Dave Penman: Civil servants must not fear they will be sacrificed, undermined and discarded – that’s no way to run a government

"If those who you routinely ask to go that extra mile, feel that at a moment’s notice they will be sacrificed, undermined, briefed against and discarded, then you will not attract the best people and you will not get the most out of them"
The Department for Education

By Dave Penman

27 Aug 2020

A few days walking in Scotland can really help clear the mind. Your arms are like pin cushions from the midge bites, but the soul gets a full recharge. Just as well, because as I was driving back yesterday news broke of the “departure” of Jonathan Slater, permanent secretary at the Department for Education. This followed a similar exit the day before of the Ofqual chief executive, Sally Collier. I’m pretty sure one of the Hard Rain Man’s algorithms is linked to my Outlook calendar because these things always seem to happen when I’m on leave. 

As my phone rang off the hook and the combined forces of FDA’s crack comms team fielded multiple calls, as is often the case, my previously unencumbered mind found itself pondering football metaphors for the unfolding events. I landed on Boris Johnson as Roman Abramovich in this scenario. I’m not talking about the dodgy Russian money connections; it’s the turnover of managers that seals the deal for me.  

Events, as the dear boy was told, happen, so government can always find itself in a storm and people can leave. It used to happen to ministers, though those days are clearly long gone. Permanent secretaries, like any senior leader, sometimes fall on their sword. In any leadership position, when things go wrong, even if you’re not directly to blame, you sometimes carry the can. Everyone taking on a senior leadership role, whether it’s in the public or private sector, understands this. 

Government is a complex business, as are the issues it tries to address and, save for few truly global companies, it doesn’t get much bigger. When things go wrong, there are usually a myriad of reasons why – some organisational, some policy and some beyond the control of governments even. Sometimes, once the problems have been explored and analysed, it’s not that there’s a smoking gun against one individual, it’s just that taken as a whole, the senior leader has to accept the blame for the organisation’s failure. In a governmental context, this is even more complicated. Where does accountability lie between those who advise ministers and the decisions those ministers take? Was it bad advice or a bad decision? 

Sober reflection, honesty and a candid analysis of the problems are required because, as any senior leader will tell you, mistakes are often where the best learning comes from. If you have the long-term interests of the organisation at heart, the lessons learned are invaluable and so need to be understood. Critically, the people who make up the organisation need to take ownership of those issues to ensure that not only does it not happen again but broader learning points can be used to improve performance elsewhere. That might sound a bit warm and fuzzy but, again, successful leaders in both the private and public sector will stress how valuable this process is. In the end, mistakes are always made, it’s how you deal with them that counts. 

"Slater went through a combination of the instinct to throw red meat at a baying audience of commentators and backbenchers, the desire to avoid at all costs a political resignation – and that he was probably on the 'shit list' anyway"

Except of course, that’s not what we’re dealing with here. There was no sober reflection, there was no critical analysis. Jonathan Slater went through a combination of the instinct to throw red meat at a baying audience of commentators and backbenchers, the desire to avoid at all costs a political resignation – which now appears to be a matter of principle for this PM – and of course, that he was probably on the “shit list” anyway. His qualification for entry to that list is likely to be a combination of things: being part of the infamous education establishment “blob” through some association or indeed just assumption; some general ‘being part of the senior leadership of the civil service during the EU referendum so presumable a paid up member of the remainer establishment that is soo out of touch’; and then of course, he’s just not part of team BoDom, so not quite with the programme. Perm any two from three, as they say. 

As we’ve seen, that’s no way to run a football team, never mind a government. If a government gets relegated, to extend the metaphor, people get hurt. You simply can’t run a successful government like this. Indeed, running it like this is almost the definition of unsuccessful. If those who you routinely ask to go that extra mile, feel that at a moment’s notice they will be sacrificed, undermined, briefed against and discarded, then you will not attract the best people and you will not get the most out of them, which of course is essential to be a successful organisation.  

During an interview yesterday I pleaded with the prime minister to change tack. It was hopefully not as cringeworthy as John McDonnell’s now infamous stare in to the camera on the Andrew Marr show but not far off. I don’t know if the PM reads CSW – I hope he does because it’s a right riveting read and he is, you know, the minister for the civil service – but I hope he hears this message. Because it’s not from me, it’s from the thousands of civil servants who only want to do a good job and make a difference to people’s lives, and who now want the prime minister to treat them with respect, value their professionalism and uphold their impartiality. 

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