Can the Civil Service make interchange with business happen this time?
“It never really works, does it? Whatever they say, leaving is always bad for your career”.
The wise words of former cabinet secretary Lord Butler to me at a party after I had returned to the civil service after a stint of six years working at BP – which I had naively thought might help rather than hinder my upward trajectory, as the mantras of the time from the civil service leadership suggested. He was right six or seven years ago – and our analysis of permanent secretary experience showed under 3% of their working lives had been spend in the private sector. Will Sir Jeremy and Sir Bob will prove him wrong this time?
There are two aspects to more successful interchange – one is whether people who start off in the Civil Service can leave and come back enhanced from the process; the other is whether people who join the Civil Service after successful private sector careers can transfer their success into the public sector.
On the first count, there is a great naiveté on the plausibility of moving between civil service and business careers. Unless you want to move into government or regulatory affairs, the value of someone from a predominantly public sector background to business is relatively limited. The time that your business contemporaries have spent learning the details of the business they are in, understanding the market and establishing a track record is time you have spent doing very different things. You are much less qualified – and therefore much higher risk. In those circumstances you have to be truly exceptional (possibly like Jeremy himself who spent time in a senior position at Morgan Stanley) to be allowed into a mainstream business position of anything like equivalent seniority. So you can understand more about how the business world operates and sees things – but you are unlikely to pick up what most ministers would see as “front line business experience”.
On the second count, the track record of bringing people from business into the Civil Service in the UK isn’t great – as Lord O’Donnell pointed out last week. Here it does look like we have something to learn from the Australians who seem to have a more thought out approach to helping outside people succeed (rather than taking satisfaction in the fact we don’t). One potential route in for business people is through running some of the big, delivery focused, arm’s-length bodies – more task-orientated and more businesslike roles. But while a lot of the chairs of arm’s-length bodies are drawn from business, we found chief executives of the biggest non-departmental public bodies had only spent 11% of their careers in the private sector.
So is there an answer? One must be to give civil servants more transferable skills that will enable them to move between sectors – in the way consultants manage to do now. Second is to experiment with different forms of secondment and attachment – maybe at more junior levels where skills and knowledge gaps are less exposed. Third is to understand why we have such a poor track record of bringing people in from the outside – and see what we can learn from where it has worked. And fourth, and perhaps the biggest cultural change, is for the Civil Service to be interested in what people who go and come back have to say about their experience – rather that treat it as an unfortunate and career-limiting aberration. When I returned to the Civil Service only one former colleague expressed any interest in what I had learned. He is now a permanent secretary.