This interview was conducted over Tim Berners Lee’s digital platform during January 2021 ……
I first started getting to know Robbie as he was a regular poster on the BFC (Blackpool FC) supporters message board (A View From The Tower) AVFTT .
Only in recent years have I got to know him better : firstly through his involvement in the BST (Blackpool Supporters Trust) 2015 General Election Campaign (I stood as an INDEPENDENT candidate in Blackpool South backed by BST to raise awareness of the civil war versus the Oystons’ mis-management of Blackpool Football Club) and secondly through his ongoing involvement with BST.
On first meeting Robbie I would have described him as witty and engaging … I then heard a third party describe him as ‘excessively bright, maybe too bright’ … which peaked my interest …. in following years my initial instincts have been validated but I would prefix witty and engaging with a quick and analytical mind. He is a strategic thinker with great attention to detail and an almost natural air of playful cynicism which on further examination might reveal a devilish sense of humour and a love of controversy.
Our last discussion of note was surrounding the nebulous origins of the title of one of his favourite TV shows ‘Only Connect’. Hosted by Victoria Coren-Mitchell, daughter of Alan Coren and wife of actor David Mitchell (significantly both Cancerians btw) this high- brow quiz show is not standard viewing fodder for the WWC of TGC. Those who have not seen Only Connect might have witnessed VCM guest-hosting ‘Have I Got News for You’ and noticed her demur smile as her clever comments ricochet effortlessly between the witty Ian Hislop and very witty Paul Merton (significantly also both Cancerians btw)
A sharing of intelligence and an agile mind is however where the outward facing comparison between Robbie and Victoria ends. When my excited revelation that E.M.Forster (the oft Nobel nominated Capricornian essayist) was the originating source of his favourite quiz show title was greeted with a shrug of indifference I felt deflated but intrigued … it was in that moment I decided to delve deeper into the enigmatic mind of Robbie Whitaker.
…. I was partially aware that Robbie has a career backstory of local boy made good in terms of leaving The Gold Coast (TGC) for the bright lights of That There London (TTL) … not as a footballer or as a rock musician but as a civil servant – so where better place to start than …
Where were you born, on what date and at what time – do you have any truck with astrology and birth signs ?
2.40 a.m. on 18 December – exactly on time (I hate unpunctuality, and always have). That makes me Sagittarius, albeit I regard astrology in much the same way I do religion – as preposterous bollocks.
Which junior school, secondary school, sixth form did you go to and were you one of the cohort that took the 11+ ?
I went to Baines Grammar School after passing the 11+ exam and did my A levels
History (A), English (A), Economics (B), General Studies (C)
No-one from my school year went to either Oxford’s or Cambridge’s University (Oxbridge as it is sometimes playfully referred to), except on a family coach trip or on the way back from a trip to Wembley. Furthermore no-one from TGC even took or had heard of what is still whisperingly referred to as the ‘entrance exam’ ? So was there a robed ritual when you were given the secret key to entrance exam room – how did this initiation come about and which of the high priests’ idea was it that you took this ? Did anyone else from your school get invited into the dungeon ?
There were six entrance exams, I think ; I sat mine in History, which meant in practice I had to sit papers on European History, British History, do an English/French and a French/English comprehension paper, and a couple of General Papers which could cover anything.
I sat the exams 4th term (Christmas term), so spent that entire term preparing ; two extra History essays every week, cramming to improve my O Level French and trying to keep up to date with current affairs. And I had a part-time job as well, to finance my Blackpool FC habit (I was going regularly home and away by then).
I then had to go down to my preferred College for an interview, and they let you know a couple of week after – 22 December in my case. I remember my Mum sending me around to tell her sister the good news ; when I got home she had got through three quarters of a bottle of sherry. At 10 in the morning….
Did you get given the result or was it a straight pass / fail ?
Back then, if you got an offer from Oxbridge, all they asked you to do was to “fulfil matriculation requirements” – i.e. 2 grade “E’s” at A Level. That took the pressure off quite a lot.
I expressed an interest towards the end of the lower 6th, but I think it was a cabal of senior teachers who decided who would be selected for 4th term applications (via entrance exams and interview) . Six of us got picked, four quickly dropped out because the pressure of the extra work needed was very intense. The Head Boy won a place at Magdalen, Oxford. I went to Downing at Cambridge.
