Magazine article Management Today

Ways to Win in Whitehall

Magazine article Management Today

Ways to Win in Whitehall

Article excerpt

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 offers a mandarin's advice.

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 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 cook-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, 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 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. …

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