Paul Morrell, the accidental civil servant

In a three-year stint as construction czar to both Labour and the Coalition, Paul Morrell realised that while the public sector can't be run like a business, it could be a lot more businesslike. But good work does get done.

by Paul Morrell
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

After 40 years in private practice, latterly as senior partner of international construction consultancy Davis Langdon, I found myself (to my surprise) working as the Government's first chief construction adviser and therefore a de facto civil servant. Almost inevitably labelled 'construction czar' (a term I hated: it didn't end well for the czars), I had the brief of championing more affordable and sustainable construction in the government estate, reporting to ministers in the Department of Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) and the Cabinet Office.

Arriving at BIS in Victoria Street, central London, on my first day, a new boy in the Westminster village, I chaired a meeting attended by Lord Mandelson, then secretary of state at BIS, who threw down my first challenge: 'Is your industry fit for purpose for a low-carbon future?' The point was made forcibly and apparently spontaneously, but I could see it was taken verbatim from the brief given to him by his officials.

Lesson one: every move ministers make, every meeting, every speech, every letter is scripted for them. Con- fident ministers use the script just as a checklist to make sure they have covered the points. Others, new to the job, might follow it religiously, head down like a Scalextric car bonded to the track. In most cases, they are probably reading the brief for the first time. Lesson two: busking is a necessary skill of the trade. Ministers' lives are absurdly busy, to the point that they earned a new respect from me.

Three years and two Governments later, there is, as I make my exit, at last an opportunity to reflect on differences between life in the public and private sectors.

Many of those differences are both real and necessary. Francis Maude, the minister for the Cabinet Office, is quoted as saying that government should operate like a well-run business, but whereas all organisations need to be well run, government is not, and cannot be, exactly like business, and some imports from the business world have perverse consequences. For example, I suspect that bonus systems rarely have the desired effect in any environment, but to reward people not for saving money against budget but for spending it all - as some parts of the Civil Service do - is close to an obscenity. But, before you get too excited, the bonus pool then gets sliced into portions too small to offend you (or to motivate the recipient).

Many of the differences that exist are not those that prejudice might lead you to expect. Are there lazy people in the Civil Service? Yes - as there are in the private sector. There are also some who are protective of their own position, reluctant to co-operate, slow to act and not the kind of people that you would want to go on holiday with - as there are in the private sector. And all of the above are balanced by people who are intelligent, professional, committed, and truly concerned about the interests of their real 'customers' - taxpayers and citizens, as represented by elected ministers.

If there is a fair generalisation, it probably lies in that last thought: that, when choosing a career, those who are attracted by the idea of service, social good and the things that markets cannot deliver are more likely to be attracted to the public sector than to the mostly profit-driven private sector and some of the harsher consequences of the bottom line.

Indeed, many operational differences between the public and private sector exist precisely because the Civil Service does not have the same drivers and measures as a business.

However, both sectors need people who are able, motivated and energetic. In business, however, success will be measured sooner or later in money. In the public sector, it is very hard to measure good performance in the absence of the discipline of management accounts, and people tend to define their own success. It is common to see communications that serve no apparent purpose other than letting the author trumpet how well everything is going. I remember the leaving note of one very senior civil servant, which claimed a degree of greatness that would have embarrassed Muhammad Ali - while advertising his availability for portfolio appointments.

This phenomenon leads to another: 'upward stakeholder management', whereby the primary concern of some civil servants is how they are perceived by their superiors. I do not recall people in the private sector who are universally held in high regard by the grades superior to them, but universally disliked by those below.

Obsession with grades is another feature of the Civil Service that came as a surprise. If a meeting is organised that cuts across departments within a ministry, or across ministries, officials will expect to meet people of their own grade. So if a director general, say, starts to send along a director instead, the others will drop to that level of representation too. It is possible that this might mean that something actually gets done, but it's more likely that both the meeting and its subject will lose energy. Resources follow priorities set by senior officials, and if you want traction for your own work, then you need to hitch your wagon to the runners and riders.

The same stratification of management (into far too many layers) tends to lead to a remoteness of management from where the work gets done, apart from the occasional, rather embarrassing, pre-planned walkabout. This, compounded by a general reluctance to 'speak truth to power', leads to senior management being out of touch.

All of this is compounded by the organisational stress caused by the pressure to reduce both costs and numbers since the onset of the financial crisis. In a process that no doubt complies with every last letter of employment law, an exercise to reduce staff numbers proceeds without any obvious strategic intent other than the reduction itself. Nor are those who remain briefed and re-motivated as part of a re-formed, tighter team with a new clarity of purpose and still with the promise of a rewarding career. Indeed, as numbers are reduced, no parallel decision seems to have been made about the things that government no longer does.