You opted for Law at Cambridge but I don’t believe you enjoyed it …… why law of all subjects and why did you not enjoy it ?
I decided I wanted to do Law when I was about 14 years old, and nobody ever challenged me about it. I got a 2.2 in the end. I enjoyed year one, Roman Law was good, I quite enjoyed Tort and Criminal. Year 2 included Land Law and Contract and I found both a struggle. I asked to change to History for my last year but my Senior Tutor talked me out of it. I should have stuck to my guns, really.
Please share your experience of studying at Cambridge University. Please describe a typical day. Did you live in halls or shared house. Did you make many friends ? In terms of the class system what percentage were from private (public) school. Did people tend to mix with their own ? What did these 3 years teach you about life ?
I don’t think any day was “typical”.
In the week you would have lectures in the morning. I played football for my college, so at least a couple of afternoons a week were spent training or playing in the first two terms. I spent nowhere near enough time in the library ; but most evenings three of us lawyers who lived on the same corridor would often study together before going down to the College Bar.
I lived in college in years 1 and 2, and in digs in year 3. Most of my circle, were lawyers, or footballers, or both, but not exclusively. We loathed the Boat Club as being upper class wankers, pitied the Rugby Club (as wannabe upper class wankers) and were proud of our ability to drink like men, rather than get up to the antics that they both did.
But one of my best football mates had been a scholar at Charterhouse School ; another had been brought up in Gateshead.
So there were no hard and fast rules, and in my second year we started admitting girls to my college – posh ones. I love posh girls. You don’t worry so much about class once you’ve met one. Especially when they love your mellifluous West Lancashire accent.
You graduated in 1982 which you describe as a ‘bad year’ why ?
Economically! 25% of my graduate year went straight on the dole. I went to work for Ladbrokes while I decided what to do – started as a cashier in Talbot Rd Blackpool –
How come this job rather than a ‘proper job’ like becoming a solicitor or an accountant ? What did you aspire to be / do ?
My Mum worked for them and she suggested it was better than not doing anything. They were keen to get me on the programme, and once I got into it I enjoyed the work. I was enrolled on their management programme, ended up staying seven years. I finished up a District Manager in Scotland looking after 31 shops, with around about a £20m in turnover on a salary of £15k plus a car, I think ? …. However I fell out big time with the Regional Manager (ethical values).
Please elaborate …..
The individual Regions were run like private fiefdoms by the Regional Managers. North England was supportive, nurturing, they worked hard at developing talent. The RM in Scotland surrounded herself with a hard core of acolytes and they ruthlessly suppressed any individualism or freedom of thought. Control at all costs, rule by fear. I’ve got a good anecdote or two.
OK so now you have established that rather than getting a proper job you decided to throw away a good education on gambling ? As I still believe that your mind harbours strategic thoughts as a child (pre-Oxbridge) what did you aspire to be / do ? – maybe a footballer or a rock-star or a male-model ?
When I was about nine I wanted to be a marine biologist. But I wasn’t very good at it, or interested in it, when it came down to it. I wanted to open the batting for England, but my management of “the corridor of uncertainty” wasn’t good enough. Ending up in the Civil Service was a happy accident, in lots of ways, but when I started doing policy I knew I’d found my niche. Some people plot their career path from an early age. I lurched through my early working life like a drunken sailor. Calculation, and management of it, came much later.
I then saw an ad for EO’s in the (then) Department of Environment in London ; similar money to what I was on so I applied and ended up joining the Civil Service in January 1990.
All the real people I know from TGC who work for the civil service work at one of the following locations Warbreck Hill FY2, Norcross FY5, The Premium Bonds FY3 or the DWP FY4 (the civil service is the largest employer on TGC btw). Where did you work and what was the post code ?
Based at Marsham Towers in Westminster. Lived in an LHA Hostel in Belsize Park for my first year, which was superb. Drank plenty of beer, met lots of girls.
A new world eh – how did it go ?
I did a couple of very untypical jobs to begin with. My first job was working on the computerisation of the (Manual) Derelict Land Grant System – helping the programmers to design the IT system, road testing the modules as they were created, training staff in how to use it, and then capturing historical data going back to the 1970s.
