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  • Writer's pictureJames Newport

The wealth of nations - should you work in the Treasury?

Joe Hill - Policy Director at the Reform think tank, and former Head of Home Office Spending at HM Treasury, discusses whether people should work at the Treasury to have impact in their careers.

I spent three years working in the Treasury, between May 2019 and May 2022. It is still the single most formative job of my career. I wrote about it, and why I left, in my blog earlier this year.

In this blog, I will give my take on the reasons to work there, and reasons not to, if you want to have a lot of impact in your career. My experience was focussed, so it is inevitably more useful to some people than others. All I can do is be open about the likely biases, which I’ve listed at the end*.

You can have a lot of impact at the Treasury

The Treasury may be small, but it casts a long shadow in British public policy. So long that multiple reviews have called for it to be broken up, for wielding undue levels of power and influence over wider UK policy with its role in controlling public finances. Some of this skepticism over-simplifies the issues, but I agree that it has an outsized role in the rest of the government.

And the Treasury is uncommon in that there’s more scope for individuals, particularly earlier in their career, to play a greater role in it- and that’s why many readers might consider working there. One of the most common virtues (or vices, depending on who you ask), is the Treasury’s flat structure - the trust it gives relatively junior staff to operate quite autonomously. 

The impact you can have is unevenly distributed

“A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing” - attributed to Oscar Wilde

Treasury jobs tend to be high impact roles, in an organisation with a lot of leverage. As someone put it to me recently, “there’s no bigger sandbox you can play in than the Treasury''. But when deciding whether or not to work there, it’s more important to consider the kind of impact you can have at the Treasury, rather than some kind of aggregate level - that’s what will really matter if you take the job.

The Treasury’s influence is concentrated around money. It has lots of influence on issues which cost the taxpayer a lot, or have a big effect on the economy. It doesn’t have as much influence on issues which don’t. You can probably have a lot of influence in the latter areas if you are creative, but the day-to-day incentives in the department will keep you focussed on the things which cost a lot, and anything else will feel like you’re fighting against the tide.

Because it deals with the “big handfuls” of government policy, the Treasury is deeply affected by competing political priorities. Indeed, it often forces that competition. Spending Reviews and other fiscal events force the government to prioritise the very long list of things it would like to do into a short list of the things that it can afford to do. This forcing of trade-offs is core to the Treasury, but day-to-day it means your influence as an official is through negotiation. The policies in your area will be competing for budget, or tax relief, or legislative time with other teams in HMT and across government, and if you can’t accept that give-and-take then you’re likely to find it frustrating. 

Because of the scale of big financial and economic decisions, even in a flat and very empowered culture, it can feel like they are out of your hands. Something you’ve worked on for months might be coming to a head in a meeting between the Prime Minister and Chancellor, on a long list of other big-ticket issues. In practice, you can influence that kind of set-piece events, but often only at the margins, and it takes months of prep work to get there. 

Why the Treasury specifically?

Many of these lessons about what impact at the Treasury looks like (focused on finances, political trade offs, learning to influence policy at the margins) are true for success in other government jobs as well - in fact, if you aren’t considering those factors in other policy roles, you are probably doing them wrong. And they are definitely part of day-to-day life in other high-impact government jobs - working at No.10, jobs in Private Office, leading big transformation programmes, doing groundbreaking analysis, and working in parts of the Cabinet Office. 

So what is more uncommon about the Treasury?

The Treasury values judgementNetflix published a slide deck outlining their company culture in 2009, which pointed out that “actual company values, as opposed to nice-sounding company values, are shown by who gets rewarded, promoted, or let go”. In the civil service, rewarding people and letting them go are pretty rarely used, and promotion is so heavily bureaucratised that it’s abstract from culture. The best proxy is what people say. Every culture I’ve worked in, you notice different words become the most vaunted compliment. At the Home Office, people said their excellent colleagues were really “on it”. At Faculty, an AI company, the compliment people paid others was that they were “smart”. At the Treasury, it’s that someone “has great judgement”. Because the Treasury embraces trade-offs within a limited pool of choices, it is reliant on junior colleagues arguing their case, even if it won’t always be right.

