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

By on 15/04/2021 | Updated on 06/06/2024
Senior civil servants share their leadership stories. Credit: Mark Bowley

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

UK general election: how to get ready for the next government – BONUS EPISODE

Welcome to this special edition of Leading Questions in which we look at the key issues in the UK general election and how civil servants will be working to get ready for the next government.

The general election will be held on 4 July, with parties setting out their vision for the future of the country.

That means that right now, civil servants are working on ‘day one’ documents for new ministers who will be appointed after votes are cast. These briefings will highlight the key issues that the next government will have to deal with, and set out the path to implement key policies.

Richard Johnstone, the executive editor of Global Government Forum, Leading Questions podcast host Siobhan Benita and the former Director General, Government Digital Service Kevin Cunnington, discuss the policy battleground in this election; the issues the next prime minister will inherit – whoever they are – and what will be happening in Whitehall right now as officials observe the campaign.

Series 3

Episode 7: Flipping the script with former Bank of England chief economist Andy Haldane

In this, the last episode of Leading Questions series 3, Andy Haldane talks about thriving on leading through crisis and the challenges and opportunities “when the old is broken and the new is yet to be forged”.  

Having spent 32 years at the Bank of England, latterly as chief economist, headed up the UK government’s Levelling Up Taskforce, founded the charity Pro Bono Economics, and spent the last two years as chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts, Andy has a range of roles and experiences to draw on. Yet though he has been very honest publicly about his organisations’ successes and failures over the years, he hasn’t divulged much about his own leadership style and motivations – until now.  

The man once named amongst the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine has seen his fair share of crises – not least, during his time at the Bank of England, the global financial crisis of 2008, the European debt crisis, Black Wednesday, and the COVID-19 pandemic.  

“Looking back over those 32 years, it was hallmarked or perhaps pockmarked by crises. They always come along, don’t they? But we seem to have had a particularly virulent sequence over the last 15 years plus,” he says.  

It is fortunate, then, that Andy is energised by the opportunity to drive big, system-wide change.  

Motivated by his belief that the most effective and durable way of making change is to engage as broad a base of stakeholders as possible, Andy describes the importance of listening to those not often given a voice. Indeed, speaking to people for whom the economy was not working proved to be “one of the most valuable sources of intelligence I could have had”.  

He also speaks of his tendency to be publicly honest about the things that have gone wrong and to suggest ideas radically different from the status quo; his concern that civil servants do not have “a long enough window of relative tranquillity to build their sea defences against whatever the next tsunami might be”; and of the importance of having an “optimistic, non-fatalistic mindset”.  

This fascinating episode is a window into the motivations of a man in the business of “establishing next practice rather than best practice thinking”, of considering what’s around the corner, and of “instilling a sense of belief about what’s possible”.

Episode 6: From COVID-19 to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: Estonia’s top public servant Taimar Peterkop’s tips for dealing with crises 

Estonia’s most senior civil servant, secretary of state Taimar Peterkop, shares his insights into leading through crises.  

From dealing with a vulnerability in the country’s digital ID system – which involved updating thousands of digital services – to the country’s response to the COVID pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this is an episode packed with lessons on what to do when government is faced with emergency.  

Taimar’s main learning from the digital ID crisis was the importance of building relationships with the private sector, academia and civil society – so that they can be called upon when the government lacks the internal capabilities to deal with crises on its own.  

“You need all the different players in these situations to talk the same talk and to have the same message: ‘This is the problem, this is the solution, and don’t worry’,” Taimar says.  

Through clear and consistent communication with citizens, the Information System Authority, which led the work to secure the IDs and which Taimar headed up at the time, managed not only to retain trust in the digital ID system but to actually increase it. Indeed, following the incident, use of the cards actually began to rise.  

