David Cameron said in January that he wanted to release a "hidden army of public sector entrepreneurs" in Whitehall. What did he mean by that? And is it realistic?

I spent the last five years as CEO of UK Trade and Investment (UKTI), the government department devoted to promoting exports and attracting inward investment. I believe that UKTI is the most entrepreneurial of Whitehall departments, and therefore well placed to respond to David Cameron's exhortation – but staff in other departments may wonder just how much entrepreneurialism they can really show.

I have written this report to outline the many factors, such as civil service culture and procedures, which limit the Whitehall entrepreneur, and to suggest what elements in UKTI are exemplars of good entrepreneurial practice.

After briefly examining the history of the term 'entrepreneur', I use the Crown Agents affair of the 1970s (the aftermath of which informed much of my early Civil Service career) to underline the necessity of procedures and a culture in the public sector which deter risky, individual actions and uncouple actions from rewards.

Yet my experience from UKTI, a quasi-commercial body able to pick and choose its opportunities, is that these wise safeguards are applied too heavily, too uniformly, and too indiscriminately, and this has prevented UKTI from reaching its full effectiveness.

I provide six mini case studies from my experience at UKTI where I believe we were able to mobilise our "hidden army" to attempt to deliver real value. Often we were successful, but in other cases our designs were thwarted. In the infamous case of the UKTI branded golf balls, media and political pressure forced us to abandon a cheap, effective, and very common form of business promotion. I offer seven principles for entrepreneurial action in a public body.

My argument is that David Cameron's use of the word 'entrepreneur' masks his real objective. Cheaper, more efficient and better public services are a perennial aim of governments but the inherent risk, particularly the risk of failure, associated with entrepreneurialism would make it unpalatable to the government, media and civil service. I salute the sentiment behind David Cameron’s speech; many parts of government could really do with a hearty injection of the innovative spirit of entrepreneurialism.

But in my experience such a change would jar against the expectations of the media, civil service auditors and politicians. A more fitting, although less memorable, phrase would be "put more effort into devising new, more efficient and more customer friendly forms of service"; and do it as private sector entrepreneurs would, with market testing, pilots, sensitivity to the marketplace and a gradual roll out of new products.

— Sir Andrew Cahn

The Whitehall Entrepreneur is the first in our new InsideOut series which gives people with an interesting perspective on government effectiveness an opportunity to share their personal views. The views expressed are those of the author.