For & Against: Businessman as civil servants

Don’t leave industry to amateurs

There are only two sensible things you can do about the Department of Trade and Industry. Virtually abolish it or you could do what it seems Patricia Hewitt, the trade secretary, is busy doing, and build a ‘flagship trade department’. There are three elements to this worth looking at.

First is the proposal to introduce leading business people to help frame this strategy and, presumably, also help deliver it.

Various ministers have had a hankering to bring business people into Whitehall to shake up those so-called fuddy duddy civil servants who don’t know one end of a widget from the other.

It’s been done before, and it’s worked up to a point. The present venture, however, looks as though it will be a lot more whole-hearted and thorough. We should all support it: I certainly do.

There’s also a question of whether these individuals are going to guide what you might call the macro strategy of the DTI as a flagship industry, or the micro strategy of particular industries or particular areas of government involvement or regulation.

But fresh air and experience can’t be a bad thing, opposed as it may be – but with the greatest of discretion – by many people who think they’ve seen it before and know that it doesn’t work. These people who think they’ve seen it before and know that it doesn’t work must be seen off.

The second interesting element to these ideas is the way they take on the Treasury. For as we all know, since 1997 Gordon Brown has taken over a good deal of Whitehall, most notably indeed not just the social security side, but also the industry side.

The question is whether Mrs Hewitt’s initiative will have enough clout and backing to impinge on Treasury, then they are going to get fed up and not think it worth contributing.

And at a higher level the same goes, Mrs Hewitt will have to be able to take on Gordon Brown, and win – invoking the prime minister if necessary – if this new machine, promising though it looks, is actually to deliver.

But if it does deliver, as it must, then it must be good for industry and business and the profession to have a strong and informed department to stand up for it.

Industry and business is too important to be left to the amateurs and the bankers.

  • Sir Peter Kemp is a member of the ICAEW and a former senior civil servant

Let real businessmen lend a hand
That Sir Peter Kemp, a former mandarin at the Treasury, should back the recruitment of businessmen to the civil service at the Department of Trade is heavy with irony. But it should also add to the argument that bringing in business brains to the heart of government is a sound idea.

Businessmen have advised government aplenty on trade (Sainsbury has even produced a government minister) but Patricia Hewitt’s statement last week that businessmen should be recruited into the civil service is a proposal of a different order. This is not just the odd tip we’re talking about, we face businessmen managing civil service departments.

The culture clash is a predicatable one but the conclusion that civil servants need a lead from business is not too difficult to see.

But in pushing this policy forward Hewitt has created some intriguing problems, ones that will need imagination and no small amount of patience to overcome.

Firstly Hewitt will have the age old problem of pay levels to sort out.

Businessmen will undoubtedly expect more pay than their civil service counterparts. A massive differential could easily be the recipe for friction and prompt an unproductive factionalism with the Whitehall department. Nobody needs bitter civil service cliques forming an awkward squad against the businessmen.

Next Hewitt will have to seek out people who are not only good businessmen but will have some vision of how a conservative civil service culture can be transformed into a much more commercial organisation. Not only will the new business recruits need to have policy ideas, they will also need good diplomatic skills to get civil servants on side.

Efforts over at the Inland Revenue to make civil servants more customer-focused might provide important direction in this respect. Though that project is far from finished.

The biggest area of friction is likely to be that of risk-taking. Facing risk is at the heart of business and entrepreneurship, something all businessmen understand.

But civil servants are trained in dealing with public money using certainties. Convincing civil servants that certain risks are worth taking will be a huge undertaking and probably the biggest hurdle that businessmen entering the DTI will face.

Overcoming that problem probably requires more than parachuting in a few experience business brains. It possibly requires a fundamental overhaul of civil service training and the way they approach public service.

  • Gavin Hinks is news editor of Accountancy Age

Related reading