When COVID hit, by which time Taimar had been appointed secretary of state, he took the lessons from that crisis and applied it to his leadership through the pandemic, not least in looking after the wellbeing of public servants, many of whom were having to work 16-hour days. He brought in mental health advisers and gave officials who had done exceptionally well gifts to boost morale. 

Also describing his part in moving management of the pandemic response from the health department to the prime minister’s office and establishing a COVID taskforce; Estonia’s readiness for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; his background as a lawyer and technologist; and why he has decided to work for two years in his second term rather than the usual five, this is a not-to-miss episode for any public servant interested in how government can prepare in the era of permacrisis.  

Click here to find out more about Global Government Forum’s training courses

Episode 5: ‘I always knew that my anchor was health’ – Dame Una O’Brien

In this episode, Una O’Brien, who was head of the UK health department between 2010 and 2016, speaks with podcast host and former colleague Siobhan Benita about her unconventional route into the civil service and what she learned along the way.

Having been appointed health department permanent secretary just as a coalition government was formed and responsible for implementing sweeping and controversial reforms, Una was right in the thick of it – being scrutinised before a parliamentary committee no less than 28 times. 

It was a “bumpy” ride, she admits, but one she was absolutely ready for.  

Being the daughter of Irish immigrants who were “firm believers in giving back”, Una worked in politics, academic research and other roles before joining the civil service Fast Stream in her early 30s.

She held roles in the Cabinet Office and transport department but was always drawn to health.

Looking back, it was time spent setting up a hospice and care centre for people with AIDS and HIV in London in the 1980s that had the most profound effect, she says, having seen first-hand the people who were on the receiving end of poor care and discrimination – and wanting to play a part in making change.

Also describing her role in inquiries into major healthcare failings at two hospitals and “deeply hurtful” realisations about her own department’s conduct, insights into working with ministers, and her current work as a career and leadership coach, this is an episode packed with personal reflections from a leader whose motivations never wavered.

Click here to find out more about Global Government Forum’s training courses

Episode 4: ‘Find your references, your mirrors and your mentors’ – Israel Pastor Sainz-Pardo  

Podcast host Siobhan Benita speaks know-how and knock-backs with the deputy director of learning at Spain’s National Institute of Public Administration.  

Israel Pastor has more than 20 years’ experience as a senior manager in the Spanish state administration – including stints in the health, environment, finance and justice departments – affording him a broad perspective on leadership and what it takes to make the organisation you’re in charge of better.    

Having studied hard to get through a rigorous selection process whereby people with no prior professional experience can become an executive member of the civil service – entering at grade 26 of 30 – Israel found himself leading a team in an unfamiliar organisation whilst still in his 20s.     

He advises others who find themselves faced with such a baptism of fire, to “find your references, your mirrors and your mentors” and to have the humility to learn from less senior colleagues.  

Entering any new high-ranking position requires vision, the ability to connect disparate projects and programmes, and the resources “in your backpack” to make improvements, he says. And as listeners will find out, it is these capabilities, along with a focus on shining a spotlight on the work of his teams and being attentive to colleagues’ needs, that epitomise his leadership style.  

Also describing his current work leading the civil service’s learning and development programme, Israel shares his view on what leaders’ greatest challenge will be in the coming years and how to overcome it, and touches on much more besides: on frank discussions with political bosses; pushing back against the stereotype of the lazy civil servant; the importance of institutional communication; and remaining faithful to your public service calling.  

Don’t miss this episode featuring a man who has been determined from a young age to be the best public servant he could be.  

Click here to find out more about Global Government Forum’s training courses

Episode 3: ‘Empowering people with a sense of possibility’ – Iain Rennie

Iain Rennie spent 30 years in the New Zealand Public Service culminating in eight years in the top job – that of state services commissioner.

In this episode, Iain tells podcast host Siobhan Benita about talent management reform, his realisations about effective leadership, his work as a consultant to governments around the world, and why public servants should be mindful of the increasingly diverse perspectives of citizens.  