Instead, every time somebody leaves, everything in their brief is redistributed among those who remain, increasing stress and reducing the chances of the work being done well. In the marzipan layers of the Civil Service, this has reduced some really good minds to the equivalent of human servers: taking in the flood of emails from above and cascading them down, with less and less value added - a spectacular waste of a treasure trove of experience.

It was suggested to me that if staff are progressively loaded up they will eventually sort out their own priorities - which may be a plan of sorts but would fail to meet most people's definition of leadership. It falls short of what is needed if the many civil servants of real quality are to find innovative ways of delivering public services against a shrinking budget.

This may well be evidence of the cliche about getting the government we deserve. I have been amazed at how much people seem to think government should do for them, yet remain unenthusiastic about paying taxes. For example, the president of a major trade association once put it to me that government should do something to stop other companies poaching apprentices once they are fully trained. 'Do you mean,' I asked, 'that you would want your son or daughter to obtain a permit from the government before being able to move jobs?' Of course that wasn't what he wanted, but 'surely something can be done?' No, actually, nothing can be done - not without making the government an unwanted party in an agreement freely made between consenting adults.

I have been just as amazed at how badly those seeking action from government go about it. When a delegation has put together the best-ever report to present to a minister, it is worth bearing in mind that when he or she leaves the room so must the report - in the hands of an official. It has to, as the minister's next meeting will be with someone pleading a different case. Given that, it is extraordinary how little use is made of the time with ministers to persuade them that there is a public benefit in the proposition that officials should be asked to explore. Instead, the time might well be spent with members of the delegation arguing with each other.

This is a particular weakness of the construction industry. Before the 2010 election, I received 19 manifestos from different quarters of this sector, setting out their wish list for a new government. To the best of my knowledge, not one of them was read by ministers, either in power or in waiting.

Other pitches just come across as moaning - and I cannot overstress how quickly, even as a new boy to government, one gets tired of it, and how rare and refreshing it is when a case is genuinely pleaded in the public interest.

But, let me make it clear that good work does get done. In my own corner of the wood, dedicated teams of specialists have bought into a strategy that holds them accountable for reducing the cost of public sector construction by 15% to 20%, in real terms, over the life of this parliament. Most of them already have that target in reach; some (such as the next generation of schools) will overachieve and, with a bit of 'encouragement' from ministers, all can achieve it.

And what might make things better yet in the public interest? There are published plans for reform and I will not jump so far above my pay grade as to second-guess them - beyond a plea to resist the temptation to centralise everything that is devolved and devolve what is centralised; or to outsource everything that is done in-house, or bring back in-house what is outsourced. Ministers eager to make their mark will be tempted by this approach, and will push particularly hard if they suspect officials are blocking reform.

On that subject, I witnessed practically no examples of officials obstructing government plans. Their predisposition to service actually means that they turn on a sixpence to serve the government of the day. What I did see was officials being unhelpful to policies developing in a different department if they judged that those policies would not be consistent with their own minister's instincts.

Instead, there needs to be a cool appraisal of what a smaller government, and a much reduced civil service, should do - or not do. There then needs to be an assessment of the skills needed to deliver that new agenda; and then the combination of leadership, motivation, training (almost invisible in my time in Whitehall) and re-creation of shared purpose that would be required in any progressive enterprise, public or private, if it is to attract the brightest and the best.

Although there was frustration in not being able to put together the best people for the job and then just get on with it, working with the best of civil servants has been both a pleasure and a learning experience. It is one I would commend not just to individuals with a sense of curiosity, but to businesses wanting to develop their own people.

Both would need to learn new habits. The private sector may need to indulge a civil servant's search for greater utility or a deeper purpose than profit - and may even, in doing so, find itself nearer to the real, long-term interests of customers and investors; and in spending time in the public sector business people will need to accept that the Captain Picard 'make it so' style of direction may not cut it.

And, in the other direction, senior officials could perhaps contemplate the possibility that not having spent a lifetime in the Civil Service is not necessarily a fatal character flaw. I bear the scars of three years of biting my tongue and, try as I might, I found it hard to feel inferior to many who gave the impression of feeling effortlessly superior.

Given a degree of mutual understanding, though, exchanges of say three to six months would leave both sectors enriched, and perhaps start to break down the prejudices that each holds about the other - and the artificial divide between the two that is as real and as unhelpful at CP Snow's 'two cultures'. And who knows: maybe both would come to appreciate that we really are all in this together.

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