MGC, 1984 Leaver

I could never choose a favourite subject at school – I liked a bit of everything. I was at my best when I was drawing together the arguments and joining things up, rather than investigating the detail.  

This made it hard to decide what to do with my career.  After studying PPE at Oxford, I nearly became a lawyer.  But I was intrigued by economics.  In my year off, travelling round Asia, I loved finding out how individuals, families and communities lived and worked together.

I joined the civil service - via the economics fast stream - in 1989.  I liked the idea of applying my economics to real-life policy problems, and I’ve never looked back.  It was the last year of Margaret Thatcher’s government, and since then I’ve served 5 more Prime Ministers.  

The civil service offers enormous variety, and we work at a very fast pace.  After 6 years as an economist I branched out and became a general policy adviser. I spent 15 years at the Treasury, during John Major’s and then Tony Blair’s government, working on tax, public spending, Europe and monetary policy.   After that I went to HM Revenue and Customs where I led large-scale operations and negotiated higher tax payments from some of the big companies.   During the Coalition years, when David Cameron was Prime Minister, I ran the Cabinet Secretariat - sitting at the Cabinet table every week and taking the minute. 

In 2015 I became a permanent secretary, running a government department – Housing, Communities and Local Government.   Our main aim is to fix the housing crisis.  We run a wide range of programmes and policies to build more homes, make life fairer for people who rent, and reduce homelessness.   We also oversee the relationship with local government, including how councils are funded. 

People sometimes ask how civil servants can work for different political parties.   The answer is that it’s our job - our role is to serve the democratic system and do our best for the elected government of the day.   That impartiality is deeply embedded in our values.   

What does success look like?

I think it changes through your life.  To begin with, I wanted to achieve things myself.  As I’ve got older, I am more interested in creating teams that do well.  Most people are pretty able, and want to do the right thing. If you can create confident, kind, supportive environments, the results will follow.        

What is your best piece of advice?

You will achieve most in life if you do things that motivate you, and work with colleagues who value you.  So don’t put up with careers or employers that don’t make you happy.  Also: cherish your MSJ friendships – they’ll always be there for you!