The bluff civil servant is, by all accounts, a mixture of the abrasive and the persuasive. His combative manner often ruffles feathers, much like the man he reports to, deputy prime minister John Prescott, and fellow hard-hitter Sir John Egan, whose Rethinking Construction ideas Hobson is charged with helping to implement. But today he is on his best behaviour, minder at his side to check he does not “put his foot in it”, he jokes.
His orderly office in the labyrinthine DETR is devoid of personality. A solitary poster showing key performance indicators is pinned to the wall, and his tidy desk suggests a rational, mathematician’s mind – Hobson studied the subject at Cambridge before joining the Ministry of Transport in 1967. He did not want to go into research, teaching or computing, so the civil service seemed a sensible option. As a mathematician, he has “a great interest in order, pattern and structure”, and gets satisfaction from solving problems.
Sorting out construction is Hobson’s task. He sees his role as “sponsoring” the industry, prodding it – initially at least – into action on the Egan targets for productivity and profitability. “The deputy prime minister was anxious to get some change going,” he says, hinting at pressure from Prescott to get results from the taskforce he commissioned.
According to Hobson, his “rumbustious” boss is “fully behind” the Egan movement, although the civil servant does not often bother him with detail because of pressure on his time. Nick Raynsford, whom Hobson describes as an “intellectual”, deals with the nitty-gritty. He believes that the combination of heavyweight cabinet minister and dedicated construction minister gives him the backing he needs to translate policy into action.
A year on from the Egan report, Hobson sees his challenge as maintaining the enthusiasm for change that it generated in the industry. He talks of spreading the word so that everyone buys into the message, and dismisses concerns that small firms may not yet have learned the Egan mantra. He thinks market forces will ensure they comply in due course.
“The important thing is that we have a common hymn sheet,” he says. “It’s a quality and professional industry and it needs to raise its game,” he adds in fluent politician-speak.
So, has the industry been slow on the Egan uptake? He says no. “This is a big battleship. I can’t remember a policy that was devised and got off the ground so quickly. At the launch of the Movement for Innovation in November, so many people stayed until 5.30pm. There wasn’t the usual drifting-off after lunch.” The Newcastle upon Tyne-born 53-year-old seems genuinely enthused by the industry’s appetite for change. He points to the growing number of demonstration projects – 85, worth £3bn at the last count – as evidence of this. He thinks “the demonstration-project approach, not long, erudite papers” is the way to drive change, and says the department wants to create a “no-blame culture, to see what works and what doesn’t”, although he acknowledges the need to measure change by analysing the figures through key performance indicators.
The first data will not be available until April, but the indicators have already been criticised for assuming that commercial firms will make their real costs public.
Hobson admits the system is open to manipulation, although, as far as he is aware, the figures have not been “massaged”. He defends the method: “It is an iterative process, a first attempt. I don’t think Alan Crane would pretend he got it right, and I certainly wouldn’t,” he says, muttering something Sir Humphrey-ish about being a humble sort of person. “These are all very difficult things to measure. They’re complex ideas. If cost was simple, there wouldn’t be quantity surveyors. There’s bound to be generalisation.” In the meantime, there are rumblings in the industry about Hobson’s and the government’s top-down approach to innovation. One senior industry figure said he could not think of any other country that had forced an industry to innovate by press-ganging its leaders.
Hobson, in typical bullish fashion, counters the idea that the government is exerting too much influence, noting that the Movement for Innovation has only four government members, and that clear leadership was exactly what Sir John called for.
“I’ve seen comments that people think the government is driving this. Yes, in a sense, the government is, because it has a clear view. But an industry will only improve if it sees a direct advantage to itself,” he says.