By matt.foster

27 Jul 2015

As director general of the powerful Economic and Domestic Affairs Secretariat, it’s the job of Antonia Romeo to make sure Cabinet decisions don’t get lost in the Whitehall machine. Matt Foster meets her

"Oh god, I can’t sit on one of those!” Antonia Romeo laughs, spotting the pair of plush leather armchairs on which Civil Service World was hoping to conduct our interview. As director general of the Domestic and Economic Affairs Secretariat (EDS) at the Cabinet Office, Romeo may have a vital behind-the-scenes role at the centre of government, but she clearly doesn’t want to be seen as an ivory tower figure, locked away in 70 Whitehall while the departments do their thing. “I’m supposed to be about delivery, not pontification,” she says, and so it’s decided that the interview will instead take place across a rather more spartan wooden table. Honestly, the things CSW does for journalism.

A glance at Romeo’s CV makes clear why she’s frequently referred to as one of Whitehall’s rising stars. Having joined the civil service as an economist in 2000, in less than two decades she’s been principal private secretary at the Ministry of Justice; a director at the FCO; executive director of Government Reform and Enterprise at the Cabinet Office; and, most recently, has served as director general for criminal justice at the MoJ, overseeing the introduction of major – and sometimes contentious – government projects, including a total overhaul of rehabilitation services (see CSW, April 2014).

In February this year, though, Romeo found herself back at the centre, this time heading up EDS. It’s hardly a household name, but the secretariat plays a big role in keeping the government show on the road. “My job and that of my team is to ensure that what the prime minister and Cabinet wants to happen, happens,” as Romeo puts it.

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“We support collective Cabinet agreement across government, running the system of Cabinet Committees and ensuring that everything agreed with them and in Cabinet is then delivered by departments.”

References to “delivery” – or variations on the theme – come thick and fast during the course of our half-hour conversation. But Romeo isn’t the only one in government talking about it. After taking a swipe at what he branded Whitehall’s “buggeration factor” before the election, David Cameron wasted little time after the Tory win in unveiling a batch of “Implementation Taskforces”. These 10 new units at the centre of government are intended to bring ministers and key officials together to track the progress being made against the government’s big policy priorities. Or as Downing Street has put it, they aim to give Cameron “an extra way of making sure that delivery happens”.

As EDS director, it now falls to Romeo to try and ensure the smooth running of these new taskforces. She’s keen to point out that this arrangement at the centre doesn’t represent a downgrading of the existing Cabinet Committees, which she says will “still do the collective agreement on policy”.

But she adds: “What has changed is now we know we’ve got manifesto commitments set out on a whole range of policies, and we can just get on and do them. On those big cross-cutting issues, it’s the Implementation Taskforces who will focus on the delivery. They will seek to have everyone around the table – both at ministerial level but also at official or head of agency level – who has skin in the game.”

There is still work to be done on exactly who those civil servants with “skin in the game” will be, Romeo says – “it’s less about seniority as it is about getting the right people in” – but they will, she promises, “look for blockages, drive progress, and relentlessly focus on action in support of the manifesto commitments”. 

So what should departments expect in practice from the new set-up? Should they be living in fear of a thumping great stick or eagerly awaiting some carrots?

“I actually think it’s great news for departments,” Romeo says. “It does two things. Firstly, it gives real clarity about what the focus has got to be on. And as a departmental official – which I was until very recently – what you really want is clarity about what you’ve got to deliver. And then you want to get on and deliver it.

“It also gives you a really good way of getting issues unblocked when they need to be. One of the things that can be hard if you’re working in a department on a cross-cutting issue is sometimes there’ll be different priorities in different departments, and there’s a question of who’s responsible for unblocking those.

