Being permanent secretary at the Home Office, one of the biggest management jobs in the civil service, is a task that tends to be done discreetly. You run the bits of Britain that are not allocated elsewhere, you turn the suggestions of politicians into workable policies, you push your vast budget (£12 billion at present) into everything from immigration to policing, from drugs policy to prisons and probation, you check that you've got the right managers in the right slots, you don't give interviews - and like the duck of legend, you paddle serenely on, pinstriped legs working furiously below the waterline.
There is another view. The Home Office, in civil service career terms, is always an accident waiting to happen. Look at the politicians: that's why so few Home Secretaries make it to prime minister. There are simply too many potential upsets, and too many journalists and opposition politicians waiting to kick holes in it. And if you're the mandarin, in part, it's your fault. So you leap from crisis to crisis, desperately trying to keep the lid on things till the next poor sod comes in and takes over, and you can get an easier berth. For the career civil servant, generally, it suits you that few people know your name.
Well, stash away that cynicism now. In the new, more accountable management world that we inhabit, senior executives are expected to explain themselves. And John Gieve is no different. He applied to be permanent secretary of the Home Office (pay range £118,750-£251,500) because, he says, as boss of one of the UK's key agencies, he believes passionately that he can have a tangible influence for the good.
'What the Home Office does can make a real difference to society, and every day I am dealing with issues and subjects that make a big difference in peoples' lives. If we get them right, we can make a real change for the better, and conversely, if we get them wrong ...'
We can blame the politicians? Oops, there goes that cynicism again. Gieve's black eyebrows bristle and he doesn't laugh, but you get the feeling he might if he wasn't in interview mode. This, after all, is not something he or any other top civil servant does very often. Sitting in his large, seventh-floor corner office overlooking Petty France in London's Victoria, staring rather intently at the meeting table in front of him - prison-made, apparently, like all his rather modish, pale-wood furniture - he has two civil servants taking notes down at the other end of the room, my tape recorder running, and he is, understandably, on his guard.
So he clasps his hands and picks his words carefully. There are pauses before answers, strung-out subordinate clauses, choices of verbs offered so that the sentences chug along with wordy precision. Gieve, like many civil service mandarins, is adept at summing up points, offering alternatives, condensing and editing so it sounds like you are really getting somewhere.
Of course, just occasionally it also appears as if you are running aground in a thick bank of legalese.
Only later does Gieve loosen up and a rather droll sense of humour asserts itself. In the corridor outside his office afterwards, chatting through the photoshoot, he is noticeably more at ease when the tape recorder is off, hands dug deep in suit pockets, reminiscing about how he used to play football in a regular kickabout until his knee conked out. That's just after he was explaining the extraordinary intricacies of introducing a national ID card system as if it was as logical as a simple algebraic formula. Well, he did come up through the Treasury.
But what if you don't believe in what you are implementing? Ah. I'm not sure he gives me a straight answer to that one. Anyway, as if to remind us who might be the real boss round here, Home Secretary David Blunkett then appears, overcoat on, escorted slowly down the long corridor by a secretary like a battle cruiser being tugged into port, and we all have to step deferentially sideways to get out of the way.
So, Gieve - like his job - is a curious mix of what you expect and what you don't. Aged 54, tall, well-built and handsome like a 1970s Albert Finney, he has a beetle-browed presence that is less about pinstripe aloofness and more about very masculine, intellectual authority, leavened by a dry wit. He is among the more approachable of civil service bosses, often to be found at newspaper parties and gatherings of the great and the good.
Dressed in an immaculately cut Gieves & Hawkes suit - he's a scion of the founding family - but looking slightly rumpled round the edges, he is that cocktail of old and new that has risen fast in recent years: public school and Oxbridge but liberal in inclination, Home Counties born-and-bred but north London dwelling, more likely to be seen at an Arsenal match than dining in a St James's club.
