Did your views of the civil service change during your time in office?
I have had two experiences in working with the civil service, having served as minister in the Department of Social Security between 1992-97 as well as with the FCO from 2010-13. In each case I believed I was extremely well served in departments which, although very different in content, contained extended periods of acute pressure – the Child Support Agency’s launch and initial reform at the DSS and of course the Arab Spring and fall out at the FCO. I entered and left believing strongly in the value of an independent, public service based civil service. I did not come into office with any preconceived ideas about the civil service; I was neither overly suspicious, nor prepared to accept everything offered up without question – occasionally people try things on! That seems to me still to be about the right balance.
What challenges did you face in working with civil servants?
I have a natural collegiate sense, and saw most of the tasks I was engaged in as a collective endeavour both to address immediate problems, and also, at the FCO, to build and maintain the relationships crucial to the UK’s interests. So I never felt any particular challenges in dealing with my colleagues. All of us vary in style and personality, and I think ministers need to have a feel for this as much as civil servants need to understand how individual and different ministers are. I had enough to do without worrying unduly about the nature of challenging civil servants!
If you were Cabinet Office minister, how would you change the civil service?
I might want to look hard at rotation issues. I worried that in some cases expertise was lost when people moved on. I would also be interested in career progression, and whether we make the best of all the talent that comes through the doors. And while outside experience can be helpful, necessary for challenge, and essential as available expertise in a modern state, I would want to ensure a strong core of politically independent civil servants to be at the heart of UK administration.
Can you tell us a story that reveals something about the civil service?
My private secretary Russ Dixon managed my private office throughout the Arab Spring crises, which necessitated incredibly long hours as we got UK citizens safely out of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. He lived in Kent, and had a two hour commute each way. He was uncomplaining throughout, and I probably never knew just how much sleep he was losing. That’s commitment. And that was my experience from great people.