The very model of a modern mandarin

12th January 1996 at 00:00
Michael Bichard broke the mould when he became permanent secretary at the Department for Education and Employment. Lucy Hodges asks if he is up to the task.

If your idea of the average civil servant is Sir Humphrey Appleby, forget it. Today's top man at the Department for Education and Employment is the son of a docker-turned-school-caretaker, who didn't go to Eton or Oxbridge, doesn't have a cut-glass accent and doesn't look down his nose at the rest of the world.

At 48, Michael Bichard is almost too good to be true. The youngest permanent secretary ever to be appointed when he was put in charge of the Department of Employment last year, he was also the first to be hired through open competition and from outside the orthodox civil service factors which may have secured his future. Unlike other permanent secretaries, his background is public sector management, not the rarefied corridors of Whitehall.

Two months into his job at Employment his world fell apart with the announcement that his Department was to merge with Education. "It was a bit of a blow that, really," says Bichard, in the low-key, jokey style he cultivates. "I get my first permanent job for 10 years and they abolish it."

But he came out of it all right, beating Sir Tim Lankester (Eton and Cambridge), the former top dog at Education, to become the sole permanent secretary in the newly-merged Department. Lankkaster, former head of the Overseas Development Agency was the Whitehall insider whose full and frank account of the Pergau Dam finances so embarrassed ministers. Last December he left the civil service and in six months, will become director of the London University'sSchool of Oriental and African Studies.

Bichard had moved house last summer, shifting from Leeds where he had been running the Benefits Agency to the home counties, and was staring large mortgage repayments in the face. So, it was a relief when the uncertainty over the new permanent secretary post ended.

Taking over education and employment is, however, a very big, not to say, daunting, job. It involves leading 50,000 staff delivering very different services, and formulating policies across a wide range of issues from training and higher education to schools and nurseries and integrating the discrete parts into a coherent whole.

Is Bichard up to the task? Can he meld together the differing philosophies and pieces of the new DFEE jigsaw to produce strategies that hang together and citizens better educated for the global marketplace? He is not complacent about it. "I don't underestimate the challenge," he says.

Most people who have watched the rise of the hefty 6ft 2in public sector servant have little doubt about his ability. He is seen as sharp, able to cut through waffle to the heart of an argument (good for dealing with educationists) and a real management professional. The latter trait sets him apart from many in Whitehall. "He gives the impression of being very strong on the management side," says TUC general secretary John Monks, who sat with him on the Economic and Social Research Council. "He wants to know what you're trying to do, how you're trying to do it and how you're managing against what your objectives are."

These are exactly the changes he has set in train at the DFEE. New aims and objectives have been drawn up and a clear set of values to guide civil servants in their work, as well as a new corporate-style board structure and much communicating. All of which have been devised jointly by Bichard and Tim Lankester. But they have the Bichard stamp all over them. Those who observed him in his local government jobs in Berkshire, Lambeth, Brent and Gloucestershire confirm his management strengths. He was seen as a dynamic deputy chief officer in "Red" Ted Knight's regime in the 1970s in Lambeth, a time when that borough was considered a lively Labour authority only bordering on the loony, and an agile manager battling against the odds in Brent in the 1980s.

"He struck me as very personable, very bright," said Ken Livingstone, one of Brent's Labour MPs. "He had a good reputation among the politicians in Brent." But Livingstone is not so sure now that Bichard was such an ace manager. He wonders whether all the endemic management chaos began spontaneously in 1986 when Labour came to power and Bichard moved on to Gloucestershire. "There is no way that all the chaos in Brent could have been created after he left," he says. "That management mess had to have been there for some time."

Bichard is 1990s man. He has got where he has through brains and effort, and being a consummate pragmatist. To some, his chameleon-like ability to accommodate some of the wildest local politicians and today's Conservative masters in Westminster shows how slippery or cynical he must be. "If you want a superb administrator who is entirely pragmatic and in a sense couldn't care less about the value issues involved, Mr Bichard is your man," commented one veteran educationist.

His big break in life came when he passed the 11-plus exam. Educated at King Edward's grammar school, Southampton, (his A-levels are in English, history and Latin) and at Manchester University where he read law, he owes some of his disciplined way of thinking to the study of Latin and law, he says. He enjoyed Manchester "greatly" and has been a Manchester United fan ever since.

The reason he ended up in local government was because he was paid a salary while doing his solicitor's articles. He could not have afforded it otherwise. So he found himself in the old county borough of Reading, pre-1974 reorganisation, working in the solicitors' office.

While there, he was sent away to the University of Birmingham's Institute of Local Government Studies to get a masters' degree in social sciences. That was "hugely influential", he says. He learnt about management and policy analysis. "It opened up all sorts of different views of cities and how they're managed . . . All of that seemed rather more exciting than being a local government lawyer."

He returned to run the chief executive's office in Reading and to manage the transfer of functions from the county borough to the county at the time of local government reorganisation. There followed a spell in Berkshire nurturing relationships between the county and the districts which tested Bichard's burgeoning skills as a diplomat.

But it was all a bit too soft in Berkshire. Hence the move to one of the grittiest parts of the metropolis Lambeth just as left-winger Ted Knight came to power. "It was a rich experience," says Bichard. He enjoyed working in Brixton with a mainly black and Afro-Caribbean community at a time when exciting things were happening, such as inner-city partnerships.

