Jon Thompson, former permanent secretary of the UK Ministry of Defence, and now chief executive of HM Revenue & Customs: Exclusive Interview

By on 07/04/2016 | Updated on 07/04/2016
Jon Thompson, former permanent secretary of the UK Ministry of Defence, and now chief executive of HM Revenue & Customs

In any ranking of the developed world’s most challenging government jobs, digitising the UK’s tax collection and challenging its civil service’s class system would stand high in the premier league. It seems that Jon Thompson has finally found a job more challenging than reforming Britain’s defence operations

The years between 2009 and 2015 were tough for the UK’s Ministry of Defence – and during that time, Jon Thompson held two of the ministry’s most challenging jobs. As group finance director, he plugged a £38bn black hole in the ministry’s budgets, engineered a vast efficiency programme and devolved financial control to the operational level; as permanent secretary, he cut spending by 20%, overhauled governance, oversaw the withdrawal from Afghanistan, ran the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), and carried through huge organisational reforms.

On 4 April, Thompson started work in a new job – and, against the odds, he’s found a still more testing role. As chief executive of HM Revenue & Customs, he must deliver what HMRC’s ‘single departmental plan’ calls “the biggest transformation of the tax system in a generation”, creating “one of the most digitally advanced tax administrations in the world.”

As if that’s not enough, he’s also the civil service’s ‘social mobility champion’, charged with broadening the leadership cadre beyond its traditional base in the privately-educated upper-middle classes. And this task – which pits Thompson and his allies against a highly resilient, 160-year-old Whitehall culture – may represent a more formidable hurdle than either his MoD or his HMRC jobs. Jon Thompson clearly likes a challenge.

From Norwich to Rome

On the social mobility front, he certainly has the right credentials. He joined his local council’s finance team as an apprentice straight out of school, and worked his way up via finance and management roles in businesses, local authorities and the civil service. On joining Whitehall’s ‘Top 200’ leadership group, he says, he was one of just six members who’d attended a ‘comprehensive’ – the non-selective state schools serving the vast majority of the population. “When I first started [in the civil service], people would literally speak in Latin to one another,” he recalls in his distinctive Norfolk accent. “I was slightly disconcerted, given that I don’t speak any Latin!”

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The civil service leadership has changed a lot in the decade since. “In the past it was very much a pyramidal system where you headed up towards the top, but increasingly the exchange of people coming into the civil service, and then going out and coming back, has increased the diversity of that [Top 200] group,” he says. “The culture’s moved on quite a long way.”

Still, he doesn’t underestimate the work that remains to be done. Entrants to the Fast Stream graduate training programme, he points out, come from a narrower demographic even than Oxbridge’s famously-moneyed student group.

Within a few weeks the civil service will publish a social mobility strategy, he explains. There will be policy changes to, for example, expand the number of apprenticeships. There will be process changes: “We’re going to look at the entire people lifecycle: how we recruit, appraise, promote and so on”. And there will be cultural changes: “We have to get into the ways in which we lead and communicate and engage and inspire people.” The aim, he adds, is to “fundamentally shift the way in which the civil service is perceived”, making it more appealing to people from non-traditional backgrounds. Having worked up the draft strategy with a group of other permanent secretaries, Thompson says, “we took it to the Civil Service Board, and said: ‘We want to be this ambitious’.”

Arms trade-offs

Thompson is no stranger to ambitious plans. At the MoD, he recalls, “we’ve had what [think tank] the Institute for Government said was the biggest organisational change programme in Europe.” Handed a tough Spending Review settlement by the 2010-15 coalition government, “we needed to resize everything by 20% – and that’s what we did.”

One of the biggest changes involved reforms to Defence Equipment & Support (DE&S) – the MoD agency that buys military hardware. “There are three fundamental problems with military procurement,” explains Thompson. “One, generally the programme is more ambitious than the amount of money you’ve got, and you’ve got to get these two things in balance. Two, while the requirements are generally set fairly well, on occasion they’re completely over-specified and you’ve got to have some mechanism for challenging that… And thirdly, you need a ‘match-fit’ DE&S”.