Realising that great leaders in the New Zealand Public Service often reached their potential “despite the system” rather than because of it, Iain’s focus in his latter years in the top job was on devising and implementing a more systematic way of identifying and nurturing talent and “empowering people with a sense of possibility”.

He credits this and subsequent work with women now accounting for more than half of chief executive roles – but there is “unfinished business” he says, particularly around ethnic representation.

Now working with civil and public services around the world to improve their effectiveness, he describes what looking at governments from the outside in, as well as the inside out, has meant for his perspectives.

And he also looks back on the lessons from COVID – particularly that governments “failed pretty spectacularly” when it came to wellness – and his belief that the frames put around government response to major shocks are too narrow.

Also sharing his thoughts on bias in decision-making, waning public trust and the rise of mis- and disinformation, and the promise of technology to change public services for good, this is an episode packed with the kind of wisdom that comes only through decades of hard work, experience and reflection. 

Click here to find out more about Global Government Forum’s training courses

Episode 2: ‘Serve your country – you will never regret it’ – Noreen Hecmanczuk  

In the first of our Leading Questions podcasts to feature an American federal government leader, Noreen Hecmanczuk reflects on a long and diverse career which has seen her serve in the White House twice.  

She took her first job in Washington D.C in the early 1990s – inspired by her WW2 veteran uncle – and hasn’t looked back.   

The senior adviser on strategic engagements and communications to the US federal CIO, Noreen is right at the heart of government. But having worked at nine agencies and for six administrations – and in a range of roles from strategic communications to stakeholder engagement, HR to technology – she has a very well-rounded perspective on government operations.  

From volunteering to take notes at meetings of foods standards executives in the midst of a deadly E coli outbreak to a particularly sobering moment whilst at the Department of Labor, Noreen has always shown a dedication to understanding her colleagues’ needs and how she might help meet them.  

And she has kept two quotes front of mind: Teddy Roosevelt’s “Do what you can with what you have, where you are”, and her boss Clare Martorana’s motto that “people support what they helped create”.  

Also covering improving citizens’ interactions with government through technology, why leaders shouldn’t confuse their role with that of a subject matter expert, the particulars of the American system and much more besides, this is an episode brimming with insight from a public servant whose work always comes back to one thing: resolutely serving the American people as best she can.  

Click here to find out more about Global Government Forum’s training courses

Episode 1: ‘Unless you fight for it, it’s not worth it once you get there’ – Phindile Baleni

Phindile Baleni was appointed secretary to South Africa’s cabinet and director-general of the presidency – the first woman in the country’s history to hold these roles – amid the pandemic in April 2021. It’s a good thing she likes a challenge.

With a background in maths and law, she joined the public service in 1994 just as South Africa was transitioning from the old apartheid regime to a new democratic order. Working in provincial government before moving to national, Phindile’s career has been akin to “navigating an obstacle course”, not least on account of her race and gender.

From a magistrate describing her as a “little girl” and refusing to address her in the courtroom to coming up against lawyers in the public service who excluded her by speaking Afrikaans, Phindile has faced discrimination with strength and grace – sometimes working to educate bigots and when necessary “fighting fire with fire”.

She says she has always had people “who have known what I’m capable of who troubleshooted on my behalf” but it is principally her self-confidence – built by her parents from a young age – that has helped to pull her through. She is, she says, “motivated by struggle”.

Using her experiences and leadership prowess to support others – Phindile subscribes to the idea popular in Africa that “a star shines because the other star gives you the light for you to shine” – she has worked to help talented colleagues get over crises of confidence, pushing them out of their comfort zones so that they can achieve their best.  

In this first episode of the new series of Leading Questions, Phindile also describes the “harrowing” experience of transforming a public service built on apartheid – to serve four million of a population of 54 million – into a democratic system capable of serving all South Africans.

From an “eclectic” leader who comes across as humble and unassuming, this is a lesson in quiet unshakable strength, resilience and never giving up.

