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It's fitting that Sir David Normington's final civil service office is located in the Whitehall headquarters of HM Treasury, core of the UK government machine. Next March he will conclude his five-year spell as first civil service commissioner and commissioner for public appointments and, in doing so, bring the curtain down on a 42-year government career. “I think that's quite enough, don't you?” he says, smiling.
His previous role was as permanent secretary, the top civil servant, at the Home Office - widely seen as one of the toughest assignments in government - and he admits that no subsequent job could be as “intense”. The experience, together with previous positions across the Department for Education, including permanent secretary, has afforded ample opportunity to understand and decode the practical reality of how ideas are turned into impact - both good and bad.
Insights on impact
For Sir David, it is critical that policies are designed by a wide group of people. Unfortunately, he explains, this process is all too often conducted within something of an echo chamber. “Ideas often originate in a vacuum from a small number of like-minded people,” he admits.
“The policy may be beautiful, but unfortunately it won't fly because it hasn't been tested. I think there is a tendency - both here and around the world - to think of policy as something that can be formed separately from implementation, but actually policy is nothing without it. And so when you design the policy you have to design the implementation, with contributions from people who understand what it is like when a policy collides with the reality of life. You need a wide group of voices included in order to know about the difficulties, and design ways of overcoming them.”
He's speaking from experience. His time at the Home Office saw him encounter many a challenge, ranging from prison overcrowding to immigration reforms. Education, too, saw him tackle issues such as a reduction of workforce numbers as well as overseeing a period of sustained improvement in exam results. Normington goes on to say that the more decentralised the delivery system, the harder you need to work at the details of implementation.
“In education, you're dependent on a huge number of schools and a huge number of teachers and head teachers to implement a policy,” he says. “If you haven't thought about how to make sure things actually happen in more than 25,000 schools then it really won't work. This then leaves plenty of scope for people in those schools to decide not to listen to ideas from the department any more.”
He also agrees with the suggestion that, in any government implementation, details matter. “Designing all the elements of the system which you need to bring about change is critical,” he says. “And once it is in place you need to attend to the detail again and again to make sure it is working. If it's not working you then need to identify what in the system is preventing change. I worked closely with Michael Barber at the Department for Education, and he rightly highlighted the need for a constant attention to detail through the entire implementation process. The more dispersed the system, the more this is necessary.”
The value of values
Since stepping down from the Home Office, three days of the week have been fully occupied by his duties at the Civil Service Commission, the independent body responsible for ensuring that civil service appointments are made on merit, and promoting the civil service values of honesty, integrity, objectivity and impartiality. With the clock ticking down on his five-year appointment, he remains gratified that the civil service continues to be the career of choice for huge numbers of the UK's top graduates.
“The fast stream still regularly appears in the top five choices for graduates,” he points out. “I think there have always been a lot of young people who have a sense of wanting to do something for the public good and are fascinated by politics. The lure of that, I think, is still very strong. The second thing - and you can see this from all the problems there have been in the financial sector - is that many of those starting out on careers are attracted to employers that still have a strong ethical and principles base.”
A cornerstone of the UK civil service for over a century has been that civil servants are appointed on merit after a fair and open competition: for what they can do, rather than who they know. Out of this grew the values - which are deep-rooted but were only eventually put into legislation in 2010. Normington is clear that values are not something that can take root overnight. “You can't just click your fingers or put them on a poster on your office wall,” he says. “It doesn't happen like that. We've had them for 100 years in the civil service and it takes time to for them to become part of the fabric of an organisation.”
He is equally clear that there has to be some follow-through or consequence if people are found not to be observing those values. In the civil service, the Commission, which I chair, is the final stage of appeal for civil servants who feel the values have been breached. We may only get 15 or so complaints a year, but that is enough so that every civil servant can appeal to an independent body if they are concerned that the values are being ignored.”
He admits that being a regulator, rather than a civil servant, has involved quite a change of role. “As a civil servant you work for the government of the day. As a regulator, my prime responsibility is to uphold the legal duty to ensure selection on merit, and inevitably that means sometimes saying ‘no' to former colleagues or to ministers.”
Sir David concludes his stint at the Commission in March 2016 and is unsure about what comes next - other than a slight expansion of his current role on the governing council of Warwick University and as vice-chair of the NSPCC. He is in no doubt, though, that the appeal of the civil service will long endure - in no small part because of the opportunity it offers to make a positive public impact.
“When you see the civil service working, it's just fantastic,” he says. “If you have the chance to make a real difference by, for example, improving schools or strengthening hospitals, then what could be better than that?”
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