Champion of open government

7th April 2000 at 01:00
At the Welsh Office and S4C, Steve Martin (right) has tried consistently to demystify policymaking. Huw Richards talks to him about his new job at the Welsh Funding Councils

While entering a conference centre for one of his first engagements as a senior civil servant, Steve Martin was intercepted by a journalist from Radio Cymru, a Welsh language station, and asked to explain an aspect of government policy. He had two plausible lines of retreat: to plead still-shaky Welsh or to resort to that well-worn formula: "As a civil servant I couldn't possibly comment on that."

He did neither, but spent several minutes explaining the thinking behind the decision. The incident, like his preparedness to give press interviews in the first week after his appointment as next chief executive of the Welsh Funding Councils, reflects his outlook on openness and good communication.

"I have always thought the view that civil servants should not say anything was a misinterpretation of an honourable tradition, an excuse to hide behind ministers," says Martin. "Civil servants have traditionally had a role in explaining government policy - not in determining it at a political level, but in explaining the facts. There is no reason why the analysis underlining a policy should be a mystery."

He points out: "The people in public life who command most respect and trust are those who do not appear to be spinning." He cites Rachel Lomax, his boss at the Welsh Office. "She was quite incapable of doing anything, even signing a letter, which she felt to be wrong. There was a core of integrity there."

He believes this approach is far more effective, particularly in communicating the reasons for difficult decisions. "Your position is made much more difficult if people believe you are holding something back, or have a private agenda. There is an important place for discretion in all walks of life, but not at the price of appearing manipulative."

So, while Wales is getting a former senior civil servant, one who spent 25 years at the Welsh Office before taking his present job as secretary and head of policy for the Welsh-language television station S4C, it certainly is not getting Sir Humphrey Appleby.

Sir Humphrey certainly did not come from "the wrong side of the tracks - a council estate in Oxhey near Watford". Still less would he have been associated with Hull University, Rumney Tech and Glamorgan Polytechnic, the variegated bunch which has given Martin direct experience of lifelong learning.

Even if Sir Humphrey had been posted to the Welsh Office - a fate he would doubtless have equated with running a power station in Kazakhstan - there is no way he would have been caught learning Welsh. Speaking the language has undoubtedly been advantageous - Martin, 47, could hardly do his job without it and it will have done him no harm in contending for his new post.

Career considerations were not why he started learning in the Eighties:

"People don't believe me when I say it had nothing to do with work, but that is the truth. I did it for intellectual and social reasons - one of my closest friends is a Welsh-speaker from Caernarvon and I hav a deep love of literature." He is "fluent but far from perfect".

His civil service experience gives him an impressive range of contacts, particularly from his five years as head of the Welsh education department (1992-97). "I am pleased that a lot of people I worked with then have been in touch since my appointment. But not everybody is in the same job as they were in 1997 and I know that, in a few months, people will be judging me on what I do at the funding councils rather than what I did three years or more ago."

Martin believes that working in the Welsh Office provides benefits not available in other departments. "You get to work in a wide range of subjects - health, education, working with the Welsh Development Agency and other agencies - and people from other departments were always amazed at how much we got out and about."

Getting out and about will be on the agenda once he begins his new job on May 15. "I don't want people to see me as someone who sits in an office in Cardiff. I want to be accessible."

His first year or so will be dominated by the amalgamation of the Further Education Funding Council for Wales and the training and enterprise councils into the Council for Education and Training in Wales. Experience fits him rather well for the job; he became director of the Education Department in 1992, the year that the funding councils were set up. "There were a lot of cynics around, particularly in higher education, about Wales taking the responsibility on. One of the great achievements of John Andrews (his predecessor as chief executive) has been to show that that cynicism was misplaced."

That sense of the importance of Welsh responsibility is reflected in his pride in the development of a distinctive schools curriculum with a strong place for the performing arts, and in Welsh pioneering of target-setting.

His last job at the Welsh Office was, as estates officer, overseeing the logistics of the setting up of the Welsh Assembly. "One of my immediate priorities will be to ensure that the standard of service provided does not drop during the transition period," he says.

Beyond that is the job of running a body with a budget of around pound;600 million. "It is a genuinely exciting prospect. Objective One status (for areas of severe deprivation receiving the highest grants from Brussels) opens up all sorts of possibilities for Wales. We will be involved in almost all of the main priorities of the assembly - social exclusion, skills, health, economic development."

Making it work will depend on getting the various interested parties to work effectively together. "Institutions and processes are important, but they must not be allowed to take priority over the ultimate test, which is to deliver the best possible education and training for Wales."

Getting those institutions, in particular business, to agree on priorities will be one of his early tests. But as he has pointed out, one advantage of Wales's size is that the main people concerned with any issue can generally be assembled in a single room to thrash out policy.

Next month: The impact on FE of the first year of the Welsh Assembly

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