What challenges did you face in working with civil servants?

My biggest challenge and disappointment was finding that our sickness/absentee rate was as bad as other government departments. I was surprised because there was such high motivation across the department. After some investigation I concluded that the fundamental problem was that people with a kind and good motivation in life are bad at dealing with poor performance. We therefore arranged discussions and training on how better to deal with poor performance.

If you were Cabinet Office minister, how would you change the civil service?

I am a great believer in the honour of public service. I remember Terry Leahy, when he was head of Tesco and asked to do some review for the government, said that if he had staff so dedicated to the work that they do it would be transformative. So what I would do to start with is to make a bonfire of targets and halt the privatisation of public services. I would pay fair wages to the civil service and reduce inequalities in pay rates, and I would ask them to help me in increasing the efficiency of our work.

Can you tell us a story that reveals something about the civil service?

I went to Seattle to represent the UK at the World Trade Organisation talks in 1999. There were massive demonstrations surrounding the conference centre, and tear gas and trouble. My private secretary found a way through the mess with a trolley containing the report that we had taken to distribute at the conference. We got through safely and people were impressed by our report. Representatives of other countries made a big fuss about not being able to get into the conference centre.

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