And exercising judgement requires courage. Peter Thiel wrote that “brilliant thinking is rare, but courage is in even shorter supply than genius”. Management spans are very wide at the Treasury - at peak size, my team was eight people, covering annual budgets of close to £20 billion. More junior officials in the Treasury have to exercise their judgement, publicly with senior officials and Ministers, much more than other departments usually do. If you make the wrong call, often you will find out very quickly, and that can be tough. But it encourages bravery, which is very important in a profession often criticised for being unwilling to ‘tell truth to power’.

“I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy” - F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

The Treasury is a small party. And its policy making is much more networked across the department than many other parts of Whitehall, which operate exclusively in organisation silo's. This creates a relatively open culture, and helps the flat hierarchy mentioned earlier be a success. But it also means there’s not much privacy about your area - if you’re going to succeed, you have to really live your ‘working together’ Behaviour examples, and build big coalitions across other teams. And if you fail, it will be visible to more people than it might be in other jobs. 

The support networks are very strong, particularly the group of other spending team leaders who I could compare notes with on shared issues. That’s partly a function of greater talent density than in some other parts of government - you have more peers who can give you genuinely useful advice, because they’re very capable and their jobs are analogous to yours. The Treasury performs consistently better on the annual People Survey than other departments, and experiences fewer of the performance management issues I wrote about recently for Civil Service World. 

The Treasury practices a specific craft. All organisations run the risk of group-think, and criticism of Treasury orthodoxy are sometimes justified. But one under-rated reason to work there is that most of the Treasury has more professional standards of what it practises than other departments, certainly in policy roles. The processes it runs for fiscal events, forecasting and negotiating are repeatable and well practised - you can learn from them over time, in a way you can’t if you do some other jobs. By the time I had left, there was a lot more thought put into codifying the Treasury’s practice. Extensive guidance always existed - in Spending Teams you were constantly advising based on principles in The Green Book, Managing Public Money, and the Consolidated Budgeting Guidance. But more training was also being delivered than I had in any other role.

Why not work in the Treasury?

There are plenty of people who want to have very impactful government careers, who are better-suited to other options. Here are some common characteristics to think about:

You don’t like finance, economics and statistics. This may sound silly, and it’s intuitive when I talk to people outside of government that you should only work at the Treasury if you’re very interested in working with numbers. But because civil servants wrap the Treasury up with No.10 and the Cabinet Office as part of the ‘centre’, people often assume that they Treasury officials need exactly the same skills as a good Private Secretary would have - political handling, quick judgement, the ability to write a good briefing. But unlike those other jobs, you need to be able to back that up with quantitative analysis in most (if not all) jobs at HMT. This is the most common failure mode for people who join.

You live and die with a specific policy. The venture capitalist John Doer encouraged startup founders to hire missionaries, nor mercenaries. People who believed in a product to a cult-like degree. This is good advice for startups, but it’s imperfect for civil servants. If you’re a zealous advocate for a particular policy, then you probably shouldn’t be working in Whitehall at all - that’s hardly the marker of an impartial civil servant. But the Treasury demands more detachment from individual policies than other parts of Whitehall, because of the standards of judgement and the difficulty of being the one to force a financial trade-off. 

You don’t have thick skin. Particularly when it comes to public spending, some of the trade-offs you’ll be involved in making aren’t pretty. We always want to spend more than we can afford, and the Treasury is the balancing function, which can seem very impersonal when you’re talking about funding for health services or vulnerable people. There are always immature civil servants in other parts of Whitehall, who don’t realise you’re just doing your job, and take it personally if you can’t fund their project. That’s their fault, but it is unavoidable. 


If this doesn’t answer a question you had, then please get in touch and ask away! And I’d love to get feedback from other people who have worked at the Treasury, on whether this chimes with their experiences.

*Notes on biases

  • I joined ‘mid-career’, having already managed teams in the Home Office. I didn’t join through the Graduate Development Programme (the Treasury’s version of the Fast Stream), though I know several who did. 

  • I worked in the ‘Spending’ part of the Treasury - the teams which get the most coverage outside of the Treasury, but are only a small part of the organisation. When I was there, roughly 250 people worked on public spending, in an organisation which now counts 3,175 staff, the majority in tax, financial services, fiscal or economic policy. 

  • 2019 to 2022 was a period of massive fiscal expansion, based on the policies of Boris Johnson’s government and the Covid-19 crisis. The Treasury was spending a lot of money, and that was good business for Treasury officials. There were more jobs than there are now in an era of headcount reductions. Many more jobs are available in Darlington now than Horse Guards Road, but the Darlington teams were still relatively new when I worked there

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