Second job was working in HR for the Director in his private little consultancy unit. I did all sorts of stuff there. Both jobs were highly unusual, not mainstream at all.
I took on my first out and out policy job (HEO ….. ) in 1995 I’d found my niche here – I was good at policy analysis, credible in front of Government Ministers, had the chance to do a lot of public speaking before hostile audiences – which really developed my skill set quickly.
Who was your boss ? Please explain how this job operated were u in a team – freedom of manoeuvre- what were your deliverables …. most importantly Robbie did you ever have the good fortune to use a franking machine ?
Never used a franking machine (what a bizarre question!). Was a junior cog still, worked for a Grade 5 called Richard Footitt (best boss I ever had), our Ministers were Heseltine (rarely) and more usually, Paul Beresford. but worked in a Division of around 50 people.
We were responsible for compulsory competitive tendering (CCT) of local authority services. Policy loved by Thatcherite Ministers, loathed by most of local government. It was where I first did public speaking, usually to large and hostile audiences.
With the change of Government to Labour in 1997 I then started working on the flagship policy of best value in local government.
It sounds relatively boring (in comparison with the likes of foreign affairs) to me, although I have a very basic understanding of the life of a Whitehall civil servant … did you choose to do this ?
The Blair Government was committed to abolishing CCT with best value. It was their flagship policy on local government in many ways carrying huge expectation in the industry.
Those of us working on CCT were asked to ameliorate its worst impacts immediately, whilst also developing the replacement policy. It was very high profile, and surprisingly not boring at all.
Please can you expand on this …. ?
For the two and a half years I had worked on CCT, the policy had been loathed, and my public speaking had made me the visible face of the policy outside the Department. We had spent all of 1996 tightening the rules in a way that local government thought beyond the pale – because that was what Minsters wanted. I think they were gung-ho by then, they knew that the Election in 1997 was a foregone conclusion and they wanted to go out fighting.
So when the Local Government Association turned up to meet Ministers from the new Blair Government they had high hopes that CCT would be quickly swept aside, and a brave new and much less prescribed world of Best Value (as yet undefined) was ahead.
You can imagine their surprise when the team they were asked to meet to discuss the NEW policy were the same people who had pursued this hated OLD one. Especially when we told them that best value would almost certainly require legislation, could probably not be introduced earlier than 1998 (1999 in the end) and we were going to keep the old policy for the time being, tweak it a bit and be in charge of developing the framework for the best value replacement.
We were on the front page of the Local Government Chronicle regularly ; there was a lot of speculation about what we were up to in the industry , and when I did go out to speak I was drawing huge crowds everywhere (down to curiosity, not my oratory). And when we eventually published the Draft Bill shortly after the 1998 Queen’s Speech it was described as being the biggest piece of local government re-engineering in over a century. It single-handedly spawned a new industry as management consultants leapt into action to advise local councils of what we really meant, and what the implications of what we were doing really were. It felt a bit like living in a goldfish bowl, is the best way I can describe it.
Is the mention of a @two line commitment in the Election Manifesto’ a dig at New Labour Robbie ? It was certainly one of the biggest political shifts of the late 20th century although leftist critics would say it was diluted Thatcherism. What are your thoughts on this and was it an exciting time to be involved ?
No dig at all – but it was an aspirational policy with little detail behind it, and I doubt the authors of the idea had in mind what we eventually produced. Was in on it right from Green Paper stage, through legislation and beyond. Immensely interesting, challenging and satisfying. (see below). I made lead officer for the legislation bringing best value in ; it is viewed as biggest re-engineering of local government in over a century.
Did you have to apply for this or were you approached (guess I don’t know how formal / informal these appointments were) – who did you work for – how many in your team ?
I was hand-picked for the Bill job by my Divisional Manager and temporarily promoted to SEO to reflect this. It raised some eyebrows as I was pretty junior to do something of this importance.
Before that there were half a dozen of us working on developing the policy from first principles. Bill work is extraordinary, all HQ civil servants worth their salt want a crack at it and just getting a place in the legislative programme got us huge kudos.
But then turning this into law was wonderful work, I’ve never done anything like it. In the early stages it was just me working to the Grade 5, later I had a small team and when we were actually in Parliament the whole Division was on alert to support me as needed.
