WAYS TO WIN IN WHITEHALL: You're smart, ambitious, close to political power and aiming for the top of the Civil Service. How to get there? You have to play the system, but all is not what it seems in today's 'leaner, meaner' administration. David Walker o

WAYS TO WIN IN WHITEHALL: You're smart, ambitious, close to political power and aiming for the top of the Civil Service. How to get there? You have to play the system, but all is not what it seems in today's 'leaner, meaner' administration. David Walker o

by DAVID WALKER
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Dear High Flyer - Congratulations. You made the grade. Despite the psychometric tests (in my day they just asked who your house master had been) and the presence of business people on the selection panel, you will quickly have seen what we want the next generation of civil servants to be - just like us. That may sound awfully complacent and, after Thatcher's shake-up and Blair's bleating about modernisation, somewhat naive. Let me tell you what I mean.

Of course, Whitehall has been changing. The Tories cut our numbers - Labour is now paying the price in lower-quality advice - and stripped out entire administrative layers. (We have too few Grade 2s - deputy secretaries, they used to be called - the people who, unlike us permanent secretaries, actually know the policy detail.) Thatcher, helped by my old mucker Peter Kemp, set up 'executive agencies'.

Old Peter was quite a revolutionary in his bufferish way. He thought his agencies, running benefits, passports and what-not, would radically transform the work. Watch out for that cliche 'radically transform'; it's a good one to bandy but it's safe, because in Whitehall it can never happen. Anyway, events have done for executive agencies. The cock-up last year at passports, Michael Howard's bust-up with the business type they brought in to run prisons ... politicians don't take kindly to losing responsibility while remaining accountable, and nor should they. Lately things have got back pretty much to normal.

The Whitehall landscape is not much different now from when the blessed Margaret started wielding her handbag 20 years ago.

But I am getting ahead of myself. With other fast-stream candidates (except, of course, we aren't allowed to use that elitist phrase any more) you will have had a pep talk from Sir Richard Wilson wearing his hat as head of the civil service. You will have been charmed. Your first thought will have been: how can this gangly creature with the loopy grin be the pre-eminent official, the most powerful administrator in the country? He will have flattered and wooed you and, as he spoke, you will have thought: what a wonderful chap. Listening to Richard, I have always thought, is like bathing in honey. At first it's a marvellously sweet experience but soon it cloys and then becomes almost suffocating.

But you really do need to study Richard closely if you are going to make anything of this job. You know that already though, because as he spoke to you I bet the question that kept going through your mind - it has certainly been puzzling the rest of us for the past two years since Tony Blair annointed him as cabinet secretary - is the lack of any relationship between Richard's career and the managerialism that he has taken to preaching. Richard Wilson is not an 'executive'. He's a fixer, he's a hand-holder, he's a master of a complex machine - and he is a courtier.

I'll come back to that. First I want to let you in on a trade secret.

Academics and journalists - with one or two rare exceptions - know damn-all about our world here in Whitehall. The blunt fact is that we govern the country largely in secret. That brilliant American Aaron Wildavsky got it right in the '70s when he called it 'the private government of public money'.

Of course, you can read books. Professor Peter Hennessy of Queen Mary and Westfield College is our great chronicler. (We love him, and because we love him we've offered him gongs on more than one occasion. None of us ever refused the Bath or St George or the rest, but for some peculiar reason Prof Hennessy so far has.)

But the one book that is indispensable was written a long, long time ago. And, no, it is not Machiavelli. Every aspiring civil servant should read Baldassare Castiglione's The Courtier. He was a hanger-on at the court of Duke Feltro of Urbino in the Renaissance period and he got spot-on what it takes to keep the powers that be amused. How do you think assistant private secretaries in ministers' private offices get preferment? They keep their bosses charmed, bathed in a sort of administrative broth.

Back to Sir Richard Wilson. Labour - and this was true of the Tories back in 1979 - arrived in power in 1997 not having given a moment's thought to either the organisation of Whitehall or what they wanted to do with the civil service. Prof Hennessy had organised seminars for them in opposition and old Peter Kemp had preached his messianic message about executive reform but Blair wasn't interested. He just wanted to get down the Third Way ... ahem.

And there, as he stepped into Number Ten on that fateful morn, was the supreme lubricator of the administrative cogs, Robin Butler. (Why are nearly all top civil servants tall, you may ask; that old bruiser Frank Cooper at defence is one of the few exceptions. The boring sociological answer is that they come from upper middle-class families that fed and exercised them. The Castiglione answer is that successful courtiers are physically bigger than their masters but existentially smaller - I will leave you to ponder that one.)

Robin, the head prefect, gave Tony the smoothest transition possible into power. There they were, the civil servants who form the core of the machine of state, lined up in the hallway at Number Ten, politely clapping.

