Government and business management

When I was first appointed a Minister I had to resign that day from Chairman of a substantial quoted industrial group of companies. The contrast between managing the one and other was extreme.

As company chairman I was conscious that I had the power to hire and fire, to reward and to promote anyone in the organisation. I was  careful in anything I said to distinguish between statements of policy and company values on the one hand, and the many comments, questions and suggestions I needed to make to explore options,  mentor senior managers and encourage others to take decisions. There was plenty of power to get change, with a team  willing to implement when I did make decisions. The danger was someone would take an offhand or provisional  remark and see it as law for the company.

As a new Minister who had the good fortune to take on a role I understood and had experience in I discovered my decisions and statements of policy and values were often in the early days  taken as some kind of invitation to a debate or seminar. I always tried to be courteous to my officials. I  recognised that I had  no power to sack or promote  most of them and anyway as in business I thought please and thank you are undervalued ways of getting things done. I saw that now I was in office I also needed to be in power. I needed to get the machine to see I wanted change in how we did things and change would produce better results.

Some  thought they could get away with simply ignoring an instruction. I needed to follow up and require data to see implementation. Other times they would tell me what I wanted to do was not government policy. I would explain that I was making it government policy. As a junior Minister I had of course always checked through informal discussions with the Secretary of State that he was happy for me to do that or that I had the delegated power. Sometimes officials would then seek to force me to take a policy I thought was clearly within my power to consultation with other departments, probably hoping that in the write round I might be prevented.

The first thing I always did as a new Minister in a department was to exercise the one Ministerial freedom to choose my own Private Secretary from those available from civil service sources. In each case I found an excellent person who worked well with me and  helped me get my proposals through the machinery of government. When I was concerned about the quality of an area of the work and the vulnerability of the first department I was in I took the matter privately to the Permanent Secretary. I explained the defects as I saw them, showed how if I was right and the  faults  caused problems there would be serious implications for him in his role as Accounting Officer for the Department as well as for me as Minister. He then made his own decision to change and strengthen personnel in the area concerned.

As a Minister I never felt short of staff or money to do what needed doing. It was always difficult to get government to close down old initiatives, discontinue out of date policies and free the resources for something else. There was a wish for new additional  money and staff for everything. There was a reluctance to conduct running audits of effectiveness and value for money. There was an unwillingness to make named senior officials responsible for specified programmes or policy implementation in the way I was used to doing  in business. Officials were changed far too often, undermining their ability to advise based on experience and the development of a wide range of contacts in their area of work.


  1. Mark B
    April 24, 2023

    Good morning.

    Many thanks to our kind host for this insight into government.

    Indeed, please and thank you are such underrated words, especially today. When I had cause to write to my then MP sometime ago, when I got a reply I always thanked both him and his staff. Whenever I go shopping and ask staff to help me find something, I always use the aforementioned words. It really helps.

    Do Ministers’ today use such language ? Yes it can be very frustrating when you want something done and have entrusted others to carry it out for you, only to find that they have let you down. One can take it really quite personally and that is where strength of character and experience really does play an important role in how you manage things. But one must remember that we are all fallible and gentle polite inquiry may reveal other problem areas we may no be aware of.

    Some of the people we ask to represent us are perhaps a little too inexperienced and, having older and wiser heads would go someway in easing many problems.

    Time to set up an ‘Idiots Guide’ on how to be a Minister me thinks 😉

    1. PeteB
      April 24, 2023

      And an “Idiots guide” on how to be a civil servant?

    2. NottinghamLadHimself
      April 24, 2023

      Running a family home is completely different from running a business too, as are many other things – such as conducting an orchestra – and so they should be.

      What a strange article this is.

    3. Peter
      April 24, 2023

      ‘ I needed to get the machine to see I wanted change in how we did things and change would produce better results.’

      An extract in ‘The Times’ from the Seldon book on Johnson today suggests that firing many of the Permanent Secretaries did not bring about change to ‘produce better results’.

      Maybe a root and branch reform is needed and analysis of which roles in the Civil Service are really essential?

      Another Northcote-Trevelyan-style report perhaps, since there is much concern about current performance of the civil service and how it has developed over the years.

    4. Banana Republic
      April 24, 2023

      There’s no need for Ministers now, everything is decided by who has the most money 💰💰💰!

      1. glen cullen
        April 24, 2023

        incorrect its decided by the most green and the most woke ….its supported by big dodgy money

  2. Wanderer
    April 24, 2023

    Interesting insights into how the machinery of government works.