And that, you imagine, makes him an easy fit close to the current centre of power. Certainly home affairs journalists have him pegged as ambitious, though not as someone whose political preferences are discernible. (Gieve has worked closely with John Major, Nigel Lawson and Norman Lamont in the past, so his politics should not be assumed.)
However, as head of the Home Office, the top civil service job - secretary to the Cabinet - is just a rung away; the only drawback for Gieve being that he has to handle that minefield of a remit (prisons, police, immigration, counter-terrorism, fuel crises, civil contingencies, and so on) with its acute political sensitivity and constant capacity for the unexpected.
Leaked Gieve correspondence on Jeffrey Archer's prison term, for instance, and the permanent secretary's complaint to the BBC about its programme on racism in the police force are just two items that drew bizarre headlines last year.
To add to the complications, in the past three years the Home Office has also been the focus of considerable change, which critics would say is not surprising as the place has been, according to some, a disaster area. There have been the backlog of immigration applications - a sign of poor management, surely - the rise in prisoner numbers, the problems in responding to increases in street crime and antisocial behaviour. Immigration minister Beverley Hughes has already been forced to resign: not a resounding vote of confidence for how it's all been handled.
In response to all that, additional permanent secretaries have been created, parts are being parcelled off, initiatives grabbed by the prime minister's office, innovative projects launched. Then there's a spanking new, Sir Terry Farrell-designed HQ to be moved into, and controversy brewing over just how fast, despite the changes, the number of people employed at the Home Office is growing to cope with all the changes.
Is Gieve coping? As one newspaper home affairs editor puts it when I ask: 'Having more permanent secretaries is not normally a sign of success - the perception is that the Home Office has failed to deliver.'
Ouch. So is it civil service leaders like Gieve who really make a difference, or politicians like Blunkett who should be blamed? 'Civil servants,' explains Gieve, twisting his fingers, 'are engaged in decision-making at every level. Of course, we do that under the control of, and working to, ministers. And I guess that this is the main difference between working here and running a business. Here, it is not wholly your own story or creation. I can't decide that the Home Office should change its business, and I am not the public face of the Home Office.'
That may be shifting slightly. One of the changes that the new generation of civil service bosses has taken on board, along with a new web of visible targets and performance measurement tools, is the notion of public accountability.
'That's certainly been a change since I joined the civil service,' says Gieve. 'Leaders of public services - and this is as true in local government as it is in central government and the NHS - are expected to, and need to, take a more public role in accepting responsibility. But they need to do it within limits, and, as I have said, the Home Office is not my enterprise but the Government's enterprise, and it is under political direction. But it leaves a lot of things to do and to decide.'
So not only do his staff have to come up with 'devising the solutions' for politicians, they also have to make those solutions work. 'I see my key role as building a machine that really does deliver and which has the levers and the partnerships that influence what happens on the ground.'
Yet despite the introduction of targets designed to evaluate how successful initiatives have been, it's hard to see, so far, what the benefits have been. Gieve, however, says it takes time. 'Hitherto, targets were seen as something we set for executive agencies of government, not for main policy-making central departments, but I think that has been almost entirely a force for the good. It's made central departments think whether the the policy-making they are doing is contributing to generally good outcomes.'
Outcomes? 'By outcomes, I mean defined in terms of social outcomes: less crime, less antisocial behaviour. You look past the service outputs - like the number of arrests - to the ultimate outcome, which is less crime, less fear of crime, growing confidence in the criminal justice system, less harm from abuse of dangerous drugs, more race equality.'
The problem is that many of these are intangibles - fear of crime, for instance - which is why it is so difficult to work out how you judge success at a body like the Home Office. Evaluating the boss of a conventional business, you'd look at the bottom line first (no profit, no business), then throw other considerations in after. With a government department, it's not so clear-cut.
Others who have worked with Gieve say he's tried hard to address that, and as such is part of the new wave of mandarins coming through: less formal, more collegiate, more comfortable with targets and getting things done, rather than just advising on policy.
