Weeknotes - Lustrum



  • A ceremonial purification of the entire ancient Roman population after the census every five years.
  • A period of five years.

Five long years ago I quit my job in the mobile industry and started working for the Civil Service. It has been an "interesting" period!

On a personal level, I've gone from GDS, to NHSX, back to GDS, and transformed into CDDO. I've started an MSc as an apprentice. I've travelled the world - although somewhat less in the last 18 months! And worked with some truly incredible people.

I've also written lots of blog posts which I haven't published. Little notes to myself, mostly. I'm sure they'll see the light one day - far in the future. There's a delicate line between working in the open and opening oneself up to unsolicited abuse.

But, that said, here's a few things that I've picked up over the last few years stalking the corridors of power.

  • Working with the best and the brightest can be intimidating. You have to be really sure of yourself when contradicting someone. As I've found to my peril, I am sometimes the expert in the room - and I have to work hard to be less intimidating. My mid-year feedback reflects that I have mixed success with this.
  • Some people are wrong. There's an art to correcting people which I've yet to fully master. But it is an invaluable skill to politely correct someone and give them time to realise their mistake and room to back down gracefully.
  • Politicians can be very different from the characters they play on TV. I remember a few years ago being invited along to a meeting with one of the "main characters" from Twitter. I was terrified. In the end, they ran an excellent meeting, listened carefully, understood the (contradictory) advice they received, and helped us to produce some excellent work. The show that people put on in public is often wildly different from how they act in a professional setting. That's something which takes some getting used to.
  • Public sector waste and inefficiency is about the same as the private sector. Probably lower as shareholders rarely audit what a FTSE100 has been frittering away money on. You can't get to perfect accountability for every penny - nor can you make sure no one is nicking Post-It™ notes to use at home. But I've never seen anyone burn money on pointless corporate rebranding like I did when I worked in the private sector.
  • Not everyone wants you to succeed. There are some very loud voices on social media who will delight in pointing out just how wrong you've got something and how little you know about delivery. These people - in my experience - mostly don't know what they're talking about. They've never had to manage large and complex projects, nor do they have the faintest idea about the challenges you face. Some of them have tried repeatedly to get a job in your department - and failed repeatedly; that leaves them bitter. Best to ignore their bleating.
  • Seeing your work in the mainstream press, or nightly news, is exhilarating and chilling.
  • People's passion sometimes leads them astray. I'm particularly guilty of only seeing things through the lens of my work. If you are, say, an accessibility specialist then it is hard to understand the point of view of, say, a security specialist. And vice-versa. I've been involved in protracted arguments where experts in their field are completely blinkered to someone else's reality. That's a real danger when you have people focussed exclusively on one area. Don't get me wrong, I'd rather have these discussions than not, but sometimes you need to concede that other people have valid points.

What's Next?

Half-a-decade is a looooong time. I'm conscious that I've been at the same grade (and pay) for quite some time. Moving upwards usually means line-managing people - which isn't my comfort zone. It can also mean moving away from hands-on work.

I'm stretching myself with my studies. And I'm participating in some really exciting projects. But I occasionally hear myself say "well, when we tried that four years ago…" and I'm not sure how I feel about that. Am I a wise old hand, or someone stuck in the past?

There's a lot of talk of The Great Resignation. My employers have been fantastically supportive to me - my WFH equipment is paid for, there's no pressure to come back to the physical office, they make sure I'm taking enough time for holidays and funerals. But there are some things which are outwith their control. Pay is the big one - I didn't join the Civil Service to make Facebook-amounts of cash, but I also didn't expect a long-lasting pay-freeze. Of course, the seaweed is always greener in somebody else's lake…

Perhaps I'll pour my excess energy into writing that book, or doing more electronics, or re-learning Chinese?

Or perhaps not. Time will tell.

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3 thoughts on “Weeknotes - Lustrum”

  1. This is really interesting, thanks for writing it!As someone imminently joining Civil Service there's some really good food for thought.

  2. Merton Hale says:

    Excellent post and some very wise advice and observations.

    With respect to "not seeing the other guys point of view," I'm a big fan of Edward De Bono.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_de_Bono and his Six Thinking Hats. I attended a seminar he gave several years ago. 2 or 3 days as I remember. very expensive. Up on the stage was Mr. de bono, sitting in a chair, he was getting on in years, an old style overhead projector with one of those rolls of clear film he could roll across the screen. and he had several colored markers. That was all.

    He kept everybody captivated for the whole seminar. A great thinker.

    I used to work for a VERY big US multinational. Their pay structure was very similiar to the US military. They had a "pay grade" for every position, but ALSO had a large spread of the pay within that grade. The military call it, i think, time in grade. This allowed people who were very skilled at a certain job at a certain level, but were best not promoted to the next level (which frequently involved managing people).

    Does the British civil service do the same?

    Anyway, great post.


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