    Clearly you need skilled and determined politicians to steer the ship. People who know their subject, have plenty of private sector management experience, with a clear idea of what they want to achieve (for the country, not for themselves). We don’t have too many of those.

    I guess that preWW2 the Civil Service was more obedient. Postwar that started to change, but most senior Civil Servants were still of the same social background as Ministers so broadly approved of the policies they were asked to implement. Then came the “long march through the institutions” and we have a very different situation, where the CS is used by its members as a means to exert power.

    Whilst this occasionally causes conflict, our younger politicians have mostly been through the same Marxist mill as the CS, so more harmonious times are ahead for our rulers. More Authoritarian times for the rest of us though.

    1. turboterrier
      April 24, 2023

      Thought provoking comments.
      Does not the problem start with the selection criteria for those with no business or life skills whatsoever aspiring to become politicians with just a career of woke, left Wing learning and examination experience?

    2. Anselm
      April 24, 2023

      Whenever people talk about “long march through the institutions” , I always remember the results: famine, the “cultural revolution” and the pure hatred of Chairman Mao for people of whom he disapproved.

  3. DOM
    April 24, 2023

    By ditching Raab this thing in No.10 has endorsed the power and function of the EU-aligned Socialist blob and its allies, the unions and Labour, the BBC and the entire plethora of parasitic progressives that now feed at the trough of big State woke barbarism.

    Sunak’s just another careerist trougher without a soul or a moral code

    1. Ashley
      April 24, 2023

      It certainly look like this to me. Also Sunak keeps appointing dire, second rate or worse EUphiles. The WHO treaty and the Windsor Framework are appalling as was the tax to death budget.

      We should have easy hire and fire for all employees with standard pay offs – this would be better for businesses, productivity, investment and even for employees in higher pay no longer having to carry other duff employees.

    2. Javelin
      April 24, 2023

      Absolutely. Spot on.

    3. glen cullen
      April 24, 2023

      Agree – you only need to read the windsor accord

  4. Donna
    April 24, 2023

    Very few of our current Ministers have your level of experience in the private sector. Far too many come from the same sheltered, privileged backgrounds and have entered politics as a career choice when they were far too young and inexperienced – including Sunak.

    They are up against a Civil Service which, post Blair, has become highly politicised and obstructive to any policies which don’t suit a left-wing agenda ….. and will actively seek to remove Ministers they object to.

    Cummings had the right idea: a hard rain needs to fall on the Not-Very-Civil-Service.

  5. Sir Joe Soap
    April 24, 2023

    I suspect things have gone downhill since, and actually finding a PS of that calibre is far more difficult. Hence the hands-on Raab approach. These people have always had a completely different agenda to a full-on Conservative government, from Thatcher through to the present day. They’ll work fine with Starmer-like people and push him back under the EU.

  6. turboterrier
    April 24, 2023

    Portillo yesterday gave in a small segment of his GBNews programme yesterday touched on AI in business and how some early trials over a three year period had been estimated to have saved millions of dollars.
    Those entrenched in the CS where responsibility and accountability are never mentioned should start to rethink their whole position and existance.
    If they cannot or will not provide the service as expected with efficiency and less waste and continual improvement then it is not going to be too long before trials will be commenced and the then they will have a complete understanding of My way or the Highway.
    The CS is ideal for such a new concept as a lot of its work is repetitive and open to personal interpretation, feelings and beliefs which can slow down the whole purpose of the department.

  7. Bloke
    April 24, 2023

    Authority is essential to governing. Leaders cannot enact policy without control of its implementation.
    Civil Servants are paid to deliver the service.
    Those who oppose delivery, want something different they prefer, or fail in other ways should not be paid for defective production.
    They deserve serving with notice, such as: demotion, lower pay, fines for compensation of costs of error or dismissal.
    His Majesty’s Opposition is paid to hold his Government to account, not some muddled army of Uncivil Servants.

  8. Berkshire Alan
    April 24, 2023

    Perhaps you succeeded because you had been in a previously competitive market, knew how to manage people, knew how to set and manage a budget, had the confidence and determination to make many hard decisions to move matters forward to aa agreed timescale, and understood excuses and bullshit when it was presented to you.
    Unfortunately many of the career politicians of today do not have a clue about proper management of people, budgets and projects, hence the reason many departments appear to be out of control.
    Sad to see Raab departing because of a couple of complaints by snowflakes, Sunak has made a huge error in accepting his resignation, as he has now in effect rewarded sabotage.

