'Big questions need deep thinking' – new Heywood fellow sets his goals for research post

Jonathan Black is taking special leave from the civil service to research the intersection of economic prosperity and national-security policy
New Heywood fellow Jonathan Black

By Suzannah Brecknell

15 Feb 2023

It can be hard to describe the last few years without falling back on cliché or that dreaded word – unprecedented. But Jonathan Black, formerly the UK government’s sherpa for G7 and G20 and now the second holder of the Heywood Fellowship, has a nice phrase to capture what it has been like.

“When you step back and look at the last few years, compared to the years before,” he says, “the number of momentous events has been much more concentrated.”

Over those momentous years, a common challenge has been recurring in the policy areas which Black has been working on – the increasingly complex relationship between national security and economic prosperity.

“This intersection between national security and economic prosperity is probably the underlying systemic policy challenge that countries like ours face,” Black says, and in his most recent role working with the G7 and G20 countries, he sat right at the intersection. Working with colleagues from across the world, he says: “We did a lot that was good, some really innovative policy. 

“But I also found myself thinking: there are some really big questions about the way we go about making policy that we need to think about, [questions] that are going to become more important as time goes on – it would be great just to have time to think about those a bit more.”

Black is speaking to CSW from the Blavatnik School of Government in Oxford, where he is about to do just that through his Heywood Fellowship – a research posting created in memory of late cabinet secretary Lord Jeremy Heywood.

The fellowship is supported by the Heywood Foundation, and the idea for it grew from Lord Heywood’s own experience of taking time out for study and reflection part-way through his career.

Lady Heywood, chair of the foundation, tells CSW that after working in then-chancellor Norman Lamont’s private office and helping to manage the fallout from Black Wednesay, Jeremy was “pretty burnt out, as you can imagine”. 

The Treasury’s then-permanent secretary Terry Burns arranged for Heywood to take part in a short management development programme at Harvard. This gave him an opportunity to “step away from Whitehall and learn all about restructuring organisations,” and the weeks spent in a different environment were very valuable to him.

The fellowship, Lady Heywood says, aims to give senior civil servants a similar opportunity. “We aim to find somebody who wants to take some time between roles and look at a meaningful piece of policy which is not necessarily top of the agenda,” she says.

There is a public element to the posting – fellows are expected to give a speech exploring some of their work – but they also produce a report which can remain confidential.

The first Heywood fellow was former chief Brexit negotiator and Department for Exiting the European Union perm sec Sir Olly Robbins, who took up the fellowship in 2019 and considered the role of cabinet secretary.

Black himself also worked on EU negotiations with Robbins – in fact, as he puts it, he has often been in “the right place at the right time to work on some of the most complicated and challenging issues” government has faced in the last decade and more.

This included working on fiscal policy and the budget in the Treasury after the financial crisis, then on European issues both before and after Brexit in the Cabinet Office. After a period working on the Covid response in the Cabinet Office, he took up position as sherpa to the G7 and G20 at a time when UK held the presidency of both G7 and Cop26. He describes working on these major topics as an immense privilege, but is also excited by the change to step back from momentous events for a few months.

The fellowship is also supported by the Blavatnik School of Government, Hertford College, Oxford the Economic and Social Research Council and by the civil service itself.

As such, Black will be working with a small team including another civil servant and researcher funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, as well as colleagues at Blavatnik. The team has set out three stages for its work, Black says. 

In the first, it will look at academic analysis and other research to test his proposition that “the intersection between national security and economic prosperity is more complicated, or at least much more intertwined, than it has been in the past.”

Next, he says, the team will be talking to others grappling with this challenge to understand how it impacts different parts of government and business. Although the team is small, Black is keen to “use the space that the fellowship’s giving me and those of us working on it to be able to curate a really open engagement and dialogue.”

“This challenge is very relevant to policymaking and some of the big questions that government faces,” Black says. “But it’s also very relevant to business and some of the big questions they face – commercial questions about their investments and things like that. 

“So one of the things that we will look at is how that relationship needs to evolve in a world where geopolitics is a much more dominant feature of the global economy, and when there is necessarily a different relationship between government and business than the one we’ve perhaps had over the last few decades.”

Finally, the team will test propositions about how to adapt the policymaking process to better address challenges identified, and produce a report to share with government. 

“We’re not going to claim that we are going to completely solve this challenge in the next few months,” says Black, “but I hope by looking at some interesting areas and making some recommendations based on who we speak to, our research and also our own experience, we can make some practical and pragmatic conclusions that are useful for us to pick up back in government.”

This ambition – to think deeply but remain practical and pragmatic – echoes much of what Heywood himself was renowned for.

“Jeremy fostered a sense of policy problem solving being a sort of force for good,” Black recalls. “His desire to challenge and question spread throughout the civil service, as well as his desire to be innovative.”

“For any civil servant of my generation, Jeremy was the defining figure,” he adds, “and it’s genuinely a huge privilege to do to do this fellowship in his name.”  

Eyes on the prize

Alongside the fellowship, the Heywood Foundation runs an annual prize seeking policy ideas to improve life in the UK.

The Heywood Prize offers winners up to £25,000 and the chance of their idea being implemented by government. It is open to submissions until 28 February.

The winning idea from 2020-21 – the creation of the NHS Reserve Force – has been applied by the health service.

In 2022, the foundation put extra focus on encouraging entries from younger generations with the addition of a youth prize.

The foundation’s top pick will receive £25,000, with runner-up awards of between £1,000 and £10,000 also up for grabs.

This year’s round includes a separate youth prize for under-21s, worth between £500 and £5,000. Young entrants will also be eligible for the £25,000 prize.

“Building on the success of the inaugural Heywood Prize in 2021, in 2022 we also want to tap into the often unseen and unheard insights and creativity of our younger generations,” said Suzanne Heywood, chair of the Heywood Foundation and widow of Jeremy Heywood.

“Never has the need to bring their bold, new ways of thinking to the attention of policymakers been more important than it is today,” she added.

The winner’s suggestion will also be passed on to government policymakers, with the foundation’s full backing for fast-tracking.

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