FOR A man famous for being painfully ousted from his job as head of the Prison Service, Derek Lewis is remarkably upbeat about the public sector.
Though he returned to private enterprise after the three years of flak he took with the prisons, his business interests are strongly wedded to the state.
Mr Lewis is executive chairman of Patientline, a listed company that puts gizmos at the bedside of those in NHS hospitals, to keep them entertained and informed about their treatment. He also chairs a private business that provides services to further education colleges and he is treasurer of the University of Essex.
The latest Patientline terminal has a 12-inch TV, radio, phone, e- mail and internet access (it has a keyboard), offers pay-per-view movies, has video games and is an easy way to keep in touch with friends and family. It banishes, forever, the ward TV lounge and the pay-phone down the corridor - the boredom and isolation of a stay in hospital. The terminals are provided free but there are charges for use.
Patientline is based in Slough and it is about to move to a business park there but Mr Lewis is about as far from the boss portrayed by Ricky Gervais in The Office, the television series set in the town, as it is possible to get.
No management speak, no home-spun philosophising. Just sensible, plain talking, in measured tones, even when speaking about subjects that he finds emotive. So didn't the beating he took from Michael Howard put him off working with state? Mr Lewis was made to walk the plank, following a series of deeply embarrassing jail break-outs, in 1995, by the then Home Secretary, Mr Howard.
"It [the public sector] is a fascinating arena. It is very large and very complex. The motivation of people for doing things differs from the private sector. It's always a great challenge," he says.
His argument is that the public sector is simply a more interesting place to work, because of the variety and the complexity, where people are charged with multiple objectives that often conflict - such as punishment and rehabilitation in the criminal justice system.
He describes the three years he spent as head of the Prison Service, after he was plucked from the media industry, as "one of the most satisfying times I have spent" and that he has "no regrets". He concedes there are downsides, such as the politics, the risk-averse culture and the time you have to spend on administration, rather than "driving change".
Fair enough, but what about getting shafted by Mr Howard? Didn't that make him want to run as far from the state as possible?
"It's very bruising if you allow it to be bruising. You need to view things positively, satisfy yourself that you handled it as well as you could."
Yes, but what of the dangers of becoming a victim of politics? Of ministers saying that a failure is operational, and therefore a civil servant should pay, rather than admitting a policy failure?
Pressed further, Mr Lewis says: "I had support from within the Prison Service but Michael Howard had other views. He took the view that someone needed to go and it wasn't going to be him."
Mr Lewis says that one big difference between the public and private sectors is that in the public arena, one mistake will bring you down. There are no second chances. "The City is much more prepared to view performance in the round," he observes.
Mr Lewis, 57, had a successful corporate career before the prisons job, working for Ford, Imperial Group (Imperial Tobacco) and, from 1984 to 1991, Granada, the ITV television group which then also had a large catering business, where he was finance director.
While chairing UK Gold, a pay-television channel provider, Mr Lewis was approached by a headhunter about the prisons job. He was initially dismissive, knowing "nothing" about prisons, but learning more about it, he became "hooked" on the idea. …