Chris Pook, 31, is an example of just how adaptable civil servants can be. A genetic scientist, Pook gave up research at Cambridge University to join the civil service’s fast track entry in 1993.
Two years later he was private secretary to former energy minister Lord Fraser. But after the election in May 1997 he moved to the Commons to become private secretary to Ian McCartney, the new Labour employment rights minister.
Four months later he was commuting to Reading on secondment to British Gas as government relations adviser. ‘I had had two years in a private office,’ says Pook. ‘It was a hard job with long hours and I wanted to move on.’
He succeeded a previous secondee at British Gas in advising the board on relations and contacts with government. Pook expects to do this until May next year, then get involved in a commercial project with the company before returning to the DTI.
‘In my first week I was asked to prepare a submission to the Commons Industry Select Committee on competition in the gas market,’ he says. ‘It was a shock to find that even companies such as British Gas are not used to putting together coherent policy statements across the whole company. It took a while to realise that people are much more compartmentalised and focused on their jobs.’ Government is a much more collective organisation, says Pook.
The lessons he’s learned so far, he says, are how difficult it is for companies to keep up with government thinking and how little idea they have of how government works. ‘In a sense that’s not their job, but they should understand what’s driving the agenda. Also, it’s important for companies to communicate with government and to feed its policy-making process.’
Ian Priestner, head of public policy and government relations at British Gas, believes both the company and the government benefit from the two-way swapping of people between BG and the DTI and Foreign Office.
‘We’re a political company with a small ‘p’ and a lot of our work involves government. Secondees bring an intelligent detachment to our operations. In return they understand the commercial priorities and decision making processes of British industry.’