'The problem is that culturally it is difficult shifting people from their advisory role,' says Patrick Carter, chairman of Sport England.
'That's what mandarins do, they advise ministers. But actually, the Home Office is a huge operating department, and it's hard managing all the stakeholders. A normal business employing 70,000-odd people would never get the media attention the Home Office does.'
Then there is the consideration that political direction can change overnight - enormously so, in the case of one party replacing another after a general election.
Gieve shrugs. 'If you look at the objectives of the Home Office now and ask how would they differ under different parties, I would think: not a massive amount. People still want to see crime coming down, misuse of drugs coming down, they want to see us have a grip on immigration.'
But they want it achieved without an upsurge in costs. Since he arrived at the Home Office in 2001, Gieve has led a management shake-up aimed at bringing greater efficiency across its public policy areas. He heads a Home Office management board, which now includes new permanent secretaries Martin Narey, chief executive of national offender management services, and Leigh Lewis, who covers crime, policing, counter-terrorism and delivery.
Backing that up is a management style based, he says, on offering 'clarity of objectives in terms of final outcomes', making sure results are measured properly - 'I am very interested in numbers, my Treasury background, I suppose' - and ensuring managers are given enough space to operate.
Yet still the numbers have grown.
Others cite that Treasury background as a key influence. Born into a Surrey business family, Gieve chose the civil service after stellar academic achievement at Charterhouse and Oxford because he was interested in politics.
He joined the Department of Employment first, but it was at the Treasury that he found his feet. Apart from a two-year secondment to 3i, he has spent most of his career there, and its singular way of working clearly has had an impact.
'The Treasury is quite small,' he says, 'quite intellectual and not very hierarchical, because it covers such a wide breadth of different subjects and it's got relatively few people. Each person has quite a large field in which they are an expert, and at its best there is an open debate covering different levels of the organisation, which is very exciting. The downside is that it is operating at several removes from the front line.'
Gieve rose to take a number of senior posts - head of finance regulation and industry, director of budget and public finances, principal private secretary to the Chancellor - before applying for and getting the Home Office permanent secretary slot. Some at the time wondered whether a high-flying career at the Treasury, where they don't suffer fools gladly, was the best preparation for a hands-on job that puts you in charge of a vast array of staff. Also, Gieve had absolutely no experience of the Home Office.
'No,' he says, 'because in my previous role at the Treasury as co-ordinator of public services, I was engaged in the allocation of money and hence had been involved in a large number of decisions over Home Office policies.
And secondly, I had led a cost-cutting review in one of the big spending reviews, I did know a lot about it, and that was why I was keen to come.
I saw it as an area where I could make a difference. I could change it, and it needed change.'
But has he been able to make all the changes he wanted to? One thing the Home Office has never seemed adept at is anticipating problems. Certainly, the increase in employees needed to handle more prisoners, more immigration controls, more drug policy work, more of just about everything, has caught everyone by surprise.
A recent House of Commons public accounts committee suggested that civil service numbers in the Home Office were now rising so fast that its new building in Marshall Street, Westminster - commissioned on the assumption that outsourcing and efficiency gains would cut HQ staff from 3,200 to 2,950 - may not be big enough to house the 4,900 or more working at the centre.
Yet Gieve says one of his priorities when he came into the Home Office was to cut down on the amount of things it had to handle. 'Crises of all sorts that were not other peoples' business were ours. My view was that they were a distraction from the core objectives and that the HO needed to move from being a residual department to one focused on core objectives. That's what I agreed before the last election and hence we ended up with a much more focused remit.'
So why have employee numbers leapt up so dramatically? Does he have a grip on how big the increase has been?
'God, I don't have the numbers in my head. More than 10% probably. But the prison service has been expanding as the number of prisoners increases, immigration is expanding, probation is expanding, so the total numbers are going up, and in the centre we have expanded partly in response to taking seriously the need to measure our success in terms of outcomes in society, rather than just handling events and crises.'