Click here to find out more about Global Government Forum’s training courses

Series 2

Episode 6: Getting to grips with the ‘friendly monster’ – Gertrud Ingestad

“It really was an adventure. But I was ready for it.”

Gertrud Ingestad – now director general for human resources and security at the European Commission – had been a language teacher in her native Sweden for 13 years before she decided to take a leap into the unknown.

Joining the Commission (the “friendly monster”) as a translator in 1995, Gertrud rose up the ranks, holding a variety of roles in different units, from head of training, to resources director, to information systems and interoperability solutions chief. Now approaching retirement after 27 years at the Commission, in this episode Gertrud looks back at a career she describes as a “series of banana skins”.

Having started in her latest role as HR chief on 16 March 2020, the first day of lockdown in Belgium, she and her team have been responsible for negotiating a new work model for a hugely complex organisation for which in-person collaborative work is a core value – and with the complicating factor that most of its employees have special conditions under ex-pat status that means they must work primarily from Brussels. As such, Gertrud is eminently well-placed to share lessons valuable for anyone navigating the post-pandemic world of hybrid work. Also touching on experiencing burnout, being alert to cultural sensitivities, the growing importance of managers’ people skills, and why authenticity is key, this not-to-be-missed episode is full to the brim with wisdom from a woman who proves that being an introvert and an effective leader are not mutually exclusive. 

Episode 5: Public management perspective – Professor Colin Talbot

“You don’t really understand your own system until you compare it with someone else’s.”

Professor Colin Talbot of Manchester University and the University of Cambridge took an unconventional route into academia, having spent time in the private sector and local government before landing his first academic role. A seasoned researcher and author who specialises in public services and public management reform, Colin’s previous experience as a consultant for public organisations allowed him insight into their true operating nature and not just the ‘party line’ he is usually fed in his research work – and a unique and rounded perspective.

In this episode – a departure from our usual focus on public service leaders’ career challenges and highlights – Colin takes a look back at the UK’s public management changes under New Labour, compares the UK governance system with that of other countries, and explains what he sees as the pitfalls of the country’s heavy reliance on central government, including “fundamental mistakes” made during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Peppered with ample context, insights, and examples of what he believes the UK has got wrong – and right – in this podcast Colin puts forward his key messages with verve: that strengthening and empowering local government and encouraging civil servants to spend time in frontline delivery roles are vital if public services are to be improved.  

An absorbing listen, those seeking to understand public management challenges and how to overcome them will not be disappointed.

Click here to find out more about Global Government Forum’s training courses

Episode 4: Championing diversity of thought – Yazmine Laroche

“Talent comes in every shape, colour, size and we have to be able to tap into that.”

Yazmine Laroche had a varied 30-year career in the Canadian public service, rising to become public service accessibility chief and the first person with a visible disability to be appointed deputy minister in the bureaucracy’s history.  

In this episode – recorded shortly after she retired from the public service in June – Yazmine gives an extremely honest and compelling account of the obstacles she faced in her career. From accepting a job she felt ill qualified for and was told she would hate to striving to improve the working lives of public servants with disabilities after decades of minimising her own, Yazmine has not shied away from challenge. And all in the name of one thing – her resolute commitment to public service.

A hugely experienced and astute leader who believes her time as a public servant has made her a better person, Yazmine shares her hard-won advice for aspiring leaders, speaks of the “tremendous importance of allyship”, and explains why failing to create representative teams could lead to “terrible outcomes”. One not to miss.  

Episode 3: Taking the good with the bad – Michael Wernick

“Any kind of meaningful career is going to experience setbacks and defeats. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a successful career.”

Michael Wernick spent nearly four decades in the Canadian public service, rising to become the country’s most senior official before his retirement in 2019. In this episode he reflects on some of the many lessons of his long and varied career, its supreme highs and its crushing lows.  

