Editors Pick

Why you need to have a happy workforce

15th January 2024

Sir Philip Rutnam: the civil service is a ‘fantastic profession’

Sir Philip Rutnam

I worked in the civil service from 1987 until 2020; I began by working in the Treasury and my initial expectation was exceeded in terms of the interest in the work and responsibility that I was given quite early on. There’s this erroneous idea of it being a stuffy place full of hierarchy and restrictions instead I found it was a place where you were given very clear objectives and a lot of responsibility to take them forward.

The treasury is interesting because it’s right at the centre of government but you also realise that while the Treasury has the power to say no, it doesn’t generally have the power to make things happen: it can could refuse to provide the funding but it can’t actually usually change the system of education or healthcare.

Did I have mentors in the early days? I had very good people responsible from management giving me direction and mentors who gave me more informal advice. Like any career you do end up having to make your own way but what’s vital is to have exposure to a range of different people who have got advice and give advice and to try to learn the best from each of them.

When it comes to what the optimal setup is within the civil service, I definitely think you need to have people with a combination of deep specialist expertise with enough capacity as a generalist to get things done within government. In my own career I liked staying in roles for a good few years in order to try to get to grips with what was happening. By the time I was permanent secretary at the transport I feel we got the balance right.  Incidentally, I believe HS2 will get to Euston in the end – and I hope without too much delay.

The fundamental job of the top of the civil service is to help ministers – and sometimes they will have just arrived in position – to translate their political objectives into practice. It’s a question of helping ministers identify their objectives sufficiently and then work out how they are going to be turned into reality.

I never found it difficult to be apolitical because that’s a core part of the professional skills set. You are there to serve the democratically elected government so being impartial is a precondition for being there.

It’s important to understand that there is an enormous variety of different things you can do in the civil service: it has about 500,000 people employed in it.   People tend to think that the civil service is all about working with ministers – somewhere between Yes, Minister and The Thick of It.  There are scientific and technical jobs of huge importance.   In the Department of Transport working for me, there were people responsible for investigating air accidents or rail accidents; people working in and running really large operational systems like licensing drivers and vehicles at the DVLA – nearly 5000 people the single biggest employer in Swansea.   We also had really large complicated computer systems: so we had IT experts, and experts in programme and project managements.

In fact, we had everything from policy experts through to statisticians, data scientists, social researchers, economists, lawyers, actuaries, accountants, finance experts, and specialists in estate management. This is a hugely under-appreciated: if we don’t think this message is important we won’t end up with a good civil service.

There are also lots of different entry routes.   There are apprenticeship entry routes, and other degree entry options.   There is the fast stream with the exam, which is probably one of the smallest entry routes. You can become a specialist in HR, finance, or project and programme management or commercial management.

The fast steam certainly means that your get more opportunity subject to performance to get promoted earlier: but once you have got to grade 7 there’s no further advantage to being on that track. It is competitive but enormous efforts are made to identity talented people from a wide range of backgrounds. It’s a fantastic profession.


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