The original solution was to hive off DE&S as a ‘Government-owned, Contractor-operated’ (GoCo) business, giving it the autonomy to challenge over-optimistic spending plans and ‘gold-plated’ equipment specifications, and freedom from the civil service pay controls that constrain recruitment. But the search for a contractor failed, and the MoD adopted plan B: DE&S was given greater independence as an MoD agency, a ‘Joint Requirements Council’ was established to challenge specifications (see our video interview below for more details), and the agency was permitted to disregard some pay controls.

This model, says Thompson, has brought defence procurement “quite a long way” towards the ambitions of the GoCo strategy, and the agency is making “good progress” on corporate governance, management information, capacity and capability. In the event, liberating DE&S from pay controls has had the paradoxical result of cutting the staffing bill, as the agency can now attract permanent employees and reduce its dependence on expensive interims and consultants.

The “watershed moment” for DE&S, says Thompson, came when the Public Accounts Committee decided there was no longer a need for the National Audit Office to produce an annual report on the Defence Equipment Plan. “I’m not complacent,” says Thompson. “I’d say the job was two thirds done.” But he’s certainly pleased with how far DE&S has come: “So far, so good,” he comments. “The question is how far you can push this model – but we’ll continue to push it.”

No change to the endless change

The scale of reforms required during the 2015-20 Parliament, says Thompson, is “as ambitious as it was in 2010.” And the £9.2bn of savings demanded in the Spending Review present a huge challenge – but there’s one big difference this time round: thanks to the government’s promise to spend 2% of GDP on defence, MoD staff know that savings will be ploughed back into the organisation. In 2010-15, says Thompson, all the money was returned to the Treasury; but this time, “people knew that if they were creative, reforming, if they could drive efficiency savings, then that money was going to be recycled back into the priorities that they were putting forward.”

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Those efficiency reforms lie in three broad fields, he explains. There’s a £2.1bn cut in the MoD’s annual £20bn supply chain spending. There’s a big land sales programme: “We have an unsustainably large estate,” comments Thompson. “We have more than 1300 sites in the UK; more than 1% of the land mass is in my control.” And most painfully, there’s organisational changes that will cut over 15,000 civil service jobs, bringing the civilian workforce down to 41,000 by 2020.

The military workforce will meanwhile grow by nearly 3,000, satisfying Conservative promises to protect armed forces jobs. Might it not be more efficient to retain cheaper civilian staff, cutting military personnel in back office roles? “It’s a democracy, and all reviews start with some policy framework within which the government of the day says there’s some preceding policy that we need to put through this SDSR. No review is ever completely blank,” replies Thompson carefully. “What ministers were very clear about was that they wanted to maintain military personnel numbers, but they were very open to us putting forward fairly radical army reform programmes in which we take those personnel and put more onto the frontline.” Ultimately, he explains, the UK will be able to field an expeditionary force of 50,000 armed forces personnel – a big increase on the current 30,000.

Preparing for a darker world

The requirement for this expanded force was set out in the SDSR, which anticipated what Thompson calls “a more uncertain, darker world”. The “direction of travel”, he explains, is away from “really significant, major interventions” and towards “more work on counter-terrorism; more fragmented, smaller operations overseas; more work with other countries in building up their capacity and capability; more international exchange.” Investment is going into special forces, surveillance and intelligence, force integration, and collaboration with overseas allies.

Indeed, the SDSR is itself a result of far better collaboration within the UK government, says Thompson: “For several parts of the SDSR, we joined up with other organisations and did an integrated submission.” The MoD and the ‘Single Intelligence Account’, for example, worked together to identify and champion their shared interests – “and that’s been a real step forward in the last five years; to be able to do that.”

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Such collaboration sounds like common sense, but “there are still some countries where different agencies don’t share information”, he notes, arguing that the 2010 appointment of a national security adviser (NSA) marked a key milestone in UK defence collaboration. The NSA provides a “controlling brain”, ensuring with the chief of defence staff “that people debate and discuss at the permanent secretary level in order to explore all the options, so you get the NSA giving an integrated set of advice.” That in turn “means that organisations have to compromise; and it definitely leads to more collaboration.”

