Norman Glass: Civil servant whose work led to the Sure Start programme

Norman Glass influenced the lives of many children and families who will never know him. Glass was a Renaissance man. Educated at Trinity College, Dublin, he received distinctions in Hebrew and Gaelic in his entrance examinations and achieved a first-class degree. He was awarded a post-graduate diploma in European integration from the University of Amsterdam. He also claimed to be a qualified rugby referee.

A civil servant for most of his career, he worked with most of the major government departments, delivering human services. He was chief economist in the Department of Social Security, he worked in the Department of the Environment, and from 1999-2001 he chaired the European Union's Economic Policy Committee. In the five years up until 2000, he was a director in the Public Services Directorate-General of Her Majesty's Treasury and chief micro-economist. It was in this role that he became involved in what was probably the most important public service reform since the setting up of the NHS.

In 1997-98, as part of Labour's Comprehensive Spending Review, he chaired the Review of Services for Young Children which led to the Sure Start programme being set up. He worked hard to ensure that the programme was based not only on good research evidence, but was also underpinned by core values; it had to be not only cost effective, but socially just to ensure that children had the best possible start in life. He was not one of those who saw childhood as a waiting room for grown-ups-to-be, and he was keen that childcare not be "captured" simply as a route toward the greater employability of parents.

Glass went on to lead the interdepartmental review, which resulted in the creation of a Cabinet Committee on Children and Young People, and a cross-departmental Children's Unit to co-ordinate policy and administer the proposed Children's Fund. He chaired the official steering group to implement the Sure Start programme. Not for him the role of distant and inscrut-able mandarin intellectual (though intellectual he was). In his Treasury role, he brought together the government departments who were to become Sure Start's heavenly homes, and other parties – the NGOs, the academics, those who deliver services.

With humour, firmness and a strong command of what matters as well as what works, he made folk laugh, talk to one another, and get on with the job – setting aside, at least for a while, departmental, academic and sectoral rivalries. A senior civil servant recalled how much Glass relished being the man in the Treasury – not then known for its social policy interest and warmth – being feted by the early-years practitioners as he developed and promoted early thinking on Sure Start.

In 2001, Glass was lured away from the civil service to head up NatCen, the UK's largest independent social research organisation. Following in the footsteps of the redoubtable Roger Jowell, he was an inspired choice, since each man was incomparable in his own domain. He found time to chair his local Sure Start in Croydon between 2001 and 2003, quipping that he could well be seen as "ex-top aide to Gordon Brown spending more time with other people's families."

Glass had links with City University, where he held a visiting chair and an honorary doctorate, and in 2007 he established a collaboration between NatCen and the London School of Economics. Had he chosen a different path in life, he would have been an academic of the best possible type. Knowledgeable without being a know-it-all, important without being self-important, authoritative without being authoritarian and superbly numerate while knowing that not everything that counts can be counted, he was a tolerant man who was appropriately intolerant of sloppy thinking. He was also (usually) sufficiently diplomatic to keep critical views to himself. He could be serious without being solemn, distinguish the truly important from the passing fad, and create, maintain and use networks to good ends.

In 2005, Glass said that what he had learned from visits to successful early-years programmes and local communities was that it was necessary to fully involve local people. He saw changes to the funding and organisation of Sure Start as undermining much of what he felt was best about it. He believed that its strength, in its original incarnation, was that it allowed those who benefited to shape it, rather than it being done to or for them. "In that sense," he wrote, "it would not be seen as just another initiative by Whitehall to do something about the feckless proles."

He remained realistic, however, and knew that many of us working on children's health and welfare would have preferred policy to be more closely aligned with our Nordic neighbours rather than countries whose studies were good but whose outcomes for children were worse than ours. "The problem," he wrote, "if I may break the news gently, is that the Treasury, when it comes to public expenditure and taxation levels, would rather not be in Scandinavia."

While maintaining civil service values, Glass could be a minx of a gossip – if he has left behind diaries, they will provide whole new scripts for a modern day Yes Minister. A reassuring email he sent after his health had taken a turn for the better said that he had cancelled his subscription to Goodbye magazine, but he was sadly mistaken. He had every right to be proud of his achievements, but only exercised his right to pride in respect of his beautiful French wife, Marie Anne, and his children, Jerome and Sophie.

Helen Roberts

Norman Jeffrey Glass, civil servant: born 31 May 1946; Lecturer, Univ. of Newcastle upon Tyne, 1972–74; Res. Scholar, Internat. Inst. for Applied Systems Analysis, Vienna, 1974–75; Economic Adviser: DHSS, 1975–77; HM Treasury, 1977–79; Exchequer and Audit Dept, 1979–81; Sen. Econ. Advr, DHSS, 1981–86; Asst Sec., DoH, 1986–89; Dir, Analytical Services, DSS, 1989–92; Chief Economist, DoE, 1992–95; Dep. Dir (Micro-econs), HM Treasury, 1995–2001. Chm., Economic Policy Cttee, EU, 1999–2001 (Vice-Chm., 1997–99); Chief Executive, National Centre for Social Research, since 2001; Non-exec. Dir, Govt Offices for the Regions Bd, 2002–04; Board Member: Countryside Agency, 2003–06; Skillforce, 2004–06; Commn for Rural Communities, 2006–09; married 1974 Marie-Anne Verger (one son, one daughter); died 13 June 2009.

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