Monday, January 12, 2015

Norman Baker tries to let some fresh air in

Civil Service World has an interview with the former Liberal Democrat minister Norman Baker about his experience of working with Whitehall.

Generally, Norman is positive about it:
Did your views of the civil service change during your time in office? 
Yes, my opinion of the civil service went up while I was in office. Most came across as professional, caring, properly politically neutral, and friendly. I do think however they are generally a bit risk averse, and the creative ideas tended to come from ministers rather than officials. However they were generally keen to please and responded well to initiatives.
What challenges did you face in working with civil servants? 
I thought the machine was a bit sluggish and plodding on occasions, and it was difficult always to move it up a gear, or bypass the blockages. In addition, there was sometimes, unintentionally I think, a bit of coalition insensitivity. 
If you were Cabinet Office minister, how would you change the civil service? 
I would not change very much, although I do think there is a need to promote and stretch those with real ability more quickly and creatively than happens at present.
However, when he is asked to tell a story that reveals something about the civil service, Norman's reply sounds heartfelt:
At the Department for Transport, I found it relatively easy to get millions allocated for projects I was enthusiastic about, but almost impossible to get the windows opened in my office. Despite the fact that the ambient temperature was clearly wrong, I was repeatedly told it would ruin the air conditioning, and then when I finally sourced a key myself, was told I shouldn’t use it. Why? I might fall out!

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