'I've worked on some of the most important social issues facing the UK': reflections of a profession-hopping civil servant

A huge diversity of people and roles make up the modern civil service. Gillian Smith works in HMRC's’ Cross-Service People and Organisation Squad on accelerated service transformation, helping to build more effective services for the public

By Civil Service World

02 Aug 2022

Gillian Smith, deputy director of people and culture,HMRC, Croydon

When and why did you join the civil service?

I joined the Home Office as an executive officer in 1983, and like many civil servants I had little idea what my career had in store for me. Indeed, I had wanted to teach, but my parents really needed me to start contributing a wage to the household. They objected to me going to university, and although I stubbornly went off to Lancaster University to study French, linguistics and education, I returned some 10 weeks later, unable to afford to eat and luckily returned to my summer job in Sainsbury’s. My neighbour worked at the Ministry of Defence and told me “you could do a lot worse than apply for the civil service”, so with nothing to lose and a lot more to gain than I realised, I applied through the Commission appointments route.

How did you end up in your current role?

I have worked in five civil service professions – starting in operational delivery, then moving frequently between operations and policy, before stints in finance, project management and HR. Being adaptable and keen to learn, including gaining professional qualifications in different fields and completing an MBA while working full-time with a young child, has been key to my continuous growth. I also took risks on roles that looked too difficult and learned from others around me. Working in different departments and undertaking cross-CS roles has also helped to keep me motivated and engaged.

What do you do and how does it help citizens?  

I am part of a multi-disciplinary team working to deliver more customer-centric, agile and efficient operations in HMRC. As we transform services, it will be easier for taxpayers to pay the right tax and receive the right benefits. In my previous role, I led work on equality, diversity and inclusion for HMRC, ensuring that our workforce is representative, respectful and inclusive. Getting this right for colleagues is key to providing better services for our diverse range of customers, and we of course have commitments to this effect in our Public Sector Duty Equality Objectives.

What has been the most interesting thing you’ve done in the civil service so far?

This is quite a difficult one to answer – there have been so many opportunities. Highlights include: getting out to communities to meet with asylum seekers and local residents to better to design system improvements; meeting with offenders in prisons to contribute to planning of prison building; working with civil servants from other countries on common problems and learning from each other; supporting young people in understanding graduate and apprenticeship opportunities and diversifying hires into the civil service; directly supporting ministers when introducing new legislation; coaching and mentoring colleagues to support under-represented talent to flourish; and working in the charity sector on secondment to advance opportunities for young people to engage in social action for the wider benefit of our communities.

What is the best thing about the civil service? And what element would you most like to change?

It’s been a real privilege to work on some of the most important social and societal issues facing the UK in the last four decades. I’ve genuinely felt able to influence and shape improvements for citizens and for fellow civil servants. The range of work I have been able to do and the learning and growth opportunities this has given me have been excellent. My colleagues do fantastic work, but the image of the tea-drinking and undynamic civil servant still persists and I really wish we could change this.

This profile is part of a series looking at the huge diversity of people and roles that make up the modern civil service. Read more here

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