  9. ChrisS
    April 24, 2023

    I don’t think anything in this piece is a surprise to most of us posting here.
    It’s one reason why I would never have lasted any longer than Raab as a minister. I could not put up with obstructive and difficult staff, especially when they could say no in so many different ways, all delivered with a condescending smile.

  10. Anselm
    April 24, 2023

    When I have been in charge of things, I found that just serving them worked much better than telling them. Admittedly I have only ever been in charge of volunteers, but you have to be extra careful to admit mistakes, to remember anniversaries and to attend. “Serve to lead” is the Sandhurst motto, I believe. All the best people I have worked for/with have done this – men and women alike. Being there beside them…

  11. The Prangwizard
    April 24, 2023

    We are grateful to our self-annointed saint, with the name John, for publishing todays morality and his management superiority skills tale from which we all must learn.

    Clearly Saint John considers the mention of the name of Dominic Raab too risky for him.

  12. Geoffrey Berg
    April 24, 2023

    A relevant question to ask is why hasn’t Sir John Redwood been a Minister for any of the last 13 years with none of the 6 Prime ministers making him a Minister? I don’t believe no ministry could be found where his views would have been compatible with the government’s policies. I don’t believe all (if any) of the many serving Ministers have been more competent than him. I note John Redwood is the only Minister I can ever remember who ever sent money back to the Treasury – most ask for more money from the Treasury! The answer I fear is that none of the Prime Ministers really wanted anybody far cleverer than themselves sitting around the Cabinet table – so much for commitment to good governance of this country for the benefit of the people.

  13. Ian+B
    April 24, 2023

    Good morning Sir John

    Most of us would agree you are a hard-working diligent MP that understands the concept of serving and the purpose of a Democratic Elected Parliament in a Sovereign Country. I am pleased you are my MP

    However, you along with fellow Conservative MP’s has enabled a Socialist Centralist Government to be formed on your and as a result our behalf. The Conservatives in the UK have been disenfranchised, left no where to go, even you are a stranded fish out of water.

    It would appear this cavalier socialist Government is banking on they will survive, not through support from the Country but the failure of any opposition. Thats not good Government.

    A 6% of the population not voting Conservative is all it takes to change the landscape – and will we be any worse offf? Which complexion of Socialism is what is being dictated by the ‘Blob’ and this Conservative Government. Their bigger failure is the failure to manage, to be subordinate to the ‘blob’ and not those that would vote for them

  14. formula57
    April 24, 2023

    This diary is at its most interesting when you write about matters like the operation of government that it is hard about which otherwise to find insightful sources.

    Your words point to why Mr. Trump’s much lauded experience as a businessman did not truly equip him to cope in government given the “contrast between managing the one and other was extreme”.

    One also is left to wonder why Mr. Rabb did not cope better with the same problems.

  15. Ian+B
    April 24, 2023

    I would guess Sir John like most of us that have held management positions, that if you were using company money to buy a service or a product you also become responsible for the result. Change company money to taxpayer money the expectation should be the same those authorising the spend, the payment, the remuneration on behalf of those they take the money from, should be responsible for ensuring a return. This Conservative Government likes to take the money but refuses to manage it.

    1. Mark B
      April 25, 2023

      One of the fundamental differences between the Private Sector and the Public Sector is, in the Private Sector, if you fail there is always someone to take your place. You are owed and entitled to nothing.

  16. Elli+Ron
    April 24, 2023

    Sir Redwood, I’m sure your description is far milder than the actual day to day frustration of working with people who have no working ethics and no respect for the democratic process.
    My guess is that the situation is far worse at present.
    What’s to be done, can we hire Dominic Cummings again?

  17. agricola
    April 24, 2023

    It would seem to me that even in benevolent times the tail was wagging the dog. Today the tail would appeare to be wagging the pack. The latter stems from the time we were in the EU, when it was all tails and no dog. UK government and ministers carried out Brussels instructions.

    Though I do not see our play it safe PM doing anything about it , I think the whole relationship between government and the CS needs re-setting with the ability for ministers to choose their team in depth and to move sideways anyone off message, anyone costructively anti, or anyone underperforming. If the example is set by senior members of the CS, the scribes will follow or not at their peril. Ministers should be free to tell it as it is and not have to pussy foot the likess of private Pike.

    My contention is that productivity in the private sector has its own in built correctve mechanism. Government including the CS does not and cannot be allowed to continue its spenbthrift progress to hell in a handcart.

  18. Nigel Paterson
    April 24, 2023

    Many thanks for this entry. I wonder if you could comment at some point on the challenges of, even occasionally, getting incompetent or obstructive civil servants relieved of their duties. You mentioned the idea of getting someone moved, but that may simply shift a problematic member of staff somewhere else.