Drawing on his experiences as a white city-dweller at the helm of what is now known as the department of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs to the three years spent as clerk of the Privy Council of Canada and secretary to the Cabinet, Michael is open about the public service’s strengths and its failings.  

Touching on the systemic racism in government processes, why he has a problem with the notion of ‘speaking truth to power’ while simultaneously advocating candour, and why his vision for the public service is akin to the moving staircases in Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, this is a valuable listen for anyone interested in the inner workings of government.

Episode 2: Staying sane while managing change – Sir Suma Chakrabarti

“You should never pick me for any job which is business as usual… I am my best or worst, depending on your point of view, when dealing with change.”

From helping to establish the UK Department for International Development (DfID) after its separation from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to managing a prisons crisis as justice department permanent secretary, Suma Chakrabarti has never been afraid to take on big, complex challenges. Quite the opposite – the opportunity to create change is, he says, what energises him.

In this episode, Suma reflects on his long career in the UK civil service – which also included stints in the Cabinet Office and Treasury – and his time as president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

Discussing his decision to leave one civil service job because he was at loggerheads with the minister, why he thinks the merger of DfID and the Foreign Office is a mistake, the future of work, his advice to ambitious civil servants, and much more besides, Suma reveals himself as a bold, astute, and empathetic leader with a truckload of lessons to share.

Episode 1: Engaging with risk – Stephanie Foster

“I’m really kind of glad I didn’t know all the rules because if I’d stuck to the rules, we would never have done it.”

Stephanie Foster had been in defence for 23 years when she volunteered to take responsibility for a floundering AUS$1bn stimulus package for local government. Despite facing public criticism over the scheme that she feared might end her career, she says breaking the rules – albeit unknowingly – helped her team deliver 1,000 projects across Australia.

Now deputy secretary governance, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and head of reform for the Australian Public Service, Stephanie also talks of the mighty challenge of delivering the Foster Report in response to an alleged sexual assault in Parliament House, against a politically-charged backdrop and under intense media scrutiny.

Looking back at her long career, what’s clear is that she has become a leader formed of the qualities she admired in her mentors – one who isn’t afraid to be afraid, and who is perfectly imperfect.

Series 1

Episode 7: Adjusting your leadership to the grain of the organisation – Baroness Minouche Shafik

“You have to flex your leadership and you don’t really know how to do that until you’ve really understood the culture of the organisation.”

Minouche Shafik was the youngest ever vice president of the World Bank. In 2008, she became permanent secretary of the Department for International Development, before moving to the International Monetary Fund as deputy managing director in 2011 only to find her new boss engulfed in scandal.

From there, she became the deputy governor at the Bank of England and is currently director of the London School of Economics.

Minouche draws on her vast experience to reflect on her own leadership style, her belief in servant leadership and her passion for promoting diversity.

She also explores the challenges associated with leading decentralised organisations, the beauty of an independent civil service and why a small gesture from Christine Lagarde has stuck with her for many years.

Episode 6: Leading the digital revolution ­– Professor Sir David Omand

“GCHQ is an example for the rest of the public service… here is a case where civil servants have made technology sing.”

In 1996 David Omand faced his first major leadership challenge: he had become the director of GCHQ and was charged with continuing the intelligence agency’s post-Cold War programme of technological transformation and reform.

In this episode David discusses his experience of being “the young man sent from London to destroy the organisation”, the overlooked concept of followership and the importance of having a narrative.

He also explores his time as permanent secretary of the Home Office, reflecting on why he put so much store by safe spaces, how a life-threatening diagnosis of Non-Hodgkin lymphoma changed his approach to work, and becoming the UK’s first Security and Intelligence Coordinator.

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 edited Series 1, and James Ede produced it. Series 2 is edited by Mia Hunt, and produced by Jack Aldane. 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].

One Comment

  1. Maisss Hamza says:

    Outstanding program I learned a lot from these great leaders and enjoyed specially the podcast with my daughter Minouche Shafik
    Thank you
    Maissa Hamza

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