Bichard is good on equal opportunities, according to those who have worked with him. Herman Ouseley, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, was Lambeth's first race adviser recruited to work in Bichard's office and speaks highly of his commitment. As does Russell Profitt, former race adviser in Brent. "He accepted the principle of positive action," says Profitt. "He was able to make things happen".

For a young official, the political turmoil that was beginning to develop in Lambeth wasn't bad experience either, says Bichard. He is refreshingly open for a mandarin, able to talk about himself in an unself-consious way without of course revealing too many secrets. The fact that he was prepared to give an on-the-record interview for an hour to The TES speaks volumes about his style. His manner is straightforward, quiet, a bit laconic. "Watching someone like Ted Knight work was interesting," he says, with ironic emphasis on the word "interesting".

Brent was a quiet London suburb when Bichard arrived there as chief executive. So quiet that he and his fellow officers thought it needed putting on the map. He set about trying to make it work better as a corporate whole and to develop links with the local people. But he had reckoned without the rumbustious politics that followed.

In 1982 the far left of the Labour Party got into power with a wafer-thin majority, and the following year a black councillor, Ambrosine Neil, crossed the floor to join the Tories. For the next two years it was Conservative-run with the balance of power held by three Liberal Democrats who often voted with Labour. So, although the Conservatives were nominally in power, they were often outvoted. "It was extremely difficult," says Bichard. "We were having special policy committees two and three times a week. Most nights were taken up with meetings and there were meetings that often went on all night. Quite literally, you could have one decision taken and overturned two or three times in a week". The example of the deputy mayor's car is the silliest Bichard recalls. On Monday members decided the car should be done away with. They changed their minds on Tuesday, went back on that decision on Wednesday. On Thursday he was instructed to sell it. But because the Labour group didn't really want to get rid of the car, they set a price limit, above what they thought anyone would pay. They had underestimated Bichard's skills as a used-car salesman. He sold the car to the leader of a Conservative authority on the South coast in a bar in Birmingham after midnight. Brent's Labour members were aghast. They never did learn the identity of the purchaser, according to Bichard.

This period culminated in the case of Jasmine Beckford, a child who died a violent death at the hands of her stepfather. Bichard says he had to make some of his most difficult decisions at this time, when he fired three of the social workers most closely involved.

Brent had been a baptism of fire for Bichard. "I don't think people who hadn't worked in that sort of situation really understood how much courage it sometimes took and how much effort you had to put into it," he says now. "We had more Daily Mail reporters than we had people in the PR office. I didn't think I could keep that kind of commitment up."

Those who worked with him at Brent say he was a hard person to get to know. For all his mateyness, he was really quite secretive. (Certainly, he gives nothing away in his Who's Who entry.) He suffered marital problems at the time, that much is known. His son from a previous marriage is now 24 and he has two daughters, aged eight and 12, with his current wife.

Moving to Gloucestershire was clearly a relief. "All of a sudden people were much more prepared to listen to what you had to say and when you wanted to do something, it very often happened," he says. Bichard is famous for having shaken up a comfortable shire county, with his emphasis on customer care, setting targets, appraisal, measuring results and the like.

He was an enabler rather than an interferer, says Keith Anderson, the county's chief education officer. "He was supportive of his chief officers and left them free to get on with service delivery," he explains. "But he was demanding in terms of intitiatives for improved management."

One of the intitiatives which caught the eye of Margaret Maden when she was chief education officer of Warwickshire was Gloucestershire's equal opportunities policy. She had been casting around for examples, and Gloucestershire's was the only one that was not a con. "It was the only one I could find that was worth anything," she says. "It was absolutely on the ball."

At the Benefits Agency, where he was on a fixed-term contract, Bichard continued in similar vein, seeking to look after the customer and the staff, get results and secure value for money. He also increased productivity by more than 20 per cent in the first three years. He thinks running the Benefits Agency is one of the hardest jobs in the public sector. It's a very large organisation (70,000 staff and a budget of Pounds 85bn) under constant pressure from clients and politicians.

One of his most difficult tasks was introducing the disability living allowance. This happened at great speed. Large numbers of disabled people were having to wait six months to receive their benefits. "You're always aware in the Benefits Agency that anything that someone does in an office can appear on the front page of a paper," he explains. "There were some fairly hairy political times there, but I think we came through them and the agency was running really well." Everyone who knows says he made benefits offices more user-friendly.

What does Bichard want to achieve at the DFEE? Three things, he says: imaginative and innovative policy advice, high quality services and good management practice. He is in no doubt about the size of his task ahead, particularly in weaving together the employment and education pieces.

Some may question whether he is enough of an ideas man to put together a new vision of education for the 21st century but those who know him are in little doubt. Bichard resents the notion that you can't combine good management with sparkling policy advice, that you can't be practical, as well as wise and intellectually agile.

The new permanent secretary is also very hot on leadership trying to create a sense of direction, and inspiring and motivating people around common aims and values and has thrown himself into that task energetically. "I've been through five years of trying to change a large bureaucracy and I know that it can be done," he says. "I know that it does take time too."

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