It seemed more like taking coals to Newcastle than finding solutions for a large department when the DFEE's finest met the man from Microsoft. Chris Johnston reports.
IT WAS almost a case of taking coals to Newcastle as the UK chairman of the omnipresent software company Microsoft talked about his job swap with the Department for Education and Employment's top civil servant.
David Svendsen of Microsoft described the demonstration of information technology by the DFEE as "genuinely insightful" during his day playing the part of the department's permanent secretary Michael Bichard.
The DFEE officers told Mr Svendsen that technology was helping them to think about new ways of doing things. "This is where organisations, public or private, should be basing their thinking, but to get a statement like that from a civil service department was genuinely surprising but excellent news," he said.
That was not Mr Svendsen's only change in thinking about the DFEE after the day in which he and Mr Bichard had attended to Microsoft business in the morning, followed by meetings with David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, and civil service staff in the afternoon.
"I probably had a stereotypical view of a civil servant, but that has changed as a consequence of today," he admitted. The inclusion of "empowerment" in the DFEE's values programme was something he would expect in the private sector, but not a government department.
Mr Bichard, responsible for fusing the separate departments of education and employment four years ago, has strived to make the DFEE more flexible and responsive. Mr Svendsen thinks he has succeeded: "Some private organisations don't have the sense of speed and flexibility that the DFEE is perhaps showing in recent times," he said.
He conceded that the civil service had been guilty of being too arrogant and believing it knew best: "We need to develop more constructive partnerships."
Mr Bichard felt it had been helpful to get a different perspective on what the department was doing in the real world and discovering that some initiatives were not progressing as well as he had hitherto believed.
He also found that the chasm between the public and private sectors is "not as great as sometimes people suggest that it is", a comment Mr Svendsen echoed.
It is likely that both enjoyed the experience more than another DFEE mandarin, Nick Stuart, the director general of employment, lifelong learning and international directorate, who spent a morning on the reception desk of the department's Sanctuary Buildings.