My Biggest Mistake: John Rimington

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The Independent Online
John Rimington CB is director-general of the Health and Safety Executive, where he holds the rank of second permanent secretary in the Department of Employment Group. His career in the Civil Service, spanning 34 years, was interrupted by a 12-month spell with a US investment bank in 1970. He joined the Civil Service direct from Cambridge and has served in its Tariffs and Mergers Division, the Treasury, the Manpower Services Commission and as counsellor on social and regional policy with the UK Permanent Mission in Brussels. He is 57.

MY BIGGEST mistake was resigning from the Civil Service for a career in business that failed to meet my expectations.

I had never regarded myself altogether as a Civil Service type. When, in 1970, through my friendship with a US Treasury official, the opportunity came to join a US investment bank being set up in the City, it seemed promising - and I took the offer.

However, the fulfilment failed to match the promise. For most of the year I spent there, I worked with a handful of people on the ground floor of a largely empty five-storey building. The bank never got off the ground and was eventually wound up.

Long before that, I had discovered that while you may have more freedom in private business to make your own decisions, free-market forces do not necessarily produce efficiency.

Communications skills were primitive at the bank, particularly among top executives. When I had served as a first secretary at the British High Commission in New Delhi, I had been used to communicating even complex ideas by telegram - but the bank's US executives jetted across the Atlantic to give us quite simple messages.

I also learned how greedy some people can be. I was astonished at how much unjustified optimism dominated their actions and led to wrong judgements. Civil servants can make wrong judgements, but they bring objectivity and principle to advising ministers. Arbitrary decisions are out. Any case you put must be soundly based, well argued and capable of being publicly defended.

So I came back to the Civil Service and have found satisfaction in it. It carries out enormous tasks, usually with few resources. Its great qualities are taken for granted and its occasional failures shouted to heaven. Few outside the service grasp the tremendous pressure and complications that come with public accountability.

Civil servants don't live behind stone walls but in a goldfish bowl where they can be called to account, often publicly, for actions taken not only today but five or more years ago. They have to account to ministers, select committees, the Public Accounts Committee, the Government Efficiency Unit - perhaps the Ombudsman.

That said, my foray into the private sector left me with no grudges. It didn't lead me to think that businessmen are more efficient than civil servants, but it gave me a respect for the risks involved.

In the private sector you need fast footwork, experience and friends. At the time, I didn't have those. If I hadn't left the Civil Service, I would not have learned what I did, nor enjoyed my subsequent career as much.

It may be I would have got to the top of the Civil Service sooner and by the route I wanted - the flashy business of serving ministers directly. But I wonder if that would have been more congenial than the varied career I have had here and abroad, particularly in Brussels.

I have been and am a boss, not a subordinate. At the HSE I enjoy managing highly qualified people whom I don't always understand but who believe strongly in the necessary and often exciting job they do for society.

There's always a silver lining on the back of a mistake.

(Photograph omitted)