Thompson sounds much more confident about this SDSR than he did about its rushed 2010 predecessor – some of which was later unpicked as ministers reversed key decisions. “In 2010, the evidence base could have been much stronger,” he comments. “This time we spent 18 months gathering all the evidence, doing independent reviews, getting people to come in and challenge us – so we had that stock of evidence ready to engage ministers.”

So the SDSR and savings programmes will bring further major changes to the organisation – and Thompson is aware of the concern among defence specialists and unions who’ve seen few details on how these changes will be delivered. “Ministers are considering whether they want to publish a reform programme in 2016 to show how it all stitches together,” he says. “I can’t definitely commit to it, but I think it would be good to be transparent about the enormity of the change programme.”

Taking HMRC online

MoD’s enormous change programme, though, will be led by Stephen Lovegrove – the former energy department chief who’s replacing Thompson at defence. And Thompson is already getting stuck into his next enormous change programme: at HMRC, he’s tasked with introducing real-time, personalised digital tax accounts, whilst shedding thousands of case management staff and reducing “something like 178 offices down to 13 regional hubs”.

HMRC’s reform programme is designed “to build one of the biggest customer-centric digital businesses in Europe,” he comments. “The logic is that really world-class customer performance should drive yield. I’ve built a career on working for organisations in challenging situations, and I thought: ‘That looks really interesting – right down my street’. So when the chancellor asked me, I took it.”

So George Osborne came to you? “I’d expressed some interest in some other departments, then this vacancy came up and I was asked if I was still interested in it,” he replies. “I met the chancellor and had a conversation about it, and then I was offered the job.”

Although Thompson will be a first permanent secretary and accountable to Parliament for HMRC’s budget, he was not offered quite the same job as his predecessor Lin Homer. She ran the whole business, but Thompson will report to former second permanent secretary Edward Troup – now executive chair, and in charge of tax policy. “You’ve got to get the right balance between having someone who’s an expert in tax and having someone who can lead an organisation, and I guess in the end finding someone who can do both was quite difficult,” Thompson comments, pointing out that the leadership model has gone through various iterations over the years. However, he acknowledges that “there’s a lot of questions about how this is going to work. There is actually a document which I would like to publish that clearly sets out what the two roles are. My early recommendation is that we publish it, and then I think there’ll be some clarity.”

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Olympic-standard plate-spinning

What is clear, though, is that the organisational change and digital reform briefs sit firmly with Thompson. Does HMRC’s strategy look uncomfortably like the kind of big government IT project which have gone so badly wrong in the past? “Let’s be up front: we’re entering into a period of incredible ambition, and there are a number of different risks we have to manage,” he replies. “There’s a huge amount of work to be done on the digital, people and property sides, and we have to integrate all that, and to radically change the organisation whilst still providing the service.”

Thompson has “read the papers that set out these decisions, and on the face of it, it looks like a perfectly manageable transition,” he adds, but “obviously, it’s an inherently risky thing to do.”

HMRC’s plan, he explains, “essentially finishes the very long-term mega-deal with the IT industry, and some of it’s being in-sourced”. So civil servants will take direct control of some of the required infrastructural and business process changes; meanwhile, private companies will be encouraged to build interfaces serving different customer groups, using ‘APIs’ to exchange data directly with HMRC’s systems. “There are people in the market who are developing solutions for small businesses,” Thompson notes. “KPMG has a small business tax service that costs £10 a month, and that gives you access to the kind of scale of IT system that you need.”

Asked to name the biggest attribute he’ll bring to HMRC, Thompson points to his experience running huge change programmes at MoD: “The secret of success is the people and the leaders; I’ve learned a lot about myself as a leader, and about how you motivate and engage and change an organisation,” he says. “I’m not a tax expert, but I reckon I can deliver an ambitious programme of change”.