“A lot of that function is performed by EDS, in support of the cabinet secretary and obviously the Cabinet itself. But if you’ve got a taskforce that is going to meet every two weeks whose job is it to unblock those issues when they arise, that’s a great position to be in. It means you’ve got a forum you can bring things to and it also gives you a bit of extra heft to make sure that, when you’re working with other departments, they’re focusing on their end of the bargain. I use the phrase ‘skin in the game’ deliberately – because everybody’s got to progress their bit.”

The taskforces then, seem designed to help the centre bang the necessary heads together. And crucially, they’re not divided along the usual departmental lines, instead grouped under broader themes featured in the Tory manifesto – health and social care, improving the housing supply, boosting exports. Their membership seeks to recognise that some of the most complex areas of public policy don’t respect neat Whitehall boundaries, and Romeo is confident that there’s a real appetite right through the civil service for this way of working.

“If you talk to people in departments, they love it when they’re joining up properly,” she says. “This is why I think the implementation taskforces are going to be such a good thing, because people in departments can do their job so much better. There’s nothing more frustrating in a department than working on something, only for it to fall at the last hurdle because you can’t get agreement because something didn’t come off. You want to work on something that has everybody signed up to as part of government policy.”

Of course, any drive by the centre to track progress will only be really effective if it’s getting the right information from the departments. The Institute for Government recently warned that Business Plans – the coalition’s replacement for the target-driven Public Service Agreements favoured by Labour – were being undermined by a “huge variation in the quality, usability and accessibility” of the data being made available. But Romeo believes that Number 10’s Implementation Unit – set up part-way through the coalition’s time in office – has played an important role in ensuring a more honest relationship between departments and the centre.

“We have got much better at tracking implementation,” she says. “I observe that from this position, and I felt it during the last few years in the [justice] department – that we were being held to account, as time went on, in a smarter way and on the right things.

“The problem, of course, is if you’re at the centre and you’re trying to set the metrics, you’re trying to work out with a department what it is that you’re holding them to account for – so there’s a complete asymmetry of information. 

“You either get into a good situation with them where you’ve got agreement on what the set of metrics should be, and everybody knows they’re the right metrics, and you’ve got honesty about where you are. Or you end up in a situation where you’re tracking the wrong metrics which is bad for the department and obviously bad for the centre.”

The taskforces could, Romeo suggests, also help to solve what she agrees has been an “endemic” problem for the centre – that it can sometimes place competing demands on departments, leaving them unsure who’s really calling the shots. “We’ve got to join up better,” she acknowledges. “There’s certainly a real commitment between Cabinet Office and the Treasury to present – as much as is possible – a united front and to only ask things once.” 

Far from simply seeking to boss departmental officials around, then, Romeo argues that EDS can only do its job properly if it keeps its ear close to the ground, and properly engages with concerns emanating from the shop floor. “That’s what I tell my guys here, that they’ve got to be really closely plugged into their departments,” she says. “What we do is all about information. If departments are feeling the pain from dealing with us, we’ve got to know what that pain is and we need to work to help departments to remove it or reduce it.”

In a recent piece for CSW, the IfG’s Jill Rutter argued that the Economic and Domestic Affairs Secretariat had enjoyed something of a “renaissance” under Cameron. Unlike Tony Blair, who Rutter said had “marginalised” EDS in favour of trying to solve problems more directly with ministers, Cameron seems to be much more of a committee man. Romeo agrees that the role of EDS “waxes and wanes” according to both the personalities at the centre, and “the point of the electoral cycle that you’re in”. 

So with a new, majority administration in power – led by a prime minister who seems committed to strengthening EDS’s hand – it’s hardly surprising that Romeo says she has the “best job in government”. “I’ve got an incredibly high performing team,” she says. “We work right at the heart of government, on the hottest and highest priorities of the prime minister and the Cabinet. We get to participate in discussions between incredibly impressive elected ministers who are essentially determining what happens in the country.”

Her enthusiasm for the job is obvious. And, as a mum-of-three, Romeo says it’s that enjoyment of her work that gets her out of the front door in the morning. But she’s also keenly aware of the delicate balance that parents still face in trying to hold down a high-flying Whitehall job without family life taking a hit.

