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Ambition, scale, complexity – a private sector view of the Civil Service

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Head and shoulders of John Bentley
John Bentley

Last July, I joined HMRC as part of the Civil Service High Potential Secondment Programme. I work in the private sector for water utility Severn Trent Water. I look after all capital investment at their water and sewage treatment works. I’m responsible for delivering  £1.5 billion of investment and developing the Capital Investment Plan.

The secondment programme allows people to move in both directions between the Civil Service and the private and third sectors, encouraging organisational and personal development.

I'm definitely not of the opinion that the private sector is better than the Civil Service or vice versa. They’re just different, and being different offers opportunities for us to learn from each other.

Different environment

After 26 years at Severn Trent, I jumped at the opportunity to experience a different environment, with a different culture and behaviours, different business pressures, different structures, different decision-making processes, different levels of authority and different legacy.

But how did I find myself at HMRC? I'm probably like most people; I pay my tax and have very little interaction with HMRC. However, I do know about managing large-scale business transformation programmes resulting from heavy capital investment. And that's primarily why I'm here, to help deliver the Building our Future (BoF) programme.

What are my impressions of HMRC and the Civil Service?‎

The differences I see have made me reflect on my time with Severn Trent. In particular, what I could have done differently if I‘d heard the advice I was getting differently. Hopefully, when I return, I’ll be a bit better at hearing what advice people offer, because ‘seeing different things’ really does open doors to ‘doing things differently’.


The ambition, scale and complexity of HMRC’s BoF programme are truly inspiring, and I’m really impressed with everyone’s desire to deliver. The programme could radically change the ‎way we collect taxes, making it easier for the customer and securing the right amount of tax for the Government so they can invest where they want to. In the construction world I would liken this to some of the wonderful legacy infrastructure the Victorians left for us. Change programmes of this scale and complexity bring risk and challenge. We need to be prepared to test and learn – not everything will go right and we will need to adapt our approach as we trial and then gradually roll out new services.

The presence of Government, the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee probably bring more powerful stakeholders than in the private sector, and this drives a heavy reliance on processes. When I've observed this in my home organisation, I've seen people fall into the trap of thinking about complying with process rather than achieving the end outcomes. As an example, in my business, construction safety has become very process-compliant but the safety of construction workers hasn’t necessarily improved. We managed to change this through an intensive and longer-term leadership development programme, with construction managers encouraged to question why they were doing things.

Commitment to share

The HMRC has a wonderful array of online training material to help staff – I'm pretty envious!

The investment in explaining the BoF programme is massive – starting with a number of national conversations and moving into more targeted local info. I love that HMRC has committed to share things in the development phase. When we've done this in my organisation, people always think that someone has a master plan hidden away that contains all the detail. We did have a plan, but on Day 1 it didn’t include all the detail in my company, and I'm sure we don't have one here. But the issues are largely the same: people want to know, have I got a job and where is it? We can’t be clear about the answers to those questions for quite some time, so the trade-off with being open from the outset is that sometimes what feel like long periods of time pass when there’s nothing substantial to share‎. Again, no different to my organisation.

The challenge for HMRC is common to many organisations: how to improve engagement? I have some experience of this and I'm hoping to contribute to the debate. At Severn Trent we approached the challenge in a variety of ways; for example, helping people better understand their role as a leader; helping them communicate more meaningfully (do they shine a light or cast a shadow?); giving people the authority to change things that were causing routine daily problems; helping clarify business objectives; arranging team building events; giving frequent updates on where we stood against the objectives; and re-invigorating the team engagement groups.


'A great place to work' logoFinally, people at HMRC are friendly, committed and helpful but very busy. Learning how to be focused instead of busy is a real skill in an era when everyone seems to want to be in touch with everyone else all of the time.

‎So, my summary to date would be: scale, complexity, ambition, UK benefit, and challenge are all massive!  I feel fortunate to be onboard for 12 months. I'm hoping to post an update, so watch this space.

If you would like to learn more about the High Potential Secondment Programme, contact the team at

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  1. Comment by John Bentley posted on

    Hi Dakota
    I was simply trying to say things as I've seen and experienced them in my short period of time. If I update later into my secondment I'll try and pull out some more examples.

  2. Comment by Dakota posted on

    I do not mean any disrespect, and whilst I admire the bravery and courage to do a civil service secondment, I do not feel six months is enough of a length of time to gather a deep knowledge of the civil service. It is doubtful whether it is possible to generalise about the civil service on the basis of six months. How can the whole of the civil service be generalised based on experience in one department. Some parts of the civil service have many nuances and sensitivities. Even if you have worked in the civil service for a decade you still might not understand. The only understanding that can exist is the understanding achieved by valid criticism. But then what is valid.