talking about politicians] I mean politicians, but not exclusively politicians. The media has its role and responsibilities here, too.

Working cross-departmentally 
It’s hard with our structure of government. Ministers and officials don’t automatically spend a huge part of their day thinking about somebody else’s problems – they have enough of their own.  

When I saw cross-departmental working succeed, it tended to be because there was a clear commitment from the top for it to happen.

An example I look back on with some affection is from my Jobcentre Plus days. We had then – as now – a problem of very high reoffending rates among people coming out of prison. One reason for this is because it’s not easy for someone who has just served a prison term to instantly get a job in the legitimate economy. I had got to know the then head of the Prison Service, Martin Narey, and we had the madcap idea of making advice from Jobcentre advisers available to prisoners who were coming towards the end of their custodial sentences, so it wouldn’t be the case that the first time anyone tried to help them find a job was on the day they were released from prison. Another thought we had was to install into prisons some of those automatic job points that you found in Jobcentres.

As you can imagine, our two organisations came up with any number of reasons why this was somewhere between impossible and a great deal worse than that. The concerns…it was a long list. What made it work, and it had some remarkably good results, was simply that Martin and I kept saying: “We completely understand all these difficulties, but let’s just do it.”

The best thing about being a senior civil servant
It’s so easy to answer a question like that in soundbites, but I think if you’re very lucky, you have a chance to make things better for ordinary people. I am still naive or optimistic enough to believe that actually what we’re trying to do in government in this country is to make life better for everyone. Sometimes government really does give you the opportunity to do that and I think when you can do that, it’s a very satisfying thing.

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