The UK civil service has been a second family to me. It has given me more than a career, as it’s been the reference point for my entire working life for the last 25 years or so. The civil service also led to the best days of my life — my wedding and the birth of my two boys — as I met my wife in the Cabinet Office. Two government salaries, paid parental leave and flexible working have supported a happy family life in a lovely house at the seaside.
It’s been a long journey. I arrived at the Department of Education and Employment at 31 years of age with a first class degree from Britain’s lowest ranked university and a masters in social policy from the LSE. I was doggedly working class, highly political and completely clueless about the civil service. I thought my job would be to run the country, well at least the education and employment bits of the government. I was, therefore, surprised, that the very important sounding role of Executive Officer involved nothing more than replying to angry letters and sharing ‘standard paragraphs’ with colleagues in neighbouring teams. Also, that my ideas and opinions were only valued when requested and that this almost never happened, apart from at the very end of formal meetings when my god-like team leader (grade 7, own office with carpet, parking space and first class travel rights) would say “Any ideas Walker. No I thought not. Keep up the good work.”
I’m not sure what ideas I would have added if given the chance. I’d left school with no A level qualifications. My working experience consisted of painting and decorating, working in an off licence (liquor store), and lots of various sales jobs, including founding and selling a sales recruitment agency. Despite this lack of relevant experience, I soon realised I had three things going for me to help build a civil service career: a team ethic, resilience and leadership from playing sport; an entrepreneurial mindset from being out of work so often; and a lot of varied life experience which helped with the ‘how would you explain this policy in the pub’’ question (prior to anyone in government giving a hoot about user needs).
I stayed at DfEE for 5 years, working on student finances (already deteriorating), the New Deal for the Unemployed and finally, for 18 months as Private Secretary to the Minister for Equal Opportunities and Early Years, which I absolutely loved. I was a bit of a maverick for the civil service of that age, and often got in minor trouble for breaking long established practices (for example, the outrageous act of telephoning and chatting to people who wrote letters to the department). But I generally felt that senior colleagues were supportive, encouraging me to be myself and accepting that I would sometimes test boundaries. This gave me the confidence to be myself, what a self help book might call ‘bringing your whole self to work’. And then work started to be fun!
At the Cabinet Office, I was the third person into the new Office of the Prime Minister’s eEnvoy with a role in government to help bring the UK’s people, businesses, and government itself into the information age. I enjoyed a wonderful 5 years or so in the Office of the eEnvoy. I was scruffy in a sea of suits, blunt speaking, and excited to champion change against the massed forces of resistance. Supported by some brilliant leaders, notably Alex Allan and Andrew Pinder (RIP). I did some great work — for example, on the UK’s first broadband strategy and on defining and benchmarking ‘transactional services’ in government for the first time. I also made some momentous mistakes, perhaps the best one being nearly getting the government sued because I forgot to post a Ministerial letter. Though, in terms of embarrassment, having to ad-lib an entire forty minute presentation to 20 or so telecom industry CEOs in front of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry was my lowest point, (I had forgotten the password to the team laptop with the presentation on it!). After this debacle, her feedback was “that was very entertaining Graham, but don’t ever do it again!”.
Thanks to Alex’s generosity, I also got to meet Tony Blair twice and to sit in on Cabinet on one memorable occasion. The Minister to speak at what was billed as the first E-Government Cabinet Meeting wasn’t confident using a laptop to make a presentation, so I sat behind a pillar pushing the arrow button to change slides! I’ve been lucky to meet three PMs — Blair, Brown and Cameron, with the day I enjoyed most being one in Gordon Brown’s constituency where I was truly inspired by his obvious deep affection for his constituents.
I left the civil service for the first time in 2004 to set up a strategy consulting business with two Cabinet Office colleagues. Our goal was to work entirely with overseas governments, to see some more of the world, meet interesting people and make some money! The UK Civil Service is held in such high esteem internationally that we always felt welcome by public servants everywhere in the world. We quickly built a successful business with more than 50 international associates and had great fun, whilst working spectacularly long and unsocial hours. All of my consulting was to overseas governments, sometimes paid by them and sometimes by technology companies. What was always true was they were paying for my experience of working in government, and my knowledge of how government worked. Plus some good ‘war’ stories about failed projects and personal mishaps and a bit of ‘magic dust’ by way of association with, at the time, the internationally well respected Blair Government.
I stopped travelling internationally when my children were still young but old enough to miss me, picking up consultancy work in the UK, including a lead role in building the business case and delivery model for a £300m programme of laptops and broadband connections for low income families, eventually launched by the PM, Deputy PM and SoS DfE at a slightly surreal event towards the end of the Brown Government. Next stop was a cup of coffee with Martha Lane Fox and my offering to work a month for free to see if I was any good. One of her aides sent me an email by mistake (meant for Martha) that described me as a ‘failed New Labour apparatchik’, but Martha took me on anyway! I’m glad she did because what followed were the most enjoyable years of my working life — working closely with the government but just outside and able to move fast. And working with Martha — perhaps the most positive and inspiring people I have ever met.
That leads me to my one piece of advice for civil servants. Love and leave the civil service at least once in your career. What the civil service teaches you is hugely valuable if you want to change the world for the better. And your experience of working with the public sector from the outside will make you a far better civil servant when you return. Working with Martha, I helped to achieve profound change — copied the world over — by making the case for and securing funding for what has become the Government Digital Service (GDS) and GOV.UK. I could not have done this inside government — the pace of change was glacial and I would have been lost in the hierarchy — but working for Martha gave me a chance to use my passion and everything the civil service had taught me to help her fundamentally reform government.
Here I am about to retire, proud of GDS and everything it’s achieved over the past 10 years. I’m now a digital dinosaur — a soon to be extinct breed of amateurs who saw change coming and tried to make it work for the government and the people that we serve. My final tip is that the best strategy tool I have ever found is serendipity and the best tactic is to always be ready for it! When you get a chance to change the world even just a little bit, be sure to grab the opportunity.
As someone who was adopted, I have a few second families that have supported me over the years and the Civil Service is one of the most important. I used to be the rebel teenager shaking things up but doted on. Now I am the slightly embarrassing uncle, who has perhaps overstayed his welcome at the family party. It’s been a blast!