William Plowden: Radical adviser devoted to improving how we are governed

William Plowden was a distinguished yet unconventional public servant who believed passionately in the need to improve the way we are governed. In particular, he sought to change the way Whitehall worked so that it became more open to outside thinking and more joined up in how it operated within the civil service departmental system. For most of his career he worked outside Whitehall, but he was shaped by his early experience at the Board of Trade, by his seven years as a committed member of the Central Policy Review Staff (CPRS) in the Cabinet Office, as well as a short and unhappy period as an under-secretary in the Department of Industry.

He came from an Establishment background: both his parents chaired influential government enquiries. He was educated at Eton and King's College, Cambridge, where he gained a first class degree in history. From there he went as a Harkness Fellow to the University of California at Berkeley, where he acquired a lifelong interest in the US. Returning to the UK he worked as a staff writer on The Economist for a year, learning no doubt to write in the crisp, compelling and beautifully crafted way which characterised everything he wrote later. However, journalism was never likely to satisfy him for long, as he wanted to make decisions in the hope that the world would become a better place, and not just to write about what others did.

He joined the civil service and as a young official destined for the top he became Edward Heath's private secretary in the Board of Trade. He joked that looking after his Minister's every need, including answering such questions as how the Minister liked his egg boiled, drove him out. He left Whitehall to become a lecturer in the Government Department at LSE, where he wrote his first book, The Motor Car and Politics in Britain. Had he stayed, he undoubtedly would have had a successful academic career, but he chose to return to Whitehall as a founder- member of the CPRS, known as the Think Tank. By then, his former boss had become Prime Minister and had drawn him into discussions about setting up a small team of policy analysts to advise ministers collectively about the complex issues they faced.

Plowden became a central figure in the work of the CPRS from 1971 until he left in 1977. He relished the opportunities it provided to promote evidence-based thinking in policy-making. He argued for better research and improved statistical data within Whitehall and for drawing on sources from outside government. He saw the dangers of entrenched departmental cultures, impervious to what was happening in other departments. Even with greater openness and a more joined-up approach, he was convinced of the value of co-ordination at the centre. This required clarity about strategy and a consistent approach to how policies across Whitehall could contribute to strategic goals, as well as more emphasis on the long term. No one understood this better than Plowden and he worked tirelessly to expose muddled thinking, short-termism and departmental point-scoring. He was quick and analytical in developing alternative ideas and possible solutions. He was able to range widely across the policy spectrum and did so, but his main contribution was to social policy. He led the CPRS initiative on the "Joint Approach to Social Policy" and was the author of a number of reports on the distribution of resources between social programmes and whether they met ministers' priorities. He was persuasive about the need to make clear choices and to study the impact of decisions on different client groups in the welfare system, rather than focusing on the providers.

This may sound well-intentioned but over-earnest. Not so – Plowden was warm and funny, unpompous and self-deprecating. He could be critical, but only courteously. Working with him was a great joy.

The CPRS suited him perfectly. Returning to departmental work did not, and he left the civil service to head the Royal Institute of Public Administration, where he developed what he had started in the CPRS outside Whitehall, widening into the rest of the public sector, including local government and the NHS. This was followed by a period in New York where he ran the UK Harkness Fellowships programme with great success. When he returned to London, he became an independent consultant specialising in advising the governments of developing countries on public-sector reform. He travelled widely and wrote extensively, contributing to a wider understanding about the nature of Cabinet government around the world. He renewed his links with LSE. He also promoted the value of the voluntary sector in various ways.

For 50 years, he and his wife Veronica were the closest of couples, devoted to their children and appreciative of their friends. They were wonderful hosts, whether in Gloucestershire or Brixton. He loved walking because that meant talking, and the conversations were rich, covering films, theatre, books and music as well as politics, people and places. No one could have wished for a better friend.

Tessa Blackstone

William Julius Lowthian Plowden, civil servant, government adviser and writer: born London 7 February 1935; married 1960 Veronica Gascoigne (two sons, two daughters); died 26 June 2010.

footballLIVE City face Stoke, while Warnock returns to Palace dugout
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
gadgets + techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
Paul McCartney backs the
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
The slice of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake and the original box from 29 July 1981
newsPiece of Charles and Diana's wedding cake sold at auction in US
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# .NET Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, jQuery, XML, XLST)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Web De...

Clinical Negligence Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: HAMPSHIRE MARKET TOWN - A highly attr...

Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF, BGP, Multicast, WAN)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF,...

Commercial Property Solicitor - Bristol

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: A VERY HIGH QUALITY FIRM A high qual...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone