Accountability, creativity & going alone

Summary

Rambling thoughts on moving from accountability within a hierarchy to the free world

This is something that I’ve been pondering more and more as I reflect on my time in the civil service with the benefit of lots of time having passed. I’ll always look at my time in Whitehall as a time where I grew up. In one policy area, I said to people that I aged 10 years in just over 10 months. One of the things that has also become apparent to me is the amount of general ‘observing’ I had subconsciously been doing – reflected in a number of the articles and blogposts that I’ve since written.

The nature of the civil service is one of hierarchies – everyone accountable to someone else above them. I blogged about this in Accountability. Having led a generally solitary existence since leaving the civil service, I want to pick up on a number of observations between the two ‘lives’ – one that I led and one that I’m leading.

Crushed

One of the things that I observed with secondees to the civil service, or those with experience of the private sector, was their frustration over some of the systems and processes within the civil service. Things that should have taken only a few minutes can have the habit of being dragged out for far longer. That said, this was also my experience of large organisations in the private sector too – having spent time in both banking and retail. The term ‘diseconomies of scale’ spring to mind.

While my seven years inside the system were fascinating, with hindsight I can’t help but feel that I wasn’t cut out for rising all of the way to the top. One of the lessons of growing up is finding your boundaries and limitations. Since leaving the civil service I’ve felt a number of mini-explosions of creativity – limited only by my own shortcomings and a lack of people to bounce people off of on a daily basis. Not just “people”, but friendly people with a variety of talents, passions and skills to bring to the pot.

There were a number of occasions where I had this in a couple of teams I was in, in the civil service – normally when the more senior managers were out. In one, there were four of us – all of the same grade, working on a particularly tricky problem at the time but coming from different perspectives. When the four of us got together as we every-so-often did, there was something anarchically pythonesque about it – picturing the scene of a board member or minister coming down on the day everyone else above us, asking who was responsible for us.

“We’re all responsible!”

“Then who is your leader?”

“We don’t have a leader!”

“Then who takes the decisions?”

“We all do!”

And we did. In those teams – but not in many of them. The system of briefing and minute-taking – while essential for Whitehall to function was something I found to be utterly soul-destroying. Imagine it being like writing an essay, having it torn to pieces not just by one marker but by several, re-writing it, having it torn to pieces even more by the same people, repeating it over and over again before you get the grudging approval ensuring it could go up. Briefing and minute-taking is an art that I never became a master of because it is ever so subjective, with mountains being made out of molehills. Things I was panicking about all those years ago seem absolutely trivial now.

One thing I’d never be able to do in the civil service is writing a blog on public administration like this. It would be too risky – a lightning conductor for media firestorms. Having Puffles buzzling around was about as far as I could push the boundaries – the House Rules being one of the key safeguards. I tipped off a couple of very senior civil servants about the existence of Puffles while I was still in the civil service, how I was using the account and the safeguards I was taking. I didn’t want anyone ‘up top’ to say they didn’t know about Puffles were there to be a media firestorm around a rogue tweet.

Beyond the hierarchy

In general, I can write what I like on this blog regarding all things public administration and policy-making. The only restrictions are related to information that I’ve been given in confidence during my time in the civil service that I was under a duty not to make public. Think of it like when a lawyer or a doctor retires. They don’t go around telling everyone commercial secrets about the firms they worked for or the medical notes of patients.

There’s also the feedback issue. Briefing and minutes by their nature are painful things to put together – and all-too-often I’d take that criticism personally. The feedback on these blogposts whether in comments or in tweets has been far more positive. This inevitably spurs me on to do more of it. Last week in particular was particularly ‘successful’ as far as number of hits were concerned – just short of 2,500. (Well over twice my normal weekly average).

Over the past few weeks I’ve delivered a number of talks, presentations and workshops. Compared to the ones I was doing in the civil service, I felt at much greater ease. The one last night for the Open Knowledge Foundation in Cambridge was a classic case – even though content-wise the things I was talking about was probably fairly basic to more than a few of the people in that audience. There were a couple of points that people pulled me up on which I didn’t feel the need to be defensive about as perhaps in the past: I wasn’t defending Government policy. This was about feedback and learning.

Then there’s Puffles.

Every so often I’ll take Puffles to these events – or even to a coffee shop or library. In the civil service I wouldn’t have got away with taking Puffles everywhere with me. Yet it was via Puffles that Cabinet Office in part began the process of crowd-sourcing ideas for their new social media guidance. (Will Puffles get a credit in the final document?)

When people say “Aren’t you worried about your image?” my response is that Puffles IS my image. When people say that I look a bit silly with Puffles, my take is that if they’re not family, friends or followers of my Twitter account or of this blog, why should I worry about what they think?

As an observation, there’s something that makes several people revert to childhood or motherhood when coming face-to-face with a big cuddly toy. You only have to look at how people interact with Puffles. Puffles breaks down barriers between people, giving a nice ‘safe’ route into talking about what can often be serious and/or complex issues.

 

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