Dame Lesley Strathie was “unusual amongst senior civil servants”, according to her boss and former cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell, “in that she’d worked her way up”.
Strathie joined the civil service after leaving school at 16, initially as an administrative assistant in the Scottish Government’s health department, and she moved to the Unemployment Benefit Service in London in the mid 80s. By the time she left the civil service in 2011, shortly before she died of cancer aged just 56, she was the chief executive and permanent secretary of HM Revenue and Customs. Before that, between 2005 and 2008, she headed up Jobcentre Plus, making her the second perm sec at the Department for Work and Pensions.
Her tenure at the helm of these two massive operational organisations coincided with Gus O’Donnell’s stint as cabinet secretary from 2005 to 2011. He remembers coming across her at a “Top 200” event – made up of civil service perm secs and directors general who now form the Civil Service Leadership Group. “I was very pleased when we had a vacancy at HMRC to give someone with really strong operational experience a big operational job, and it’s such a tragedy that she wasn’t there for longer,” O’Donnell tells Civil Service World.
She was an unusual hire for HMRC, succeeding Dave Hartnett, who’d joined Inland Revenue as a graduate tax inspector, and Paul Gray, a former Treasury economist. “I think she was a bit of shock to them because they’d tended to have someone who was more of an expert on tax policy,” O’Donnell says. “She brought a very clear focus on operation, and that emphasis on the tax gap I think was happening about that time – gaps in what should be collected and what was collected.”
Strathie had a lasting impact on HMRC. She negotiated the 2010 spending review settlement that led to more than £900m being reinvested into tackling tax avoidance, evasion and criminal activity. An HMRC spokesperson told CSW that she was “an outstanding public servant who made an enormous contribution to HMRC, increasing professionalism and driving the department forward as it collected billions for public services”.
She also presided over a period of staff cuts, tax office closures and, consequently, customer complaints – a time when people were increasingly filling in their tax returns online and jobs were disappearing to automation. She certainly didn’t shy away from a challenge, O’Donnell says, pointing out that she led two organisations “where you could guarantee the select committee would always give you difficult times… these are massive departments, these are the big employers in the civil service”. But he adds that what she really brought to the situation was empathy, as someone who had earlier in her career done jobs that were now being done by a computer.
“She was very aware of the human side of that, and very aware that you can’t be a luddite in all of this. The technology, these changes are going to happen, we needed to prepare for them and make sure we treated people fairly.” This involved communication, which was another thing Strathie didn’t shy away from: “One of her great strengths was being very honest and going to talk to people in offices around the country about what the implications of all this were,” O’Donnell says.
The ranks of perm secs
When she took her place at the Wednesday morning colleagues meetings, Strathie “was an influential voice because she was different”, the former cab sec says. “She was a great sort of element of diversity, in its broadest sense, to the ranks of perm secs – she would apply a very different lens to the rest of us who had grown up in the policy space and very rarely had sat opposite someone filling in a form to claim unemployment benefit.”
This made her someone “we all looked up to, because she could do something that none of us were remotely capable of doing – running operations with tens of thousands of people and very direct interaction with customers, and inevitably a number of customers who weren’t happy with the service they got, just as within private sector companies”, O’Donnell says.
This made her very practically minded and customer-focused, he adds, suggesting that Strathie deployed a behavioural insights approach to her work long before it was in vogue. She already viewed the world through the eyes of her customers, and was alert to the real-world implications of changes in policy. “We used to talk a lot about the importance of operational experience but very few of us had it. Lesley was immersed in it,” O’Donnell says.
“There were a lot of people who would chip in on policy or ministers, but she was saying, ‘Well never mind all that, is this going to work in practice? How does it feel from the customer point of view, from the person who’s just been made redundant walking into a Jobcentre for the first time in their lives?’.”
She garnered enormous respect for this approach. In a CSW obituary, the former DWP permanent secretary, and long-time colleague of Strathie, Sir Leigh Lewis said she embodied the best of the civil service, in particular because of her “enormous compassion”. He also said she “inspired huge affection in her colleagues – a fact reflected by the letters of support she received when she stood down, including many from people who’d worked with her over 20 years before”.
O’Donnell attests to the strength of feeling that Strathie inspired. “Lesley could go to a DWP or an HMRC office anywhere round the country – and obviously there are loads of them – and she could talk with real authority, because she knew what the jobs were like because she’d done them,” he says. The people on the civil service operational frontline were “suddenly seeing someone who had started off where they were as the leader”, he adds, arguing that this helped boost aspirations and counteract the assumption that all civil service leaders had to have gone to Oxbridge and got on the Fast Stream.
She was “a great role model” and worked hard to “enhance the status of people in operational jobs” at a time when the civil service hierarchy tended to put policy people on top, he says. As head of the operational delivery profession she championed that function, and made a difference you can see “stretching through today – the whole [civil service chief executive] John Manzoni world, [where] the operational stuff really matters”.
O’Donnell was pleased when, in 2013, the former HMRC perm sec became the namesake for the Dame Lesley Strathie Operational Excellence Award in the Civil Service Awards. “I can’t think of anyone better,” he says. “She personified all the things you would want – someone who really cares about making the operational side of the civil service work, mainly because this is about delivering for customers who need us.”