At Whitehall, John Doddrell’s job was looking after the privatisation of British Coal. Today he’s helping Shell International decide whether to move into the financial services business. Richard Brooks prepared reports for industry ministers on the gear and bearings industries. Now he’s helping car component suppliers improve their shopfloor performance. And having made sure Labour employment rights minister Ian McCartney had settled in, Chris Pook went from being a minister’s private secretary to a British Gas government relations adviser.
The three are the latest in a long line of civil servants to trade places with industrialists on temporary assignments. Almost all return to the corridors of power when their one to two year secondments come to an end. But now when they say ‘Yes, Minister’ they can be sure the minister in question is better briefed on how their policies will affect industry. And the companies they have left will be in a far stronger position to influence and understand that policy.
Trading places got off the ground in the 1970s but only really became a sustained programme during Michael Heseltine’s first stint as trade and industry secretary. He saw the temporary attachment of DTI civil servants to private companies and the inward recruitment of industrialists into the DTI as part of the drive to build a partnership between government and industry.
Former industry secretary Margaret Beckett gave the scheme a further boost last year with her campaign to recruit more private-sector executives into the highly successful Export Promoter Partnership. The scheme taps into their knowledge and experience to help firms increase exports.
Although many Whitehall departments encourage secondments, the DTI has by far the most, says Kevin Byrne, head of the DTI’s secondment unit. Last year it had 90 civil servants on loan to industry and 200 recruits from the private sector.
Senior DTI staff see secondments as a useful career move. And they return to the department with a valuable understanding of industry’s needs and its perceptions of government. ‘The DTI is industry’s voice in Whitehall and we want to hear what industry’s views are on policy. It’s our job,’ says Byrne.
But what do firms get for the £40,000 £50,000 a year they have to reimburse the DTI to cover salary, NI contributions, pension and VAT when they hire a civil servant? Byrne, himself a former secondee to the Milton Keynes Chamber of Commerce, says that when civil servants get to grade C, the grade at which most secondees are hired, they will have valuable administrative skills to offer as well as their intimate knowledge of government and, of course, their contacts.
‘They will have managed units within the department and briefed ministers,’ says Byrne. ‘They can adapt quickly, have good analytical skills, can chair meetings and make presentations. They have good communication skills and can manage budgets.’
But above all, says Byrne, civil servants are good at consultation, taking account of a wide variety of stakeholder interests and strategic options to reach an overall view.