Weeknotes S06E17: The closedown

A lot of stress. A lot of pressure. It can only be the comprehensive spending review; the end of my tenure; and the constant pressure of seeking happiness when you’ve got to work out what that means for yourself.

It’s been a while since we spoke, hasn’t it? I’ve been busy, and focusing on myself has slipped. It always slips, and even noticing that it slips doesn’t seem to focus my mind on not letting it slip. There’s something curious, eh.

These past few weeks have been focussed on the comprehensive spending review. It’s the process whereby we get money from the Treasury to fund everything we want to do for the next three to five years. From this comes a requirement to predict what we’ll be doing in five years. Coming from a digital background, I can’t even begin to express to you how frustrating this is. It’s a process that almost forces people to make things up, because there’s no way we can predict user needs five years in advance, nor the changes in technology that will happen over that period. My preference would be for the centre to just allocate money and delegate authority to departments on how they spend it. But then, I go on and on endlessly about delegating authority to people with the most knowledge, so I expect I’m preaching to the converted on this one.

The team has pulled some necessary heroics and I don’t see any way that we could have avoided it, but it’s frustrated me further because I feel like it ought be different. That doesn’t mean I have a solution, only that I think the way things are is fundamentally not very good. I can’t do all the work, folks.

In any case, it’s meant a slightly-higher than average level of stress and running about with my hair on fire. It’s also been happening as I’ve been interviewing for someone to take over my position. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have this opportunity, as for many people the stars don’t align to allow for this. I’ve got the chance to speak to brilliant, fascinating, interesting civil servants from every corner of the organisation. I was also – and this is selfish, but you came here to read me, so – very pleased with the number and diversity of the candidates we got. 13 colleagues from across the Service applied for this role, and I’m confident that one of the reasons is that I wrote the job description trying to avoid private office buzzwords and jargon. I made sure to mention where people might have collected skills – for example, my job sometimes means giving people rough news. Maybe they’ve not been funded for something they feel is an absolute priority. You’ve got to be able to deliver that message skilfully, and sometimes the recipient is a lot more senior than you.

The thing is, you might have got that experience in a role like mine – but you might also have got it as a product manager telling a senior person that they can’t have the feature they’ve demanded, or as a finance person explaining why we can’t just hire a company the boss has seen advertised on the Tube. There’s sometimes a snobbishness about private office – an air that we think our skills are magic or unique – and they’re not. They’re bog-standard skills, expertly applied.

Having found someone brilliant – a diamond among many other diamonds – I shall shortly be off to my next role. I’m heading into the heart of the Cabinet Office to write policy. I’ve never done something like this before, and it’s a role that I turned down a promotion to do. I’m doing it because it was the role that I felt more excited about, and while I’m in a place where I don’t need more money why wouldn’t I take it? I don’t see the point of more money if it doesn’t improve how happy I am.

This is a really big step for me, because if I’m honest even six months ago I’d have taken the promotion. Promotions are good. They impress people. And my peer group are accelerating up the ladder at a terrific rate: the problem with having friends who are brilliant is that you measure yourself by their brilliance. And they are brilliant: if there’s not at least one future Permanent Secretary in my current group of pals I’ll eat any item of clothing you ask. But I’m at a place now where I’m excited to move across; to be curious; to find out little things here and there and join them all up in my head.

So: three weeks left in post. Two weeks of vacation. And then I’ll return, maybe. I’ll need to sound out the new team about how much I can write about. If it’s only a little, then I hope you’re ready for more random creative nonsense. If it’s a lot, then it’ll be the regular kind of nonsense.

Only time will tell.

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