Wanting more for Whitehall: Ian Watmore on life at the Civil Service Commission

Ian Watmore looks right at home in his office, located deep inside the UK’s Treasury headquarters. And so he should. His appointment as first civil service commissioner last September – succeeding Sir David Normington – marked his return to familiar turf.

His first taste of life in Whitehall came in 2004 when he was appointed the government’s first chief information officer – a role he assumed after 24 years with Accenture, including four as its UK managing director. He then took up a number of senior government positions in the 2000s before a brief period running The Football Association. He then returned to the civil service, capping his second stint by serving as permanent secretary of the Cabinet Office, a role he stepped down from five years ago.

So, it’s good to be back? Well, appearances can be deceptive, it transpires. “People  say to me: ‘How does it feel to be back?’ and in one sense I am back, but in another sense this role is outside of the civil service, so I have to be careful in my own mind not to actually think I have rejoined it,” he says. “It’s like everything – some things are still the same and some things are very different. There is quite a continuity of people at the top but, having said that, there are quite a few faces I don’t know at all. I’m now chairing a board of 10 commissioners – senior people who come from a wide range of backgrounds. ”

Settling in, gearing up

His five years away from Whitehall saw him take up a variety of roles in different sectors, as well as supporting his wife – a vicar – and spending more time with his four sons, one of whom is a professional footballer with Sunderland Football Club. But it soon becomes clear that the role offers a myriad of attractions.

“It fitted the space of something I could do, something I wanted to do, and something I felt I could add value to – and there not many roles out there which overlap like this,” he explains. “Most of the things you think are valuable, and you could add value to, tend to be full-time – which I didn’t want – or they are very part-time, and so it is harder to make a difference. This is a two-day-a-week role, but it’s one where I think I can have real impact across a civil service I care about a lot – and so it fitted my sweet spot.”

The role of the Civil Service Commission is to regulate recruitment to the civil service – “it’s more of a referee role than team manager or player,” says Watmore – by ensuring that appointments are on merit after fair and open competition. It also promotes civil service values and applies pressure and influence where needed. Watmore goes on to say that his eclectic career background has left him with new perspectives on the Whitehall recruitment process.

“I have got more of an insight into what it’s like to apply from outside and transition in,” he says. “It’s not just about the cv. If it’s a complete culture clash then it won’t work, so I’m looking for that balance – and because I’ve been through the process myself, I understand better how it works. And having worked more recently in the voluntary, sports, church and other sectors, I’ve got a better sense of what the wider system has got to offer.”

He also goes on to say that recruits can come from any of these sectors. “For example, on an issue like prison reform the justice world is populated by some outstanding charities which do great work,” he says. “So I think I have seen all sectors of the economy – which is quite rare – and this gives me a good perspective in this role. I’m looking for people who want to do this for the right reasons – not for reasons of ego or self-aggrandisement – but rather that they want to roll their sleeves up and get stuff done.”

Times are changing

It’s fair to say that Watmore could have chosen a quieter time to start a new job. British politics remains in flux – both from the ongoing impact of Brexit and also as a new administration and prime minister bed in. Watmore believes that the churn will have its attractions. “If you’re a talented person, you want to go where the action is,” he points out. “As someone once said to me, ‘if you train to be a soldier you want to fight a war’. And so, with regard to Brexit, if you’re a specialist in one of these key roles or have a level of trade expertise then where else are you going to find a better opportunity to apply your knowledge?”

He goes, on, however, to inject a note of caution. Depending on your point of view, Brexit is a giant risk or a giant opportunity and the same goes for the civil service itself. “If the civil service doesn’t do its job well in supporting Brexit then that will damage its reputation,” he says. “It has to be – and be seen to be – fully behind the government’s agenda. Although I think there are people out there in the press who are trying to position the civil service in a negative light in that respect, I’ve seen no evidence of that from within – I think the system has swung behind the government of the day – and we can help them do this by helping them get the best skills in.”

But Brexit is just one priority among many. Also looming large on his horizon are the issues of skills, diversity and life opportunities – all of which, Watmore believes, the civil service needs to improve on in order to remain strong. “The civil service continues to need new skills,” he says. “The world is more digital, the ways of delivering are increasingly reliant on commissioning, and we’ve got still some of the largest projects – such as High Speed Two – which means that project and programme management skills are very much in demand. And it needs to be more diverse. Gender – while important – is only part of it. The emphasis I am giving particular attention to at the moment is on racial and ethnic minorities, which is where I think the civil service is most behind the curve.”

His third priority – life opportunities – is one close to his heart. “It seems to me, and others I’ve spoken to, that the civil service is a place where we can give opportunities to people, not just to help the system become more diverse but also to offer individuals a step-up,” he reflects.

“I think back to 2007 when my minister and I had responsibility for apprenticeships and we found that our department had zero. We cleared the path and each recruited an apprentice for our office, and today there are literally thousands of apprentices being employed every year by the civil service. The Civil Service Commission is a small regulatory body from outside the system, so we can’t make it all happen – the civil service has to do that – but what we can do is help them through recruitment and apply pressure and shine a light when needed.”

Leading towards a legacy

Watmore’s fixed-term appointment runs for five years – plenty of time to make his mark and leave a lasting legacy. Getting there, though, will require collaboration and assistance from not only his small team at the Commission but also from colleagues across the civil service.

“When I was at Accenture, someone once said to me ‘if you look after your people and look after your clients, the rest will take care of itself’,” he recalls, “and I think this is a message that resonated and one I have taken through my career as a whole.” He also believes strongly in taking a stand when it’s required. “This doesn’t mean you should pick a fight once a week, but it means there are some things you should stand up for even at times when it’s not popular to do that,” he explains.

These traits will no doubt serve him well over the course of the next five years, helping him towards his end goal of leaving the Commission in a better place than when he inherited it. “Obviously part of the job is publicising the role of the Commission, but I don’t think it is a personality-cult type of role,” he concludes.

“When you think back to the Commission starting work in 1855, I think I’m the 24th person to hold the post.  What’s happened in the intervening century and a half is that the British civil service has gone from being fairly corrupt, nepotic and unprofessional to being to the one that everyone else in the world admires the most. So to be part of the system that is hoping to keep that going is a huge privilege.”



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