And the biggest challenge he’ll face? When he took the MoD perm sec’s job, he replies, he’d already been the finance chief for four years – but here “I’m going in as the chief executive officer knowing almost nothing about the organisation, so the steepest curve for me is to learn the business. And that’s another reason for travelling and listening and learning. I just want to meet people and talk to them; to sit with the finance team and say: ‘What’s it really like handling this volume of transactions?’”

Christmas cheer

When he does so, he may face questions about his Christmas holiday: when Civil Service World magazine asked dozens of perm secs to name their favourite Christmas games, Thompson replied: “Jägerbombs and Twister”. The idea of the Ministry of Defence’s permanent under-secretary drinking boozy, caffeinated cocktails whilst playing a chaotic children’s game will have raised eyebrows across Whitehall, and was picked up by the Times newspaper. “That was a joke!” he says, laughing. “I assumed that everybody would say that they’d watch a film, and I thought: ‘What shall we say for a laugh?’ We didn’t actually play it!”

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In fact, Thompson is – unostentatiously – a committed Christian, and Christmas passed without either Jägerbombs or Twister. But the fact that he made the joke speaks volumes about the approachable, down to earth nature; a nature which will give him the best possible chance of bringing people with him at HMRC. When compared to the relatively po-faced responses of his peers, it also demonstrates why he’s uniquely able to achieve one of his key goals on social mobility: to “fundamentally shift the way in which the civil service is perceived”.

It’s easy to see why, given his experience, his skills and his character, Thompson was given his twin missions: to dramatically change one of the civil service’s biggest organisations, and to radically broaden the narrow profile of its leadership. And he’s ambitious on both fronts – but he knows that neither is a foregone conclusion. The social mobility work, he says, “is a great thing to do: time will tell!” And on HMRC, he’s going in with his eyes open: “I’m not going to deny that it’s going to be pretty challenging,” he says. “That’s why I took the job!”

See our news piece on how removing pay controls has brought down staff costs at DE&S


The Global Government Forum: Five Thoughts for Better Government

Jon Thompson on learning from overseas

To help our readers get the best out of Global Government Forum, we’ve started asking interviewees five standard questions – four seeking practical advice and opinions, and one to reveal something a little more personal. This is an edited version of Jon Thompson’s answers –  click below to watch his full answers in a GGF video.

Can you name one lesson from abroad that’s helped you or your colleagues?

“In the Ministry of Defence the biggest lesson we’ve learned from overseas is from the Americans, who have a long-established military requirements challenge function. We stole that idea from them; we talked to them quite a lot and we developed our Joint Requirements Council. So all military equipment projects of any size go there, they’re ‘scrubbed’ – so you look at the fundamentals of that project. That’s been a great lesson that we’ve learned from the Americans.”

Are there any projects or ideas here that might be useful for people overseas?

“A huge number of people come from overseas and ask questions about how you run the organisation: how you get the right balance between politicians, the military and civilian leadership – because we are very integrated, the three groups. We’ve done a massive amount of work on how you govern an organisation in an integrated way, and we have a lot to offer people: we published a document called How Defence Works.”

How can we improve the ways in which civil servants learn from and share ideas with their peers overseas?

‘The biggest thing to do is travel and talk and listen, because there’s a huge world out there. There are probably no new problems to be solved in the world of defence, and the best thing to do is to get people to share their experiences. We try to do that as much as we can: we have a very extensive programme called Defence Engagement. Talking and watching and learning enables you to share what you’re good at and to learn from other people.’

What are the biggest challenges in your field over the next five years?

‘In defence, we’ve moved away from state on state conflict to a very much more uncertain world in which groups and states want to challenge the norms of how the world works, and they’re challenging it in different sorts of ways – whether that’s through offensive cyber, or religious fundamentalist groups that want to change the world order. That’s the biggest challenge for us, and our response needs to be very, very flexible so that we can accommodate new challenges”.

What’s your favourite book?

‘This probably sounds a bit sad, but my favourite book is Jim Collins’ Good to Great. I’ve read it half a dozen times. I hadn’t picked it up for about three years until one of my friends went on a development course, came back and said: ‘You’ve got to read this great book by a man called Jim Collins’. So I picked it up and read it again!