I understand the first legislation that tested the working of devolution was in Wales – did you do much on the ground consultation? Was this happening all around the same time ?
The consultation only really got under way when we knew we had a slot in the Queen’s Speech (spring 1998). It sounds grander than it was – in the Welsh Assembly there were about three officials trying to cover the entire local government policy agenda. They were swamped, couldn’t respond as quickly as we would have liked, and couldn’t add much apart from obstacles. They were harder to deal with than the lawyers by far.
I then did a couple of jobs leading policy on best value post legislation.
What year was legislation given royal assent ? How big a piece was it ?
It was Part I of the Local Government Act 1999. Just over thirty clauses. Small, when compared with the Greater London Authority Act which was going through the House at the same time. But the process is the same. I finished up running what was a very difficult intervention in Hackney, an expensive failure, learned lots …
Please can u expand … what caused this intervention to take place ?
A lot of things were wrong there, but what brought it to a head was the Council’s Internal Auditor threatening to suspend all the council’s spending because they were technically insolvent.
One of things I learned was that Government could not intervene “blind” in local authorities, it needed much more evidence about performance, “balanced score card”.
Was this as a result of political sensitivities?
Political sensitivities were ever present with this sort of work. Especially for a Labour Government intervening in a Labour local authority. But with hindsight we also lacked empirical data about a wide enough range of the local authority’s activities. I
It was uphill work from the start. And we knew that we had to generate the empirical data we needed if we were ever to use our intervention powers again in the future. That gave rise to the creation of the Comprehensive Performance Assessment (see below)
In the interim I went to the Cabinet Office ostensibly to do a reform of the Ombudsman regime in England – ended up being a waste of ten months.
Was this a big career move or just another project task as part of the same job ?
It was a move designed to give me more G7 experience (had been promoted again by this time) in a different policy environment. I applied for the job because I thought it would be interesting and that the Cabinet Office would look good on my CV.
The UK ombudsman has been around from the 60’s local government from early 70’s – why was this such a waste of time – bad timing?
The guy who appointed me left six weeks after I joined – the lady who took the work on in his stead wasn’t interested and did her best to bury it. The Ombudsman family were hostile anyway. It was illuminating because it gave me an inside view of what it was like to work in a completely dysfunctional organisation.
I went back to ODPM (as it now was) –with a new balanced performance regime in place, was going to identify 15 poor authorities who needed some form of intervention.
What criteria were used to select the 15 poor authorities – which authorities were they ?
In the ten months I’d been away, my old boss had managed to introduce the Comprehensive Performance Assessment ; a performance framework that assessed the whole working of a local authority – services, corporate performance, political/officer interface, all of it.
The fifteen authorities were all about to be announced as being “poor”. They included London Boroughs like Lambeth and Islington, big metropolitan authorities like Hull, Plymouth and Wakefield, much smaller ones like North East Lincolnshire.
However, no policy was in place for this, there was nobody to carry out any such policy and internal wranglings about who would lead on it. Some senior figures wanted to shut it down altogether – as it not a great “sell”.
Whose selling to who here ? …… civil service, politicians, lobbyists???
It’s one thing to label authorities as “poor” (and controversial). But it begs the question, what do you do about it? We knew that the CPA (Comprehensive Performance Assessment) was only part of what we needed to know, and had to get right under the skin of these authorities. That made a lot of very senior Government officials very nervous.
Please elaborate – within reason please give names, positions and examples.
I’m not sure I can remember names, and it probably wouldn’t be fair to mention them. Let’s just say that I am talking about the Permanent Secretary, and the Director-General for Local Government who was nominally in charge of what we were up to (although he carefully kept his distance, until he realised that Ministers loved us and we had had a couple of high profile successes.)
These were people who had reached a very high level by being orthodox and observing protocols. One of these was that Government officials engaged with local government officials, and Government Ministers handled local councillors.
The idea of our officials having a direct relationship with local politicians broke nearly every precedent there was. And we weren’t just engaging sociably – we were putting them under pressure, telling them that they weren’t nearly good enough, sometimes telling them that specific officials who had helped create the problems had to be moved on. Sometimes, we were making hem face up to the fact that they themselves were part of the problem. They were very proud of their political autonomy, and we were trashing it.