(Butler quietly ushered away the few weeping at John Major's departure.) The very next minute Butler had the key files in front of Jonathan Powell, Blair's chief of staff, and from then on the thing went like clockwork.

Yes, I know Jonathan's brother Charles had worked in Number Ten under Mrs T. In fact, there is another case study. A charmer and a courtier, Charles unfortunately got religion, something an aspirant permanent secretary should never do. He sort of fell in love with the lady, not in a way that Charles's wife Carla would object to but - horrible word - ideologically.

Carla, of course, is the great pal of Peter Mandelson ... but I won't bore you with gossip, even though you will, if you are wise, always pay a lot of attention to it. My spies tell me officials at the DTI knew all about Geoffrey Robinson's loan to Peter Mandelson long before the story broke.

New Labour came to power preaching 'modernisation'. Tony was waylaid by Michael Bichard, permanent secretary at education and employment. He went to Number Ten with flip charts and Powerpoint, urging on him grand schemes of change in Whitehall, including the appointment of super executives from outside. It was, of course, Michael's bid to succeed Robin Butler as head of the service. And, truth to tell, Michael would have made an intriguing choice. It's not that he lacks a courtier's skills - he would not have got where he has without them - but that he is serious about organisational change. The fact that he was passed over speaks volumes.

What it says, indeed, is that in Whitehall politicians want the civil service to assist them in exercising power, not to run an efficient and effective machine for delivering public services. The two objectives may interweave.

And at certain points the one may become associated with the other. But ultimately your job as an official is to do your best for the minister as a political personality. That is where Castiglione comes in handy. Sometimes flattery won't do. Sometimes you have to 'speak truth to power'. But you do it in the interests of power.

Look at what Sir Richard Wilson has been doing since he took over. The talk, the white papers, the speeches: all use the language of modernisation and change. The civil service apparently is in the throes of renewal and reformation. Don't believe a word of it. Richard is doing what he thinks Tony Blair really wants - to give the appearance of reform while in fact securing the machine for its traditional purposes.

That, to your young ears, may sound desperately cynical. I don't think it is. I think in a baggy and clamorous democracy such as ours, ambiguity is essential. People have mocked the civil service for its fixation on memo-writing and its predilection for convoluted language.

They do not realise that cloudiness is often necessary. Ministers don't want clarity.

Here's Stephen Byers at trade and industry - wet behind the ears still, if you ask me - inviting business people to tell him how to run the department.

It's a fundamental error. Government isn't a sub-department of business.

It's something completely different. We are often called amateurs, not least because we don't have to undergo serious training. We will send you on a few courses at the Civil Service College, you will listen to a few lectures from your elders and betters and that will be about it: but you will be drinking in experience. Politics is an art and art can be better appreciated than taught.

Naturally you want to get on. Here are some moves. Get a posting to a minister's office as soon as you can. Private office will always be a springboard, for the simple reason that the perm sec's office is next door. However much real power ministers have, they are the fulcrum of the system. Working for a minister - charm! - puts you in the engine room.

Don't worry too much about which department. It's a Whitehall myth that the Treasury calls the shots, therefore you have to go to Great George Street. Look at me and most of my colleagues.

When it comes to selecting permanent secretaries, what counts is political clout, the old pals' act and your past success as a courtier.

Richard Mottram isn't at environment because he is a Treasury man, and certainly not because he knows much about local government or housing. But when he was in defence and on a critical secondment to the Cabinet Office, he made friends and influenced people. He built up a policy speciality and cultivated an image - in his case that of a non-Oxbridge cheeky chappy (he went to Keele). Of course, women and ethnic minority officials have a wider set of choices to make about how they present and what they specialise in. What I am saying, of course, is that you should ignore a lot of the guff we have had from Blair about 'joined-up government'. As long as we have cabinet government we are going to have departments. And the existence of departments in Whitehall entails people to run them. I don't mean that in a managerial sense either.

Departments are 'run' by perm secs only in the sense that there is a body of work that has to be got through.

The key job is keeping the secretary of state happy. Civil servants can only do so much. The fate of some - perhaps most - ministers has nothing to do with how well they perform in their departments; it hinges on party alignments, friendship or enmity with Peter or Gordon.

Outsiders are sometimes amazed by how much time we spend talking about ministers' reputations, up and down. But the reason is obvious. They are our raison d'etre. You have not come into this game to be a manager. If you wanted to run a great bureaucratic empire you would join a company and get paid a large sum for downsizing it. You are in this business because you are a political manque - by which I mean you are fascinated by the exercise of power but either lack the chutzpah to get up on the hustings and tout for votes or think yourself cleverer than most politicians. And so we are.

Yours truly,

MANDARIN.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Upcoming Events

Subscribe

Get your essential reading delivered. Subscribe to Management Today