Whitehall's New Man

He combines political antennae with strong social concern; `I like to keep my mind on achievements'
The son of a docker will breathe fresh air into the Employment Department, says Liza Donaldson

The Employment Department, or - according to a former minister for it - the Civil Service's "bed of nails", is about to come under new management. Michael Bichard, currently chief executive of the Social Security Benefits Agency, takes over on 24 April. At 48, he is the youngest permanent secretary heading a government department.

Unlike his predecessor, Sir Nicholas Monck, schooled in the Whitehall mould at Eton and King's College, Cambridge, Mr Bichard, 6ft 2in and a docker's son, went to his local Southampton grammar school and Manchester University, where he read law. Uniquely among current permanent secretaries, his early career was in local government.

While there he gained a masters in social science from the University of Birmingham's Institute of Local Government. At 33, he became of chief executive at the then "loony" left and later "rabid" right Brent Council, one of the youngest council chiefs in the country. He moved in 1986 to the chief's job at Gloucestershire County Council, but in 1990 was enticed by head hunters to successfully apply for the chief executive job launching the Benefits Agency, the toughest and largest of the Government's 102 Next Steps Agencies with 70,000 staff and a budget of nearly £2bn.

In his new job he swaps this for fewer staff - 58,000, but a slightly bigger budget of £4.6bn and a larger remit over the Employment Department, Employment Service agency, Health and Safety Executive and the conciliation service Acas. A friend, Rodney Brooke, the former chief executive of Westminster Council during Lady Shirley Porter's reign and now secretary of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, says he is "extremely able", has "good political antennae" to cope with the hot potato of 2 to 3 million unemployed and will be "a breath of fresh air in Whitehall". He brings, too, "a deep social concern for those the benefits agency serves".

Sir Peter Kemp, former second permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office and a key player in the creation of agencies, says the appointment marks a sea change in the way the Civil Service is managed. The £95,000-a-year post was advertised - a first at this level, allowing competition from public and private sectors.

"Mr Bichard will show that the top table is not a closed shop," says Sir Peter, adding that he will inject new blood because of his different experience. Young hopefuls can also now see that captaining an agency is a route to the top, giving credibility to agencies and all they stand for as a management revolution. Mr Bichard disagrees with the "bed of nails" view, calling it "negative". Instead, he sees the job as "a rather stimulating opportunity" to be in charge of areas such as training that he has long held important.

He relishes the prospect of a wide range of partnerships with, for example, commerce, industry and universities since "it has always seemed to me that government is too introverted and introspective". But he concedes, with humour: "I suppose it is a question of what you have been used to. If you have been chief executive of Brent and the benefits agency for more than 10 years, you are quite used to beds of nails."

Gaining the top job, however, was not part of a carefully scripted career plan. "I have always applied for jobs that seemed interesting at the time and left when I felt I wanted a change," he says.

While it is too early to detail what he hopes to concentrate on at employment, he hopes to continue with "what I have always tried to deliver, which is a sense of purpose and some consensus about the direction of the organisation and set of values.

"Those seem to me to bedesperately important. Without them people tend to waste energy, trying to do what they think is wanted, but not being quite sure what it is."

At the benefits agency the "vision" is to provide a one-stop service, offering reliable advice and to pay the right money to the right person at the right time. The core business values - also striking for their clarity - are: customer service, caring for staff, bias for action (in layman's terms, getting results), and value for money.

It is said of him that "ministers like him because he has delivered". Asked what, he lists: faster benefits clearance times so that people are getting their money quicker; better quality of service, including "more charter marks than anyone else" - five in 1994; a more secure service concentrating on fraud prevention as well as detection, with plastic benefit cards from 1996; and a coherent business strategy aiming for "one-stop shops - at one place and ultimately one time". He is most proud of the fact that he has linked the agency's training needs to its business needs. It won a National Training Award - an accolade the Employment Department has not yet attained.

Quizzed over whether management and politics are impossible bedfellows, he explodes in controlled fashion. "I think public sector managers should be proud of being public managers because they are managing in a very rich environment. Part of that richness is the political dimension. Yes, you need to be aware of political sensitivities and take account of them. Political uncertainty is something you have to manage."

But he adds: "While the political process should fascinate any local government officer or civil servant, it does not mean in any way you should taint the apolitical nature of your work. I think that would be awful - the greatest sin of them all."

Mr Bichard confesses he is "intolerant of hierarchies", preferring to concentrate not on past achievements but the future. "One of the dangers of large bureaucracies is that you become more interested in the process than the output. The Civil Service needs to be continually aware that there is an output. "I like to think I keep my mind on achievements, rather than on keeping the machine ticking over."

What he is up against is, Sir Peter Kemp says, having to prove himself at the weekly Wednesday morning meeting of permanent secretaries, chaired by Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary, without an agenda or "serious minute".

There, apparently, it is not so much what you say but how you say it that matters. But Sir Peter is not alone in thinking that, despite this, the new recruit will come through, in place for the next, possibly Labour,government.