“I’m not one of those people who is constantly working,” Romeo says. “I’m not at sports day on my Blackberry. If I’m at sports day, I’m at sports day. Obviously, it depends what happens – if I have to take a call, I will take a call. But I have lots of priorities in my life. Work’s important. But home and family are incredibly important. And you just have to sort of be ruthless about it.”

She says effective time management is part of the battle, but she’s also a big champion of flexible working in the civil service, something she says has “improved a lot” since she arrived in Whitehall. “I worked loads of different working patterns, especially when I had very young children,” Romeo recalls.

“I spent a very short period working three days a week, which was for me completely hopeless. I think job shares are essential, because if you’re in a job share you can do three days a week and you can feel like you’re doing a really effective job leading the team. I think leadership on three days a week is difficult if you don’t have somebody else with you sharing the rest of the burden.”

Working parents shouldn’t, she says, be left asking themselves whether they can “have their cake and eat it”. And Romeo says she’s optimistic about what she calls the “basic process changes” – moving away from single-gender selection panels, bringing in job share registers – that have been mooted since last year’s scathing Women in Whitehall report warned that Senior Civil Service culture was still seen as “macho” and “detached” by too many female officials.

“We’ve got to get the processes right to support women,” she says. “It shouldn’t be a choice between having to do the slightly dud jobs, and spend a lot of time looking after your children, or doing the high flying jobs but then never seeing your family. That’s not a choice that, in this day and age, I think we can put up with. We’ve got to allow both. I think in government we’re doing well compared to what the private sector’s doing. But we’ve got to keep focusing on it.”

Romeo’s own career path suggests she’s navigated those obstacles with aplomb. It’s hardly surprising then, that many Whitehall watchers suggest she has the makings of a future perm sec. It’s the question few interviewees answer directly – but where does the EDS director see herself in five years’ time?

“One of my many faults is that I don’t plan,” Romeo replies, adding that when she was at the MoJ at the start of the year, she had no inkling she would end up where she is today. “You never know what opportunities are going to come up. I came back to work in 2006, working three days a week. And I was doing that for two months after the birth of my second child. Then the PPS job came up and I thought, ‘I can’t resist this opportunity’. And I never would have predicted that I would have done that, but I’ve ended up doing interesting jobs by just spotting things that happen.”

Romeo says it’s “conceivable” that she could return to the private sector “at some point”, but stresses that she is now “100% committed” to the civil service. 

“I think we have just the most complex and difficult jobs to do. The complexity of the systems that we operate and for which we are responsible, and the quality of the people, are exceptional. So I would find it, at this point, quite difficult to think about leaving that behind, and the job I’ve got here is fantastic. But I think there’s a lot of road ahead. And I think there are a lot of really great jobs on that road. I’m just hopeful at some point to luck out and get one.” 


Encouraging diversity at the top of the civil service
“I’m certainly in a lot meetings where the cabinet secretary and the chief executive talk about diversity. It’s a real priority for them. Not just gender, but all diversity. I wasn’t in those discussions 20 years ago. But I certainly feel that now it is really at the front of mind of those at the top of government – and that’s really important.”

The ‘cross-departmental’ spending review
“In the upcoming spending round, the strong message is you’ve got to join up because you can’t take money out in silos any more. We have to join up and look at where the synergies can be found in these big, cross-government systems... It’s entirely Treasury-led, but I would say that there’s definitely a big focus on driving productivity growth. Understanding how you as a department fit into those big cross-government agendas and how what you do supports that is increasingly important.”

The work-life balance
“Yesterday morning I was at my eldest son’s school talking to sixty 10 year olds about how you can use maths to calculate the prison population. It was great. It meant I probably had to spend a bit more time in the evening doing some work stuff. But that’s just how you fit all the good stuff in and bring it together.”


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