  19. Ian+B
    April 24, 2023

    In the media over the weekend 2 things were highlighted ‘National Conservatism Conference’ That suggests to me and the bulk of contributors to your Diary, the whole Conservative World understands we have not got a Conservative Government.

    There was also a muted suggestion that the Civil Service should be Politicised. An odd one is that it goes against the grain. As with the expectation of the BBC we in the UK always had a thing about impartiality – however we no longer get that from the BBC, the Civil Service and the ‘Blob’ collective. We have entities that get taxpayer funding yet don’t get elected, don’t have accountability, so much so they think it is for their own personal self gratification they have a right to be ‘in charge’ and tell the Country how to act. So Politicising the Civil Service is the only thing left to remain a Democracy and save the Country. It is now right that it is Government that is held to account by Parliament(the electorate) is seen to have direct control, accountability and responsibility for every entity in receipt of taxpayer money.

  20. Original Richard
    April 24, 2023

    Who selects the Permanent Secretary to a Department of State?

    Why do we have Permanent Secretaries to departments such as BEIS and DESNZ who have no STEM training and appear to select Secretaries of State and ministers who know even less than they do about energy?

  21. IanT
    April 24, 2023

    Very interesting Sir John. I think anyone who has managed within the private sector has great difficultly understanding why it seems so hard to get things done in the public sector. When I was employed as a manager, I always knew what was expected of me (usually clearly linked to financial performance) and what my budget was in terms of headcount and operational cost. Once I had my own business, I made very sure that my managers also had clarity in these areas. Sales, Cashflow and especially (that thing so despised by the Left) Profit were important words to live by. So I’ve never understood how the CS – that doesn’t sell anything, that doesn’t have to worry about cash-flow and never needs to be profitable actually measures it’s own performance. The word “Successful” can be very subjective. The words “Profitable” and “Solvent” are far less so in my experience….

  22. Robert+Miller
    April 24, 2023

    This is an excellent description and analysis of the weakness of the system of government we gave. All too accurate I fear.

  23. Know-Dice
    April 24, 2023

    Officials were changed far too often, undermining their ability to advise based on experience and the development of a wide range of contacts in their area of work.

    May be that should read “undermining the Ministers ability to deliver Government policy”

  24. Mike+Wilson
    April 24, 2023

    It doesn’t matter what you say about government, it is expensive and inefficient and looks after itself and it’s people (the public sector) much better that those who work in the private sector and who pay for it all.

  25. Jazz
    April 24, 2023

    If someone wanted go into politics today to influence the direction of the country, help people etc, they should not go into politics but join the Civil Service. Unelected, unaccountable and in position for as long as you want. Obviously you would have to learn to put up with the irritating although very transient democratically elected officials whom you control.
    Not so much the tail wagging the dog, the Civil Service is now the dog.

    Well done on being able to exert some measure of control in your day. However your views – properly conservative- are now held in disdain. Suspect the CS would have you gone in a few months today. Appalling.

  26. Ralph Corderoy
    April 24, 2023

    In sum, the civil service today is not fit for purpose.

    Quite different to the civil service ushered in by the Northcote-Trevelyan Report of 1854. Historian Dominic Sandbrook starts by explaining it centred on what you knew, not whom.

  27. Bert+Young
    April 24, 2023

    Effective management depends entirely on an agreement of policy and priorities beforehand . Those selected for the top role must have the experience and skills to do the job and being committed ;what has to follow is the method of communication . Subsequent management have then to be supervised by a regular method of reporting and if doubt exists then immediate action has to follow to keep the plan on course . If there is dissent at all then a discipline must be imposed either by replacement or , in extreme circumstances , sacking .
    I spent years advising large National and International organizations at the highest level throughout Europe , the USA , Japan and elsewhere .

  28. Rhoddas
    April 24, 2023

    The Blob 1-0 to HMG and it’s a real turning point.
    Ministers will require a strategy to ensure their policies can be implemented without overt Blob lefty remoaner obstruction. This will include:
    * Independant HR support to Ministers to have them performance manage them out.
    * Record all interactions with the Blob, including voice/video/bodycams, so spurious claims of bullying can be refuted.

  29. Derek
    April 24, 2023

    And there lies the problem we now have with successive Governments. SJ had the knowledge, experience and expertise to run his department BEFORE he entered Politics.
    Regretfully, over the past decades, too many of those appointed to Ministerial position are not sufficiently qualified to run their respective departments. Thus the experienced civil service takes overall control.
    A Minister should have to attain a set of criteria relevant to their position BEFORE being considered for the specific post. As is the norm with other professions, adequate qualifications, expertise and experience are always seriously considered before any promotion is awarded. Why not those who are to set our laws and run this country?

