Leading Questions podcast: civil service leaders share what they learned from their time at the top

By on 15/04/2021
Senior civil servants share their leadership stories. Credit: Mark Bowley

From working with ministers to managing personal resilience, every episode a former senior civil servant reflects candidly on the challenges they have faced in their career and what they learned from them

Episode 5: The Treasury boy who supported four prime ministers ­– Lord Gus O’Donnell

“The idea that in any sense I planned my career is completely wrong.”

Lord Gus O’Donnell’s long career in the civil service started in 1979 in the Treasury and included stints as a diplomat in Washington, press secretary to prime minister John Major and cabinet secretary, head of the civil service and permanent secretary of the Cabinet Office under three prime ministers – Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron.

In this episode he discusses what it was like to work with four very different leaders, at very different points in their premierships, and with very different styles. He also reflects on his own leadership development, how he remained calm in a crisis and why he regrets feeling irreplaceable.

There are plenty of insights on the civil service too – with comparisons between the private sector, his drive to instil pride and why he always told people that if they want to get on, they should get out, get different experiences …and then come back.

Episode 4: When Whitehall leadership dictats don’t work with Professor Ciaran Martin CB

“The worst piece of leadership advice I got was: ‘be an authentic leader.’”

Of course be true to yourself and your values, says Ciaran Martin CB, professor of practice in the management of public organisations at the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government.

“The bit I interpreted wrongly, which made it the worst piece of advice, was to just act yourself at work,” he adds.

In this episode, Ciaran reflects on his long civil service career including stints at the Cabinet Office, GCHQ and latterly as the founding chief executive of the National Cyber Security Centre.

He considers the switch from central government into the intelligence agency; why “monolithic” leadership dictats from Whitehall were useless when working with technical specialists; the experience of publicly fronting the 2017 WannaCry ransomware attack; and whether Northcote-Trevelyan still holds.

Episode 3: ‘It takes two to tango’ with Ed Balls and Sir David Bell

“On the one hand, the cabinet minister has to understand that nature of the civil service role and the role of the permanent secretary as a leader alongside you…

“But I think the permanent secretary also has to respect that the cabinet minister is not necessarily someone to be shaped in content or style to the previous way of doing things.”

In this very special episode, Sir David Bell and Ed Balls explore the minister-permanent secretary relationship.

The two joined forces in 2007 at what was the Department for Children, Schools and Families – David as permanent secretary and Ed as secretary of state. They discuss first impressions and how they built a coherent team and vision together based on chemistry, trust, and openness, with plenty of fun thrown in there too.

But it wasn’t all plain sailing. The department faced a series of crises including SATs results, payments of Educational Maintenance Grants and the tragedy of Baby P. Both Ed and David talk about how they worked together in a crisis, and personally managed the pressure.

Episode 2: ‘A steep learning curve’ with Sir Peter Housden

“Did I feel equipped to become a permanent secretary? I thought I was, but I was very quickly disabused of the notion.”

In this episode Sir Peter Housden reflects candidly on his first permanent secretary role at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. He talks about how he prepared in all the wrong ways, what he learned from the experience and the coping strategies that kept him going.

In 2010 he put his lessons into practice when he moved to become the permanent secretary of Scotland. Here he explores how different the environment was, trust between civil service and ministers, public service reform, the Scottish Independence referendum and how good habits can save you.

Episode 1: ‘Understanding what’s expected of you‘ with Dame Helen Ghosh

“I have used the term over the years of ‘having running away money’. That doesn’t mean having a stash of savings, but it does mean all the time thinking to yourself, ‘If this job doesn’t work, if I can’t stand this a moment longer… what would I do?’”

Dame Helen Ghosh enjoyed a long career in the civil service, becoming permanent secretary of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in 2004 and then the Home Office in 2011. She then led the National Trust before becoming master of Balliol College, Oxford in 2018.

In this episode Helen discusses the importance of embedding in and understanding what different organisations expect from a leader, drawing on her extensive experience of taking the helm in very different environments.

She also considers the role of the civil service in serving the government of the day, and shares insights into her own hinterland and where she draws resilience from, as well as female leadership, dealing with public scrutiny and being open to the fact you may have made a mistake.

Your host is Siobhan Benita. Kate Hodge edits the show, and it is produced by James Ede. We really hope you enjoy listening – new episodes will be released every month. We would love to hear what you think so feel free to leave a comment below or give us a rating on whatever platform you listen on. If you would like to get in touch, you can tweet us @globegov or email us at [email protected].

About Kate Hodge

Kate is a journalist and editor, holding roles at both the Guardian and the Financial Times. She specialised in education and combines writing, commissioning and editing with social media and audience engagement. If you have any ideas you would like to pitch, or suggestions to improve the website, feel free to email her on [email protected]

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