Being John Manzoni: the outgoing civil service chief exec in quotes

Written by Beckie Smith on 23 January 2020 in Feature
Feature

“People used to say to me, are you still there, you haven’t been bounced out yet?"

Photo: Paul Heartfield

As Sir John Manzoni prepares to step down as civil service chief executive later this year, we take a look back at some of his greatest hits from his time in government so far…

Manzoni on… staying put

Manzoni will leave the civil service later this year after more than five years in his post, the Cabinet Office confirmed this week. But, as he told attendees at CSW’s 15th anniversary reception in December, he thought some people had expected to see the back of him much earlier.

“People used to say to me a year in, are you still there, you haven’t been bounced out yet? Six years later, I’m still here – partly by keeping out of the way, I suppose.”

...on his leadership style

Back in 2015, the chief exec reflected on the importance of being able to lead without being a direct line manager:

“You can’t sit on top of an organisation this big, this complicated, and expect to control everything. There aren’t enough hours in the day. I don’t worry at all that I don’t have the permanent secretaries, for instance, reporting to me. Because actually, leadership is about setting context, creating a shared context, and guess what? When everybody’s got a shared context, you don’t have to issue instructions, because everybody reaches the same conclusions and you move in the same direction, pretty much.” 

....on calling bullshit

In the same 2015 interview, he told CSW why he felt so strongly about civil servants having experience in delivery and not just policy:

“When you have people who have just been there and done it, I have to tell you that those people will be quite prepared to stand up to the politicians or the senior generalists and say, ‘bullshit, this is how this works’. Because they’ve got that confidence, right? And their confidence comes from experience, it doesn’t come from reading a book.” 

…on “owning the ‘how’”

In the same vein, Manzoni has spoken often about the need to avoid a culture of “delegating up”. In a 2015 lecture organised by the FDA union and CSW’s parent company Dods, he reminded civil servants that they needed to take ownership of policy delivery.

“The civil service can, and should, and must own the ‘how’. They [the ministers] can decide the ‘what’, but you better own the 'how'… When you’ve got a culture that is looking up, it is really easy to start delegating up. If you want to get stuff done, [its] always better to look forwards and down to get it done.”

...on knowing your limits

The oil-exec-turned-public-official's comments at a seminar on pay in 2016 about the limits of civil service capacity – to illustrate how resources were stretched even before Brexit preparations had begun in earnest – became one of his best-known and most-quotable quotes.

"When I look across from outside, I say we're doing 30% too much to do it all well – that is the nature of government."

...on seeing beyond your own perspective

Last year Manzoni was the first to reveal plans to introduce targets for government departments to move senior civil servants out of London. At an event on smart working, he gave two reasons for the move: making life better for his staff, and helping them to better understand more of the people they serve.

“When you ask the young people, they’re dying to be based outside of London… because of course they can’t afford to live in London. They’re just dying to create an environment in which they could follow a career somewhere outside of the south east and have a better quality of life... We all sit here in our south east bubble and we don’t really know – and how many times we have got to repeat and learn that lesson, I’ve no idea – what the rest of the country’s feeling, frankly.”

...on listening

At the same event, the civil service chief said leaders had to be willing to listen to the experiences of people working for them. He had this to say about the persistent "glass ceiling" that means black and minority-ethnic officials are underrepresented in the Senior Civil Service:

“There is a sort of frustration that our natural reaction is to say, ‘you need a bit more training, you’re not quite ready [to progress to SCS],’ and we’re not prepared to take a risk on young people... I was in a room of 25 Grade 6 and 7 ethnic minority colleagues the other day, and I was really quite surprised at how angry they were about this perceived barrier... You can imagine, it’s rather difficult. I worry about that."

…on breaking down siloes

Ever fond of a repurposed metaphor – Manzoni is also known for his comments about “flying a plane and reforming it at the same time" – the chief exec illustrated his vision of a collaborative and more efficient civil service in a 2016 interview.

“The future is not in a series of 28 stove pipes, the future is much more joined up across our civil service. Today we're predominantly in our departments. The future is going to be predominantly in shared space… The world works on relationships, it works on people knowing what other people do.” 

…on repeating himself

Manzoni has never been afraid to hammer a point home, which he made clear in a setting out his priorities for officials in a 2015 blog post entitled Forging ahead with the functions.

“According to Civil Service World, ‘you can’t go long talking to Manzoni without the words ‘functions’ or ‘delivery’ escaping his lips’. Well, it’s true!”

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