Last Thursday the Financial Times wrote a piece covering an exchange programme in which I took part, that allowed Permanent Secretaries of government departments and CEOs of major companies to spend a day in each others shoes. You can read it here:
October 16, 2014 12:53 pm
From Waitrose to Whitehall
By Emma Jacobs
Dame Ursula Brennan is impressed by the private sector’s ability to test ideas quickly. ©Charlie Bibby
You can learn a lot in a day. At least that is what Mark Price, managing director of supermarket chain Waitrose, thinks. For one working day, he shadowed Dame Ursula Brennan, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Justice, which oversees the UK’s courts and prisons. He returned the favour, inviting her to see the inner workings of the grocery trade.
The exchange was organised by the Whitehall & Industry Group , a 30-year-old charity that tries to build relations between the public and private sectors. It paired 13 top civil servants with 13 chief executives to spend a day at each other’s office. Billed as a chance for professional insight, it was also an opportunity to find out if their working lives would be any better if they switched to the other side.
These odd couples included Sir Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary, and Justin King, the former chief executive of Sainsbury’s, the supermarket chain; Philip Rutnam at the Department for Transport and Ana Botín, then head of the UK subsidiary of Santander, (before she was appointed to the helm of the Spanish banking group); and the Department for Education’s Chris Wormald, twinned with António Horta-Osório, Lloyds Banking Group CEO.
Drawing up the matches, Mark Gibson, chief executive of WIG, was keen to avoid any possible conflicts of interest and kept people away from departments with which they already deal. Although presumably Steve Mogford, chief executive of United Utilities, who spent a couple of days in the company of Lin Homer, of HM Revenue & Customs, pays taxes.
The purpose of these insight days? To show how their peers manage large, complex organisations and explain the machinations of business and government, which can seem bewildering to outsiders.
Mr Price, who oversees more than 300 Waitrose branches in the UK, and is also deputy chairman of John Lewis Partnership, the parent, was struck by the similarities between the private and public sector. His pairing with Dame Ursula made him realise that many of the challenges were the same, such as implementing strategy, managing risk and trying to get the best out of teams.
The need for civil servants to answer to select committees is not unlike regular financial reporting, suggests Mr Price.
Mr Gibson was surprised at the extent of common ground the permanent secretaries and chief executives. “They are both looking after large, complex businesses. The challenges of managing that are very similar.”
Mark Price admires the levels of support projects are given in the civil service
Business is often portrayed as an efficient machine compared with the bumbling, slow-moving bureaucracy of the civil service. Its sleek operations have been held up as a model for government. In a speech last month, Sir Bob Kerslake, the outgoing head of the civil service, said that the institution needed to move to a “corporate model with stronger professional leadership across Whitehall”. John Manzoni, a former BP executive, was chosen this summer as Whitehall’s first chief executive with a brief to improve efficiency in the era of government cuts. The job advertisement stipulated that candidates needed boardroom experience.
Mr Price insists he had not viewed the civil service with scorn. He notes that many in the John Lewis Partnership – Britain’s largest employee-owned retailer, of which Waitrose is the food division – have worked in senior levels at the civil service. “I know they are very capable.”
He believes that the civil service’s more “thoughtful” culture may be at the root of its portrayal as inefficient. “People perceive that as slow. It’s different to the knee-jerk culture of business.”
Nonetheless, Steve Holliday of National Grid points out that the experience helped him understand the difficulties of the civil service, particularly useful for a business that deals with government. “It helps you to understand how people operate. The frustrations. The lack of clarity. The challenges of working within the system.”
What can you actually learn in a day though? Mr Gibson says that he had to be realistic. Such senior figures were never going to be able to spare great chunks of their time.
Dame Ursula says that seeing someone else grappling with similar problems was encouraging and inspired ideas. “It’s not so much about learning new techniques as putting things in perspective and reminding you what really matters in your own job.”
Mr Wormald of the education department reflects that at this level of seniority the short, focused exposure was valuable. “It would not have been so useful earlier in my career when you need to go for a longer period, a set-piece secondment.”
Ana Botín of Santander teamed up with Philip Rutnam at the transport department. ©Reuters
Waitrose’s chief says that the hours in the public sector were no less demanding. When he arrived at the justice ministry at 8.30am, Dame Ursula was already at her desk. They parted company at 7pm and he expects that she stayed on working.
Mr Price feels the media place Dame Ursula under greater scrutiny than him. “There is a white heat that glows around her and the department. I get more background noise and superficial chatter about coffee.”
One area of particularly sharp contrast was in meeting styles. Mr Gibson detected a wave of envy from the civil servants. “The private sector is less consensual, more focused and outcome-driven.”
Mr Price felt he could learn from Dame Ursula’s “amazing grace”, adding: “There are times when we can all become defensive. She never got defensive. She was never ruffled and always honest.”
Dame Ursula envied business’s clarity over accountability and responsibility, as well as its ability to trial innovations. “A retail organisation [can] use the branch network to test ideas quickly before rolling them out nationally.”
It was a high level of support in the civil service that left Mr Price green-eyed. “Commercial organisations don’t have that. She has a team of people briefing her – that attention to detail is greater than anywhere in the commercial world.”
John Lewis has been held up by the coalition government as the caring face of capitalism and as a model for public services, allowing staff to sell their services back to the taxpayer through co-operatives in the style of the retailer. Does Mr Price think that is possible? Key to his organisation, he says, is “the happiness of the people who work there”. While its model of sharing power, knowledge and profits can be applied anywhere, it is “jolly difficult to replicate the detail”.
Whatever the styles and pressures, pay is an area of stark contrast. Civil service salaries are much lower than top business jobs. Does Mr Price deserve the higher pay? “Who knows?” he says.
Any plans to switch to the public sector? “I don’t anticipate a move.”
Original article (pay wall): http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/0b3790e4-544a-11e4-b2ea-00144feab7de.html