A very soft landing for fallen public sector grandees

For individuals at a certain level of the civil service it must be reassuring to know that if you fail - however spectacularly -  you will never be out of work for long. Most likely another public sector appointment awaits you, perhaps with a slightly lower profile, but also perhaps with better pay and less onerous working hours; "let's say three days a month, ok?"

But if you exhaust your allocation of these public sector posts, there are always positions in that little understood - and rarely scrutinised - bit of the private sector which depends heavily (or entirely) on public sector contracts. Who knows, you could even end up working for the department that just got rid of you.

One such private / public business is VocaLink. A specialist provider of financial transaction services to banks and Government, VocaLink is responsible, as the Times puts it, for getting "money to come out of ATMs". More pertinently, it manages the massive contract for processing state benefits, handling up to 98% of the Government's welfare payments. They are the company that gets benefits from the Departments accounts directly into your own.

They are also the company who yesterday announced the appointment of Sir John Gieve as their new Chairman. To many this may seem a bold choice; after all, Sir John was only
recently bundled out the back door of the Bank of England for being, well, not 'fit for purpose'.

Which is a phrase that Sir John would have been all too familiar with, directed as it was - in many respects - directly at him in his previous capacity as Permanent Secretary of the Home Office. Old Chancellors of the Exchequer, who worked with him at the Treasury when he was there, also talk (off the record of course) of a man whose natural talents did not quite meet the demands of top office. 

Affable and widely liked though, Sir John Gieve has managed to defy expectation and carve out a career for himself at the very top of the public sector. (Which should explain something to those who wonder why the Government seems so chronically ill managed at times.)

This in itself warrants some respect. But it does not carve him out as the ideal man for this top job at VocaLink. As the man at the centre of the foreign prisoner scandal, the man squarely in the sights of the NAO's report into poor financial management at the Home Office, the man described as "asleep in the back shop while there was a mugging out front" in relation to his woeful handling of the Northern Rock collapse, his CV is less than glittering. The Independent described him back in 2006 as "one of those permanent secretaries who's risen through one disaster after another like an angel".

But failure has led to promotion, resignation has been followed by appointment. His is the story 'par excellence' for understanding how certain parts of the public sector work. In that context VocaLink's decision yesterday looks less 'bold' then simply predictable; resurrection to a 'para-public sector' board was really only a matter of time. Sir John's career is proof - if any were needed - that failure in the top levels of the public sector is not something that need end a career. Quite the reverse in fact; it serves to keep it varied and interesting.

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