  30. glen cullen
    April 24, 2023

    If a junior minister, a minister of state, a cabinet minister or the prime minister can’t sack a civil servant then they aren’t in charge …even the Chartered Management Institute is clear on this definition – managers ‘hire & fire’ and supervisors ‘administer processes’

  31. glen cullen
    April 24, 2023

    Stop or cancel all UK dual nationality

    1. Lynn Atkinson
      April 24, 2023

      Yes – without warning. Simply remove the British citizenship.

  32. Kayla+Tomlinson
    April 24, 2023

    Brilliantly put!

  33. Keith Collyer
    April 24, 2023

    So what you are saying is that Raab deserved to go because he had no clue how to handle people working for him. Quite agree.

  34. a-tracy
    April 24, 2023

    You know I’m no fan of the CBI. I often ask how many of their paying members are from foreign-owned businesses not paying their equal share of UK taxes and how many are paying total UK corporation taxes (how many pay over £250,000 CT per annum). In fact, what % of the members they claim to have been paying subscriptions? However, Hunt coming out today and giving his ‘sentence first, verdict later’ condemnation of the CBI does not sit well with me. I thought we still had innocent until proven guilty in this Country. If people are suspended through high-level serious accusations, then the people left behind are innocent, aren’t they?

  35. a-tracy
    April 24, 2023

    The most alarming thing is that they don’t consider you for special advisor positions if they don’t want to give you a ministerial post.

  36. Ian B
    April 24, 2023

    It is with some amusement we read in the media(probably with a bit of exaggeration) today that the very Civil Servants that the UK taxpayer pays handsomely to carry out a duty of care to UK Citizens abroad. Have in fact been air lifted with support of UK Special Forces ahead of any UK Citizens out of the Sudan.

    Even in the chaotic end of Afghanistan the Foreign Office Civil Servants were among the last, not the first to leave. Another demonstration of who has now assumed full dominate control of this Conservative Government – and it isn’t those that empower and pay them.

    The sooner they are got rid of the better

  37. Margaretbj.
    April 24, 2023

    To work closely with a colleague who will help turn the wheels there has to be truth telling and openness without the kind of one upmanship which goes on in any organisation. If all continually pull against each other, nothing will be achieved yet this doesn’t preclude discussion of pros and cons with the aim of progress. Some see this kind of openness as naive and think if they continue with a hidden agenda then they are being clever.Not so…we all understand motives and can understand personal reasons for saying or wanting one thing or another but trust is needed.

  38. glen cullen
    April 24, 2023

    The government supported by its civil service is suppose to be a mirror of its parliamentary party, and in turn a mirror of the party membership and its supporting voters … why is the government and the civil service always out of kilter with everybody else eg. the decision to lower taxation

  39. turboterrier
    April 24, 2023

    Who is managing, overseeing the Sudan situation regarding British Nationals?
    I hope that they remember that nine months ago the Foreign Office were giving out warnings not to travel there.
    I hope that at least some if not all the costs of repatriation will be recovered on behalf of the taxpayers.
    It cannot be unreasonable to expect those that choose to ignore Government advice and put themselves and their family at risk should at least bear some of the costs incurred to remove them from danger.

  40. ChrisS
    April 25, 2023

    Another source of intense annoyance is the response time one experiences with all forms of government.

    On 23rd January, I received a parking ticket in Southampton which was issued in error.
    I had to appeal immediately and did so. Not until today did I receive a reply, asking me to send in a copy of the ticket. They could just as easily have looked up the details having the registration number of the car, the place the ticket was issued and the date and time.

    Nevertheless, having now been given only 14 days to respond, I immediately emailed a copy of the ticket and I then received an automatic response which says :

    “Thank you for your appeal, I have forwarded this on to our parking representations team whom will contact you directly. This can take up to 12-14 weeks. The penalty will be placed on hold until a decision has been made regarding the appeal.”

    This has already been rumbling on for 8 weeks and now I cannot expect it to be resolved for another three months !

    Another council I deal with, Teignbridge, takes up to six weeks to reply to any enquiry, yet, when they want money out of us, they demand a response within 7 days. Ridiculous.

    1. ChrisS
      April 25, 2023

      PS :
      Yet another automated response just received.
      In this one, Southampton City Council say they will “endeavour to respond” within 56 working days. (!)

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