Plan, record meetings and never overpromise: Lessons from a career in government finance

Former senior civil servant shares ideas, tips and strategies that can help you overcome the obstacles you may face in finance
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By CSW staff

13 Apr 2023

This article was written by a former senior civil servant who worked in finance

A long time ago, I picked up a newspaper on Boxing Day to discover it brimming with reaction pieces from organisations whose grants or contracts had been cut by incoming ministers. My mother said she didn’t know I could swear so much.  

We had warned about a reaction but not a press tsunami.  

I returned from Christmas to deal with the fallout from the finance perspective. My policy colleague and I were summoned to the highest level. My heart sank as the lift rose.

The systems were set up to provide the aggregate information needed. They did not – then – easily provide the detail on each recipient of every contract and grant.

I was asked to provide ministers with an accurate list of the grants and contracts we awarded and to whom, ready for public announcement. The deadline? Within six days, including a weekend.

To do so meant a major manual exercise, pulling staff off priority work. And because it was a manual exercise, there was a racing certainty there would be errors if we did this at speed.

We knew everything in the public domain would be trawled over in minute detail. The media would not be forgiving of errors, nor would those whose money we had got wrong. I could imagine weeks of unhappiness ahead, with reputations damaged.

In the meeting, my truthful description of what we could do sounded inadequate. I offered an 85 per cent complete exercise by the six-day deadline, with some errors; or a 95 per cent complete list a week later, but still error prone.

The minister indicated they wanted 100 per cent accuracy, by Tuesday.

I said we would try, but I needed to warn about incompleteness and inaccuracy. I feared I was coming over as a jobsworth and obstructive.

At this point, I take my hat off to our special advisers. They believed this was risky and were concerned about reputational damage. They joined the discussion and suggested another way without the need to go public. I remain eternally grateful to them.

I left the meeting, satisfied the risks were understood. I sent an email afterwards recording the decision and risks.

What are the lessons to be learnt?

If the amounts of grants etc are to be adjusted, those who gain will make little comment but those whose money is cut will complain – loudly. Have a plan. We did but we needed to amend it.

Never overpromise.

Have the courage of your convictions: your duty is to provide professional advice. It is ministers’ prerogative to decide, having taken account of the risks.

Record the decision and discussion. As greater folk than I have said: recollections may vary. It is important to establish an audit trail. And remember, ‘no decision’ is also a decision of sorts and should be noted.

If it’s going to be tricky, talk to the special advisers and private office in advance. They may be able to warn the powers that be.

Show your gratitude to those of your staff who have pulled out all the stops to get the information to you.

Ensure, as my department now has, the systems produce what you need. It’s always a balance, a cost-benefit exercise. But people, especially those from the private sector, expect high quality, consistent information.

This article first appeared in our CSW spring magazine issue, which you can read here. In the magazine, the SCS was anonymised as Anne.

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