Senior people in the Department thought it unprecedented, felt it would ruin the central/local relationship and exposed Ministers to too much risk. But Ministers loved what we were able to achieve, some liked playing the role of pantomime villain, and we were very, very frank with them about risk and how we would try to mitigate it. We made that work ; if you want an example of it being handled very badly, look at the way the Dept. of Education handled the Sharon Shoesmith affair around a decade later. Terrible.
Ministers, however, loved it, and that was what ultimately clinched the day. For the first three months we were fighting for our right to exist – and then it got really interesting when we started the work for real having won the internal battles
An interest in other people’s tension and intrigue seems to be part of human condition – – – so please expand … ☺
I certainly like politics, and always have. I was paying attention to this sphere when I was twelve years old. And I like observing the way that people interact with each other in all sorts of other settings.
The job I was described above – like the very last one I did before retiring – was a complex one, with not much in the way of precedent to draw upon. In some ways, it needed a great deal of political and managerial sensitivity, which was fascinating and challenging. One of the things I regret about retiring (and there are very few) was that I never really found out how good I could be.
Working with BST has mirrored this in some ways. You know better than most how difficult some of the things we have had to address have been, and how challenging a political environment it still is at the national level. It will get more so, before it gets less. It’s the kind of challenge I love, and it brings out a level of creativity in me that I didn’t realise I had until I was the wrong side of 40.
What were the nuts and bolts of this – what tier are we on now ?
I worked in this job from 2001 to 2005 – the PWC research was published around 2004 I think. They basically took a basket of performance indicators for the authorities we had worked with and extrapolated what the cash value of the performance improvements was “worth”.
That report was quite controversial, not because of the claims made for us, but because they said our policy area had been uniquely effective in a way that most of the Blair Government’s local government reform hadn’t been.
The actual job involved sending people in to work with the authority, to make them produce a recovery plan and hold them to account for delivering it. We were able to commission and negotiate some support in some instances, had to work with elected Council Members as well as officers (that was what made Whitehall seniors nervous – the notion of us talking directly to locally elected politicians was unprecedented.
Being nasty to them and putting them under a lot of pressure was even worse). My main job was holding all the activity together from the centre, handling communications with Ministers, regularly reviewing our case handling, attending field meetings where I was asked to, and all sorts of other stuff.
You mentioned the Angel of Death story please tell us more …
You have to bear in mind that the relationship between Government and failing council was a very parental one, and they often were very good at playing the role of sulky child. We were requiring them to change attitudes and behaviours, and confront poor performance. People lost careers and/or jobs because of our work, it was serious and sometimes confrontational stuff.
So set-piece meetings with Councils were always highly choreographed, from our side. If we had them down to London, we would keep them waiting and serve them cold coffee if we were really trying to unsettle them.
When we met them on their home ground, the trick was ALWAYS to seize the initiative and keep them off-balance. They were regularly threatened with a visit from London civil servants if they didn’t do what was required. One of my Lead Officials quickly discovered that the joint Leaders of the council she was working with were unusually susceptible to this sort of tactic, and that they dreaded seeing me as The Man Who Has The Ear Of The Minister.
She utilised this sparingly. But when she judged they needed some “encouragement” she used to invite me up to one of their meetings, have me have a short haircut, wear my best dark suit and generally behave like a brooding presence throughout the meeting – before finishing with me saying a few well-chosen words. It was surprisingly effective, and she once famously referred to me at an internal meeting as her “Angel of Death”. That success got me promotion into the Senior Civil Service.
Well done, was that always an aspiration once you joined the civil service – what was your title – did you have your own office ?
I was Deputy Director, originally leading the Government’s relationship with seven London Boroughs. This was eventually expanded to nineteen (all of South and West London) by the time I finished.
The job was mainly about relationship management (with London Boroughs), Whitehall’s eyes and ears…
This sounds interesting … what were your main tasks and highlights ?
Overseeing negotiations with authorities about their performance contract with local government; acting as liaison on policy implementation between Whitehall and the Boroughs ; soft intelligence gathering about people, policy impacts… a real mixture of quite nebulous things… …. but some policy stuff as well and had about a year heading up the emergency management team (would have been full time job now).
Was that a new creation – what emergencies were you reacting to ?
It was actually the standing resilience team who worked with emergency services to develop planned responses to different types of emergency, should they ever be needed. Pandemics would have been one, obviously, but we were mainly concerned with terrorism back then.
