Winning the global race for talent: will Carney blaze the trail for more public sector imports?

4 July 2013

The maple leaves were out in force in Trafalgar Square earlier this week to celebrate Canada Day – the same day as the UK’s most famous Canadian import, newly appointed Bank of England Governor, Mark Carney gave his staff a shock by turning up for work before 7.00 a.m. But will we widen the search and pay what it takes for other big public sector jobs?

Like many of our top football clubs, and the England cricket team, many of our major companies are run by foreigners – a 2008 survey by some headhunters found that a third of CEOs came from overseas (14 from the US, 10 from Continental Europe and Ireland and 10, like Carney, from the Commonwealth). The idea that you would search only from a pool of people with British accents would be regarded as very out-of-date.

When the Government was looking for people to run the Olympic Games, it too ran a global search for talent. But the most key appointment was probably that of David Higgins, an Australian who was already in charge of the government regeneration agency, English Partnerships, who went to head up the Olympic Delivery Authority. Higgins brought with him experience of building the Olympic Village in Sydney. Recruiting the right people with the skills and experience to do the job was a key part of Games success – and the Treasury’s willingness then to sanction paying the international rate for top talent was crucial to their recruitment. David Higgins is now applying his skills to try to make the trains run on time at Network Rail.

In the past we have had foreign born Chief Scientific Advisers – Sir David King was a South African and his predecessor, Lord May, an Australian – and a New Zealander, Len Cook was Chief Statistician. There are a few foreign born Chief Economists in departments – Tera Allas from BIS from Finland and Ulrike Hotopp, whose first degree was from the University of Prague, at Defra.

But the nearer you get to the centre of power, the more English the accents become – and the narrower the field of recruitment.

There has never yet been a successful global search for a permanent secretary – but over recent years there has been an increasing opening up of recruitment at the top of the Civil Service – but those who have made a successful transition have tended to come from either local government or an arm’s-length body. There is one exception – Minouche Shafik who came from the World Bank to a Director General role at DfID, became Permanent Secretary, but then was lured away after a brief stint at the top to a senior position at the IMF. We have exported people to run departments in other Commonwealth countries (head of the NZ treasury is former HMRC official Gabs Makhlouf) but not imported talent in at this level.

And when we look at ministers the pool shrinks even further. As Peter Riddell, Zoe Gruhn and Liz Carolan pointed out in their report on the Challenge of Being a Minister: “British prime ministers have increasingly believed that the potential pool of talent in the House of Commons for recruiting ministers is too small – and have looked outside to broaden the range of expertise, with mixed results.” But in practice all this has meant is the appointment of a few “GOATs”. One so far has been an Iraqi born Irishman – the leading medic Lord Darzi – but he was already working in the NHS.

In recent weeks the Prime Minister has urged Britain to win the “global race”. Mark Carney’s appointment represents a British win in the global race for central bank talent. The Chancellor was prepared to pay a very high price to secure his services. There is another very big job coming up in the public sector soon – to replace Sir David Nicholson at the helm of NHS England. Would we have the courage to put a foreigner in charge of what Nigel Lawson memorably called the “nearest thing the English have to a religion”?

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One Response

  1. Jill Rutter on 4 July 2013 at 1:23 pm

    Aargh — since writing this, David Pitchford, the Aussie who heads up the Major projects Authority has resigned. will we go global for his replacement?>

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