News story

Jon Thompson on his new role as PUS

At the end of his first week as MOD's new Permanent Secretary (PUS), Jon Thompson talked to Ian Carr about how he is striving for normality.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

It’s Friday afternoon, and, at the end of his first week as MOD’s new Permanent Secretary, Jon Thompson admits that he is looking forward to a weekend playing with his Schnauzer.

No, our new PUS doesn’t spend his downtime getting in a bit of target practice. Lovers of Crufts will know that a Schnauzer is a breed of pedigree dog, not a handgun:

It was a silver wedding anniversary present for my wife,” our new PUS explained. “I’m looking forward to a cracking weekend trying to train it.

But before MOD’s most senior civil servant goes off to shout ‘Sit’ and ‘Fetch’, he was keen to talk to Defence Focus about what his appointment means both personally and for the Department.

Mr Thompson makes no bones about being thrilled with his appointment:

It is a fantastic, fascinating and exciting job, but it’s not until you get here that you appreciate the breadth of the role, the things you have to try and have an understanding of, the number of things that come across the desk that you have to either decide on, give a steer on or advise on.

I wouldn’t say it’s overwhelming, but it is incredible.

But surely with more than three years’ experience as our Director General of Finance, the new job cannot hold too many surprises?

Sure I had an appreciation of the role, but there are a lot of classified secret things to be briefed on - I’ve been to three briefings already about compartments that I didn’t even know existed.

Despite the fact that the scale of the job means that thousands of e-mails flow into his office every week, one of the first actions he took on appointment was to encourage staff to contact him with their views and ideas. Does he regret that now?

Absolutely not. It’s important for me to be open and try and engage as much as I can with people and find out their views and what’s worrying them.

Engagement is undoubtedly the new PUS’s watchword, and he takes great pride in the fact that he writes all his own ‘Ask The [Defence] Board’ replies. On top of that, in the last three years he has notched up around 100 site visits, and he doesn’t intend to let that slide.

But is there a danger that he might be setting himself up for a fall if problems can’t be sorted out?

Sure there’s a risk, but I’m convinced it’s the right thing to do. I have to listen to what people think about the organisation then see what sort of a difference I can make. Then people will have to judge me on what I do.

Let me give you a practical example. I’m as frustrated as everyone else is about having a 100 meg mailbox, or not being able to connect to DII [MOD’s internal computer system]. Well the least I can do is go and have a look at the problem.

I won’t be able to address every single frustration people have, but I can give them some sense that they can engage with me and debate with me.

It seems that the phrase ‘what you see is what you get’ could have been coined with Mr Thompson in mind. He values trust, openness and common sense.

In fact these are the qualities that underpin his drive for greater delegation. As Director General of Finance, Mr Thompson helped to engineer the Herculean task of balancing the MOD’s budget.

And while he admits that the complexity of MOD business means that the budget can never be 100 per cent risk-free, he believes that Lord Levene’s recommendations to delegate financial responsibility and create a strong, more strategic centre that controls the approval and negotiation of the planning process will put the Department ‘in a good place’:

I famously said that CGS [Chief of the General Staff] is the best person to administer the Army’s budget.

It isn’t possible for me, the Finance Director, and the corporate military staff to solely run a £35bn organisation employing 250,000 people.

It is my absolute instinct that we should delegate.

It is what Mr Thompson describes as one of the megadecisions that he has to make before Christmas, to what extent and at what pace will delegation be introduced in 2013:

There are risks, but we have to try and live in a grown up world where you trust that people will be grown up and do the right thing.

One of the things, he confides, that he, the Secretary of State and the Service Chiefs are very keen on is, from next April, to align authority, responsibility and accountability:

That’s the quid pro quo of delegation.

How the Services approach delegation, and how far they push it down their organisations, is for them to decide says Mr Thompson:

I just want to hold one person to account. How they choose to run their business is up to them, as long as they are in control. But having said that, we do have to strip away some corporate controls.

For Mr Thompson, simplicity is the key:

Why,” he asks, “do we have to write business cases for every overseas flight, or for using the train, or all kind of strange things - what’s the point?

But overall what the new PUS is striving for is normality:

I aspire to stabilising the organisation so we can turn around things like recruitment, development and promotion. Once you have stabilised you can return to more normal times.

To achieve that though, he confesses the reality is that there are things that the MOD will have to prioritise, and some which we will probably have to stop doing altogether in order to stay within budget and to meet staffing targets:

I want to bring the military and civilian leaders together so we can discuss, as a collective leadership, where we are going as an organisation and what sort of a future we want.

This article is taken from the October 2012 issue of Defence Focus - the magazine for everyone in Defence.

Published 16 October 2012