I can’t really say much more, but I had a team of professionals who had been recruited specifically to co-ordinate our efforts to develop policy, gather intelligence and so on. I wasn’t an expert at all, my main job was to get them the resources they needed, report on their work to Minsters, knock heads when they encountered resistance and so on.
In the 2010 coalition the Lib Dems wanted to shut down Government Office Network to save money, achieving huge reductions (43%) at my grade.
Wow, had it got bloated or was reduction ideologically driven ? – surprised it sounds like more of a Lib. Dem rather than Tory initiative …. or have I misunderstood ?
I wouldn’t say we were bloated, but we had started to reduce our numbers anyway as we saw this coming. The need to save money would have pushed the Government towards creating these savings anyway. But the Lb Dems though that the Regional Tier of Government was a luxury we could do without it. Ironically, I gather that they have re-created a lot of what we did, albeit on a smaller scale, since I retired.
My last job was actually leading the team that shut the office down – a big job really, as we were the first Regional Office to do so and our physical proximity to Whitehall meant that we were able to negotiate brokered moves back into central Depts. for many of our staff.
It was hard work, quite dispiriting really, as we thought the Government was throwing away something quite valuable. I then got an offer to go which I literally couldn’t refuse…. …. so I didn’t. and retired January 31 2011.
What have you been doing to occupy your time since retiring ?
In the beginning, my life continued to revolve around football really, and I started moderating AVFTT only a few weeks after I packed in work. That turned out to be a high-maintenance job, in the three and a half years that I did it. There was a lot of interest in the club then, a lot of traffic on the site and some of the behaviour was appalling. I enjoyed the job ; my only regret was that I was open about the fact that I was doing it. I made a lot of enemies because I wouldn’t tolerate certain types of behaviour, and when I got to the stage where people were abusing me on site and (occasionally) at away games I wondered whether it was worth it.
Since the end of 2015 or so my main interest has been working for and with the Committee at BST on a wide range of things. I chaired the team that ran the Trust’s inaugural elections in 2015 ; was co-opted by the Committee to advise on strategy and governance in late 2016 or early 2017 (and have done so ever since). Then there was the court case, where I was one of the court scribes, of course. Hard work, although very rewarding.
I had my finger in a number of other pies : The Parliamentary Petition (you and me mainly, wasn’t it?), “English Fans Letdown” was my slogan, although the billboard was the brainwave of someone else. I came up with the concept for “Shabby Anniversary”. I also wrote the infamous case review model that we tried to shame the EFL into adopting. It must be the most notorious, unread document in history….. and the EFL was a constant source of work for us of course, for all the wrong reasons. I’m very proud of what we did, in shining a light on the kind of organisation that they were (and still are, to an extent).
There have been loads of other things, the Trust is never short of work to do and I’ve just recently taken on the Secretary role to help the Committee on a short term basis. I’ve already learned that it is a very demanding job if you are at all serious about doing it properly. I suppose having to run an election and organise an AGM in your first month is something of a baptism of fire….
In the last 3/4 years I’ve increasingly been drawn into the work of the Football Supporters Association (FSA). I started by just representing BST at a variety of London based meetings when it would have been difficult to make anyone from the Committee available, and I’ve stayed in touch with the work ever since. I don’t have any formal role with them – but I am very supportive of their campaign for reform and independent regulation – it’s an area where my career means I have a lot of practical and policy insight to offer.
In terms of personality type how would you describe yourself and where would you place yourself on a spectrum introvert to extrovert ?
My natural tendency is towards introspection, I would say. I don’t feel I’m socially gregarious and I was very shy all the way through to getting my first job as a petrol pump attendant (I was sixteen when I started doing that).
I also don’t suffer fools and I can be quite cutting when I’m confronted with stupidity. That is always worse in written form, of course. You sometimes write things you would never say, and in my AVFTT career I have been anything but a shrinking violet. I’ve learned the hard way to let some things go and that some people are not worth engaging with.
I understand concepts like tolerance and forgiveness, …….. but God, are they difficult to practice !
Conversely, after a few beers I used to go through happy, noisy and sleepy phases.
Have you ever thought of writing a book about all this ?
I don’t have the discipline or the patience.
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