The numbers at the centre will go down, he promises. 'We announced as part of our strategic pay review that we'll reduce headquarter numbers by 30% and end up with less than 3,000 people. We've committed ourselves to very big reductions and moving more of our London staff to the provinces.' The problem is, he says, that the new building was commissioned at the end of the last Conservative government, and the functions of the Home Office have changed considerably since then. 'But the fact is, we have to plan for uncertainty here.'
Could it not put more effort into anticipating and preventing crises?
He nods. 'Part of the main change I've tried to bring about in the HO is to switch it from an organisation that I thought was around 80% handling events and 20% planned objective-driven activity to the other way round, or at least 50/50. But we are always going to have a large chunk in responding to events - that's the nature of what we deal with.'
And what about the recent criticism from James Strachan, head of the National Audit Commission, that there is not enough praise for staff in the public sector, and not enough willingness to take risks?
'Well, I think the Home Office can be risk-averse on small things, but it's also been prepared to make hugely risky decisions on not very good evidence. So we are trying to be less risk-averse on the small things and more risk-averse on the big things. Now we approach the big projects like introducing ID cards in a much more professional, systematic way.
We're getting better at that. But do we praise people enough? No, we don't, but the politicisation of so much of what we do makes it difficult. The Home Office lives in a world where the press is hot on our case. But it has changed from being a Westminster-focused political management operation to making a difference out there.'
Why does he do it? Power, making a difference, or a frustrated ambition to be a politician himself? 'No, I don't think it's that. I've always been very interested in politics. The difference is that politicians are working colleagues, and generally I have a very high opinion of them. And I hope they have a higher opinion of the civil service than generally the British public do.'
Anyway, our time - delayed and curtailed - is up. Gieve chats happily about the footie he used to play with David Baddiel and John O'Farrell, the golf he sticks to now, how his sons are grown up, the holidays in France he likes to take. His wife is a solicitor at Bindmans, the law firm, and they are, by all accounts, pretty sociable.
He has his photo taken and says goodbye, then later I get an e-mail from one of his assistants offering extra time on the phone to talk about costs.
Various slots are tried, I get rung by his secretary, told to stand by my desk, then a meeting overruns or something else intervenes and another time has to be sorted out.
We do talk, but now I get the impression of a man fighting his way stoically through a blizzard of commitments and criticism, trying to keep his eyes on the prize. Just that week there had been more flak about immigration inefficiencies, about plans to let more prisoners out with electronic tags, about who had been appointed to take ID cards forward. Every day another headline. It never stops.
But Gieve is brisk and businesslike, never flagging. Only at the end, a chink shows in his armour. 'I'm not sure what you want from this interview,' he sighs finally, sounding rather fatigued. Then he pulls himself together and says goodbye politely.
THREE TOUGH CHALLENGES FACING JOHN GIEVE
1. Reducing crime: how to keep crime and the fear of crime going down by better enforcement by police and others, and by tackling the causes - drugs, community conflict and youth disaffection.
2. ID Cards: the biometrics they should be based on, and how to deliver them to the population on time and to a tight budget.
3. Reshaping the department: how best to bring prisons and probation into a new system based on contestability of provision, and how to keep the focus while cutting staff numbers by 30%.
GIEVE IN A MINUTE
1950: Born 20 February. Educated at Charterhouse and New College, Oxford
1974: Joins the Department of Employment working on industrial
relations, pay policy and special training
1978: Moves to HM Treasury, working on employment and energy policy
before becoming Private Secretary to the Chief Secretary
1984: Joins 3i on secondment as an investment controller
1986: Returns to Treasury to head team co-ordinating the annual public
1988: Appointed Treasury press secretary
1989: Chancellor's principal private secretary
1991: Heads up group dealing with policy on banks and City regulators
1994: Moves to the directorate responsible for the planning and control
of public spending and for improving productivity in public services
2001: Appointed permanent secretary at the Home Office