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Ian Watmore former civil servant, Church Commissioner

25 April 2014

'People have their views about Tony Blair, but he was a joy to work for'

I loved my time as Permanent Secretary at the Cabinet Office. I felt like every day was a privilege to work there. The Cabinet Office sits at the heart of everything that Her Majesty's Government does - from running No. 10, advising the PM on security and global and European issues, co-ordinating Cabinet policy across Whitehall, being the corporate centre of government, managing things like Human Resources, IT, procurement, and so on, managing the Honours process. . . It even has a key role in the selection of archbishops.

My role was to oversee the management and administration of all of those functions, in support of the Cabinet Secretary and head of the Civil Service, and to lead the corporate side personally for Cabinet Office ministers.

I refused to have an office or a desk, and enjoyed hot-desking, engaging with different staff as they did their jobs. I learned so much in the process. I was also particularly proud of launching the Government Digital Service, to make the UK the leading government around the world in using the internet to provide public services centred on the citizen.

I really dislike the constant sniping that goes an about civil servants, in the media and from some politicians and special advisers. All the civil servants I worked with over seven years were wonderfully talented, hard-working, and ethical people, and we should never forget how lucky we are in this country to have such an institution, independent of political interference, at the heart of our democracy.

Tony Blair set up the Delivery Unit in 2001 - to help him get the things done across Whitehall that he personally cared about. This was a team of about 40 civil servants who worked mainly on his priorities for health, education, and home affairs. It was very successful, and I inherited an extraordinary team from Sir Michael Barber, who was its founder. One thing was working with the Department of Health to crack down on MRSA and similar superbugs, which had been stubbornly on the increase through the early part of this century.

Working with Tony Blair on a personal level was one of the best experiences of my life. People have their views about him, but all I can say is that, on a personal level, he was a joy to work for: smart, strategic, a good listener, decisive, charismatic, and with a great sense of humour. He was incredibly popular with the staff in my team for these personal characteristics. He is also a man of strong faith.

I've only ever had three employers: Accenture, the Civil Service, and the Football Association. But underneath the umbrella of those three, my career has been a series of projects, usually lasting between two to four years, to tackle seemingly intractable problems or start something new. I'm that sort of person.

I'm greatly enjoying helping my wife, Georgina, in her three-year curacy at two churches in Cheshire. It's given me the flexibility to take on a number of voluntary roles, from being a Church Commissioner, chairing a charity, trying to build a community sports facility in Altrincham, and being on the board of the Rugby World Cup.

We have four sons, and it has been a good time to be able to help them with the transitions in their lives: going to, or leaving university, or, in Duncan's case, being a professional footballer whilst at university. By the end of 2015, we should know where Georgina's parish is going to be, and so that will be a time to consider next options.

I'm a political anorak. But my time in the Civil Service made me realise I do not belong to any political party, and I don't like the tribalism of party politics. I'm more issue-driven. Like many people, I find it increasingly hard to cast my vote at each election for one party; so I usually fall back on considering the local candidates' individual merits, and then trying to add my voice to key issues.

I wasn't approached to become a Church Commissioner. I saw the advert on Twitter, being an avid follower of @c_of_e tweets, and applied, because I thought that my background in national issues could be useful to help get more resources to support the wonderful work that people like my wife do at the local level.

I'm four months into a part-time role; so I've much to learn. Church Commissioners oversee the national investments that are made to create income for the front-line parishes, and manage the more complex end of the Church's buildings, including cathedrals and closed churches.

The Church is rightly concerned with ethical investing, and investing in things that make a difference in themselves. The Cabinet Office had responsibility for the policy area on social finance, and set up the organisation which invests the cash handed over by the banks from dormant bank accounts, and I will draw upon this knowledge, too.

Dividing the cake amongst the parishes is not dissimilar to the way taxpayers' money is handed to universities, partly driven by formulaic considerations, partly in line with policy from the centre. I had responsibility for this budget when in the Civil Service.

Managing an unusual property portfolio, such as cathedrals and closed churches, is not the same as managing office blocks or retail parks, but in my time I've been involved in the management or funding of Jodrell Bank, Wembley Stadium, 10 Downing Street, and Admiralty Arch - not your everyday properties.

Getting the balance between going for as much income as possible, with as much ethical investing as possible is one of the hardest to strike, as we saw over the Wonga publicity last year.

I went to the Football Association rather unexpectedly. I never seriously thought I would be chosen. But I ran on an agenda of making the FA generally better managed.

We needed to promote women's football, encourage opportunities for disabled players, and combat racism, sexism, and homophobia. The finances of the Premier League needed managing, and I wanted to divert some of the huge profits of professional football towards grass-roots football, as well as finding the next English players to compete in the World Cup.

I had a reasonably successful time on some of these. But I was blocked on most of the others by vested interests in the professional game and FIFA. I realised I was dealing with malign forces that I could never overcome, and that I was chief executive in name only: there was nothing "chief" or "executive" about the role. They no longer have a CEO, which is a recognition of the frustrating time previous CEOs like Adam Crozier and me spent there.

Is the FA reformable? I have asked myself that question a lot. Not without a complete revolution. At FIFA we need total reform towards a modern, transparent, non-corrupt organisation led by new people, and certainly not by Sepp Blatter. And we need an FA Board independent of its vested interests.

I grew up in south London, where my father was a GP, and my sister is still a nurse.My father grew up in Bermondsey, andmy mother was brought up in a children's home in Lancashire; so the middle-class existence I grew up in was a far cry from boththeir childhoods. I suppose that high-quality public services, and equality of opportunity, have remained driving forces throughoutmy life.

My favourite sound is undoubtedly the electric guitar. My family recently bought me one, though my ambitions are set very low. I confess that my musical tastes remain locked in the rock era. I recently saw Deep Purple in Manchester, and have tickets to see Ian Anderson, of Jethro Tull fame, soon.

Georgina has been the most influential person in my life by some margin. She's an exceptional person on so many fronts, and she demonstrates these talents on an hourly basis in her ministry.

Reading Solzhenitsyn in the '70s was very profound for me. I'd choose to be locked in a church with Solzhenitsyn, or his fictional character Ivan Denisovich. I would love to know how someone found the courage to oppose a pervasive system of such force,with such devastating consequences for themselves or their loved ones, when there wasa path of least resistance open to them. It would help me understand better what persecuted people must go through today in the many faith-intolerant societies around the world, as they risk so much to go about their everyday worship - something we take for granted.

Ian Watmore was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

In our interview with Richard Everett (11 April), we omitted a credit for the photographer, Kate Kennington Steer, and the website: www.richardeverett.co.uk. Our apologies.

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