“I just think it’s a fantastically great book about how you take an org forward in a very collaborative way. I’d recommend it to everyone.”


For up to date government news and international best practice follow us on Twitter @globegov

See also:

Loosening Defence Equipment & Support pay controls has brought down salary bills, says Jon Thompson, UK’s outgoing MoD perm sec

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Tom Scholar appointed new permanent secretary of UK Treasury

Interview: John Manzoni, chief executive, UK Civil Service

Colin MacDonald, CIO for the government of New Zealand: Exclusive Interview

Andrew Hampton to lead New Zealand national security agency

Managing the EU Migration Crisis

Mike Bracken, former head of the Government Digital Service (GDS): Exclusive interview

Una O’Brien, permanent secretary, UK Department of Health: Exclusive Interview

Sir Nicholas Macpherson, Permanent Secretary, HM Treasury, UK: Exclusive Interview

About Matt Ross

Matt is Global Government Forum's Contributing Editor, providing direction and support on topics, products and audience interests across GGF’s editorial, events and research operations. He has been a journalist and editor since 1995, beginning in motoring and travel journalism – and combining the two in a 30-month, 30-country 4x4 expedition funded by magazine photo-journalism. Between 2002 and 2008 he was Features Editor of Haymarket news magazine Regeneration & Renewal, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development; and from 2008 to 2014 he was the Editor of UK magazine and website Civil Service World, then Editorial Director for Public Sector – both at political publishing house Dods. He has also worked as Director of Communications at think tank the Institute for Government.

One Comment

  1. Jag Patel says:

    At a time when this Government is making repeated and permanent cuts in public spending to eliminate the budget deficit and pay down the national debt, the Ministry of Defence cannot afford to subsidise failure in the Defence Industry any longer.

    Whereas the foremost priority is to never allow MoD’s equipment budget to get out of balance with planned capability commitments, there remains an alternative to delaying projects or cancelling them altogether – eliciting Private Sector investment capital into each equipment procurement programme. Not only will this new source of funding relieve the burden on the equipment budget, but it will also preserve the integrity of the rolling 10-year Equipment & Support Plan.

    Accordingly, each Bidder should be invited to declare that part of the bottom-line Selling Price for the overall programme which is to be paid for, from his own (or third party) funds to advance the developmental status of his starting-point for the Technical Solution – as a separate line item on DEFFORM 47 to enable Abbey Wood Team Leader to make a like-for-like comparison.

    The more money Bidders put in, the less MoD will have to contribute and the lower the risk that the Team Leader will be censured for exceeding the sanctioned budget. See illustration on how this works.

    Whereas MoD’s focus on upskilling its existing workforce to a level comparable with counterparts in the Defence Industry will yield results only in the long term, the policy of eliciting Private Sector funds into defence equipment procurement programmes will have an immediate impact upon the Treasury’s objective of securing underspend in MoD’s budget this fiscal year, and for the rest of the Parliament.

    Normal commercial pressures and market forces prevalent within the context of a multiple-phase winner-takes-all competition will, in themselves, persuade Defence Contractors to take a business decision to voluntarily make a contribution from their own funds, towards the cost of advancing the developmental status of their starting-point for the Technical Solution, to meet the Requirement. It will not even require expenditure of procurement officials’ time, in trying to persuade Bidders to put their own money into defence equipment programmes – saving MoD an enormous amount in overhead costs.

    Such a feat has not been achieved on any previous equipment acquisition programme for the UK’s Armed Forces, not least, because no one (including the Secretary of State for Defence) has provided convincing proof of any Private Sector capital invested – instead, this issue has been dominated by lies, disinformation and spin.

    An added benefit to be derived from compelling Bidders to borrow funds from third parties such as Finance Houses or Private Equity partners to pay for the cost of developing their Technical Solutions is that, the monitoring and scrutinising function will be automatically transferred from MoD to the lending institutions, who are likely to be much more rigorous and demanding regarding day-to-day performance than disengaged, here-today-gone-tomorrow procurement officials – yet another good reason why the headcount at MoD Abbey Wood should be reduced even further!
    @JagPatel3 on twitter

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