Interview: How a ‘permeable civil service’ can help tech start-ups
Former No.10 and Cabinet Office policymaker William Newton now leads a growing technology firm. In this Q&A, he compares the joys and frustrations of each, and the skills learned in Whitehall he has taken to his new career
Credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA Archive/Press Association Images
In the latest instalment of an ongoing series on civil service leavers and their new careers, PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World meets William Newton, a policy adviser-turned EMEA managing director of tech start-up WiredScore. He discusses how the "relentless pace of the private office was good practice for the speed you need to get a start-up off the ground".
CSW: Tell us about your career as a civil servant, and what you do now.
William Newton: After a few years at a management consultancy, I joined the Cabinet Office in 2011. There, I had two main roles: running part of the National Citizen Service team in the Office for Civil Society, and then working as the private secretary to the minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude, covering the Efficiency and Reform Group agenda. From the start of 2014 until the May 2015 general election I worked in the No.10 Policy Unit.
I left the civil service to start the European arm of WiredScore, a tech company working in the property industry. We’ve grown substantially since then, launching offices in Paris and Berlin, raising about $10m in funding and expanding the workforce to 75 people. And I’m delighted to say we’ve just been named one of Escape the City’s Top 100 companies in the UK.
What did you enjoy about working in the civil service – and what did you not enjoy?
I loved my four years in the civil service and can definitely imagine going back someday. I worked on an amazing range of difficult and interesting issues, from trying to put Universal Credit onto the right path, to helping stitch the principle of open data into the fabric of government, to thinking about the right way to spur the electric car industry in the UK. I especially always loved what one former colleague called ‘the ambient conversation’: the issues discussed over the lunch table, or while making tea with colleagues, were always fascinating and important.
There were bits I found frustrating. One particular annoyance was when civil servants cared about each other’s professional development, but weren’t willing to challenge each other directly in a way that would lead to improvement. This ruinous empathy was regarded as kind but actually held people and teams back.
What attracted you to your current job?
Definitely the chance to start something from scratch. I’d enjoyed working at a big private sector company and in the public sector, and I knew a start-up would be a completely different experience. The vicissitudes of start-up life can be extreme. There is quite a lot of rejection involved, for example from potential clients or investors who don’t immediately like the idea. But the joy of building momentum, from seeing your first clients benefit from your product, is deeply satisfying.
I also liked that, while WiredScore operates in the private sector, we are working to deliver a public good: better digital connectivity. I find that aspect of the job very rewarding, and it's great to still engage with officials and politicians at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Greater London Authority.
What have you learned in the new role about yourself and your skills, and how did your experience as a civil servant prepare you for the job?
The first lesson I learnt at WiredScore is that unless you wake up that morning and make something happen, your idea isn’t going to go anywhere. The early days were all about experimenting with a million different ways to gain traction. As a rule, this should apply to every job, but it is most acute when there's so little support – I wasn’t part of a 440,000-person organisation any more.
Civil servants gain useful skills and perspectives by being in different parts of the economy for a period of time, before returning fresh for the challenges provided by government
More recently, I’ve had to learn to scale myself along with my growing team. At first, it was difficult to let go of knowing what was happening with every client all the time. But I realised that I wasn’t going to be able to help grow the company if I was always focused on the immediate, rather than looking at new products, new countries and new ways to add value to our existing connectivity certification. Initially that felt like a loss of control, but I became comfortable that my brilliant colleagues were actually doing a better job than I would.
My time with National Citizen Service was probably the closest analogue to WiredScore. We were a small, tight-knit team working on something we cared deeply about. We had to develop a load of practices from scratch, test and learn what worked and what didn’t. The relentless pace of the private office was also good practice for the speed you need to get a start-up off the ground.
What advice would you give to civil servants thinking of switching careers?
You can do anything! Many of the civil servants I talk to underestimate how useful the generalist skill set that they’ve picked up can be in a host of other industries. And it doesn’t just need to be in large corporates – start-ups really value people who can think critically across a wide variety of problems. I may be biased: I’ve recruited two former civil servants to my team!
I’ll always be a big advocate of a permeable civil service. Civil servants gain useful skills and perspectives by being in different parts of the economy for a period of time, before returning fresh for the challenges provided by government.
William Newton is president and EMEA managing director of tech startup WiredScore
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