Farewell to Ian Watmore – the antithesis of Sir Humphrey

By Tony Collins

A good insight into the departure of Ian Watmore comes from Peter Smith of Spend Matters who says:

 “He (Watmore) lives in Cheshire still (and does a weekly commute to London) and this seems to be driven by personal factors – he wants to do more non-executive stuff,  work with charities, education bodies, and support his wife who is being ordained as a vicar shortly.

“There will be a competition to replace him but Melanie Dawes (?) will be the interim Perm Sec.”

Watmore leaves in June at the height of his civil service career. It would be too easy to cite his background as UK Managing Director of Accenture to say that he came to the civil service with a sympathy for big suppliers and not upsetting the smooth-running of the government IT machine.

Indeed he will not go down in civil service history as a heavy-handed enforcer of central government reforms: he respects too much the work of senior civil servants and particularly CIO colleagues to be seen as an opponent whose will cannot be overcome.

Rather he has been an authoritative go-between, a pragmatist who has sought to implement the radical cost-saving measures demanded by the Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude without giving departments any excuse to cite central diktats as the reason for disruption to frontline services.

Watmore gave an insight into his relationship with Maude at a Parliamentary committee hearing earlier this year. His comments also exploded the myth that the private and public sectors can be run on comparable lines.

“I have been on both sides of the divide on private and public,” said Watmore. “The thing that is different about  the public sector is the combination of leadership from the ministerial class and the civil service class. There is no corporate analogue for it. People talk about the way it analogises to the business world—I don’t think it does; it is different…

“I work on a daily basis with Francis Maude. I am not going to make any political comments about Francis, but as a man I feel that he cares about what he is doing;  he knows his stuff and he drives us very hard. In response, I give, shall we say, robust advice in return. Mostly, he listens and sometimes I defer to him and we come back to the same place we started, but more often than not we flesh out the differences behind closed doors and then we come out on a united front. I think that is the best way to get civil service and ministerial leadership. If you have a weakness in one part or the other, the whole thing breaks down.”

At Campaign4Change we will remember Watmore’s career in the civil service for his openness, honesty and lack of ego.

When answering questions before Parliamentary committees, some permanent secretaries seem to see MPs as adversaries. These civil servants’ replies are characterised by clever, evasive or adversarial comments.  They apologise if the mistakes were before their time but usually they’re protective of their departments, as if defending their children against criticism by outsiders.

Watmore is the antithesis of the archetypal civil servant.  Whereas, for example, most civil servants want to keep confidential internal “Gateway” reports on the progress or otherwise of high-risk IT and construction projects, Watmore is on record as saying he would like them published (though they haven’t been).

And he has earned respect among MPs for his straightforwardness. He’ll speak lucidly on his department’s achievements, but not his own.

How much effect he has had on other departments is hard to gauge. It’s difficult to see how the most ruthless enforcer in the Cabinet Office could ever have much influence in other departments.

For though the Cabinet Office has powers from David Cameron to enforce cost-savings,  departmental heads remain accountable for their own decisions. Watmore has spoken of the tensions between the Cabinet Office and departments.  He told MPs earlier this year:

“There are lots of examples where we and Departments have common cause. There will be times when we challenge what they want to do and it can be a tense relationship. Sometimes we agree with what they were going to do anyway, and other times they agree with us, but it means that we are engaging with them.”

Chair: How well is it working on a scale of one to 10 … on the cross-departmental working?

Watmore: “On the whole cross-departmental working, I would say it is somewhere around the six or seven mark. There is more to do.”

Watmore shuns the trappings of high office.  He doesn’t even have an office. “I refuse to have one,” he told MPs this year. “I don’t believe in physical offices for managers. I hot-desk wherever I happen to feel it is appropriate to work that week…

“What I tend to do is I move around and I sit with a different group in the Cabinet Office for a week. Initially people think it is a bit odd having the Permanent Secretary sitting next to them but once you carry on as normal they realise you are just another person working there.

“You actually get to find out quite a lot about how the operation works by being there with the staff for a week as well as hearing from them in a more formal setting…

“It is how I operated when I was in business so it is a long-term way of working. But when I came into Government I discovered it by accident; when I wanted to move the staff from two different bits of Government into a new building and introduce flexible working, hot-desking and all the rest of it, I said, ‘If it is good enough for the rest of the staff, it should be good enough for me…’

Will Maude find someone authoritative and influential but without a big ego to replace Watmore at the top of the Cabinet Office? A difficult assignment.

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4 responses to “Farewell to Ian Watmore – the antithesis of Sir Humphrey

  1. Pingback: Watmore’s successor – the biggest challenge? | Campaign4Change

  2. Mr Gavigan, Gerry, thank you for the reference to the article about the delay of CloudStore 2. Am working on a difficult document at the moment and have had to resist the temptation until now to break off even briefly to make a few points about CloudStore.

    1. If HMG was Sainsbury’s, the Office of Fair Trading would shut them down. browse the shelves and what do you see, over and over again? Answer: “The supplier did not provide a description of this service, please click on the link to find out about this service”.

    2. Click on the link and what do you see, over and over again? Answer: products/services offered by the same big suppliers the G-Cloud team are supposed by some to be trying to escape from.

    3. One of Chris Chant’s last engagements in the public sector was a speech to SOCITM where he repeated his allegation that Whitehall departments have wrongly allowed suppliers to dictate their IT strategy. G-Cloud, as ever, is held up as the solution to this problem. But G-Cloud is an IT strategy and the question must inevitably arise, is G-Cloud itself dictated by the suppliers? http://www.publicservice.co.uk/news_story.asp?id=19569

    Good to hear from you but now, back to the difficult document …

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  3. I wondr how David Moss might update this

    http://www.dmossesq.com/2011/10/you-just-cant-keep-good-man-down.html

    given the final entry in that article I thought it relevant to link to this

    http://www.channelregister.co.uk/2012/05/16/g_cloud_two_delayed/

    Like

    • Watmore has his critics, David Moss among them. I am not so sure you can blame Watmore for what goes wrong in government even when it’s, to a limited extent, within his purview. He is a big cog in the government machine but he cannot tell departments what to do. It’s unfair to criticise him for what is not happening.

      No civil servant in the Cabinet Office, however senior, can do much. Only the Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, with the backing of Cameron, has the power to effect real change and Watmore has been there to say what change is possible and what is not. Whoever has his job will be criticised by their minister for going too slowly and not being radical enough, and by departments for being too hurried and dictatorial.

      A possible criticism of Watmore is that he has been too cautious, in the belief that the IT and other machinery of government generally works well. I disagree. The NAO has qualified the accounts of large departments and exposed serious incompetence within the civil service. Yes, tax discs are available online but that’s the exception. To some observers government administration is characterised by fraud, error, waste and long waits on the phone for the public. Those who advise caution in reforms of the civil service are missing the point. Things don’t run well at the moment. The benefits of genuine innovation – of taking a chance – are potentially huge. It’s worth taking sensible risks. Perhaps a criticism of the past is that those risks have been regarded as too great, which has protected the status quo, stifled innovation, kept SMEs at bay, and allowed the big IT suppliers to remain dominant in government.

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