By Matt.Ross

25 Jan 2012

The incoming cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, Jeremy Heywood and Bob Kerslake, are taking on their new jobs at a time of unprecedented financial, policy and political challenges. Matt Ross meets them.

Civil servants have a lot on their plates in 2012. As the cuts bite great chunks out of departmental budgets, they are being asked to adopt a novel and largely untested set of new approaches to implementing policy. The civil service is shedding a third of its staff, undergoing wholesale organisational change and learning how to support the operation of a coalition government, while working to tackle economic, environmental and international problems greater than anything Britain has faced since World War II. And that’s not even the end of the challenges.

Ask the new head of the civil service (HCS), Sir Bob Kerslake, how expectations of the civil service are changing, and he points to the public’s evolving views on customer service and management efficiency. “There’s an expectation that we’ll deliver government goals without huge extra resources, and with less regulation. There’s a big expectation around transparency and openness in the way the civil service operates,” he says. “But there’s a third thing: people expect the civil service to work in a way that’s as close to modern management as we see in other organisations: that’s true both of new staff coming in, and of people who receive services. People’s expectations are changing on the basis of what they see around them, and they expect the civil service to match up to that.”

So the tasks facing the HCS and new cabinet Sir Jeremy Heywood are intimidating, particularly given government’s diminishing resources. The pair must also, of course, get through a transition period as it becomes clear how government will operate now that previous cabinet secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell’s job has been split three ways between Kerslake, Heywood, and new Cabinet Office permanent secretary Ian Watmore. But the job split itself has already been exhaustively debated, not least within these pages (see news and Siobhan Benita interview). The big question now is: what next?

Asked his most pressing task as we move into 2012, Kerslake names civil service reform: deciding “what the civil service will look like in three to five years”, and planning how to get to that point. In the spring he’ll be publishing a white paper that will, he says, “give you a clear statement of all the different things that are going on. There’s a lot of change already happening. A lot has already been achieved – an extraordinary amount, in a short space of time – but there’s further change on the horizon, and I think it’s important to bring that together and organise how we’re going to deliver it.”

Special delivery
Heywood will be supporting Kerslake in that work, he says, but he has an additional set of priorities: to deliver on coalition policies. “The country’s facing a huge range of challenges at the moment, and our job as leaders of the civil service is to make sure that the civil service is supporting ministers, the government of the day, in meeting those challenges,” says Heywood. “We’ve moved from a phase of policy design into a phase of policy implementation. So at the first meeting Bob and I chaired of the permanent secretaries’ group last Wednesday morning, we spent the entire hour talking about the implementation challenge ahead”.

As their contrasting priorities demonstrate, Kerslake’s and Heywood’s roles are quite different. “These are distinct roles with distinct functions,” the cabinet secretary points out. “We work in a complementary way, a dual way, not a joint way.”

They also, of course, have very different personalities and CVs: “It’s very clear to me already that we’ll definitely bring complementary skills to the party, and I think that’s really helpful given that all parts of the job are as challenging as they are now,” says Heywood. Yet the ability of each to realise their own aims will depend in part on the other’s work: Heywood’s ambitions on policy design and implementation, he points out, “require skills and capacity to implement” – so Kerslake’s work on training, for example, will be crucial. Heywood says he expects to “spend quite a lot of time working with Bob on civil service reform, civil service capacity”, and seems eager to ditch his reputation as a backroom operator who shuns the limelight. “The civil service is dependent on great relationships and a good understanding of the broader world outside Whitehall, so even in taking forward the policy responsibilities I’d expect to have quite an outward-facing role, meeting lots of people from outside the civil service,” he says.

Nonetheless, civil servants will mainly look to Kerslake to speak up for the reputation of the civil service – as Sir Gus has – when it comes under attack from politicians or in the press. Will he be ready to step up? “Part of my role, when we see criticism through the media that doesn’t accurately reflect the civil service as it is today and what it’s achieved, is to speak up and challenge that,” he replies. Nonetheless, “it’s also part of my role to be committed to improving the civil service,” he adds, stating that “in a period of austerity it is right and proper that government look at all the issues that incur costs, including terms and conditions and the pensions of civil servants.”

The duty to challenge
Those attacks on the civil service come on various fronts – including accusations that the civil service drags its feet on policy delivery, putting obstacles in ministers’ way. However, asked – in the light of the various coalition policy U-turns – how civil servants can safely hasten the pace on delivery, both the cabinet secretary and the HCS make it clear that civil servants have a duty to ensure that policies are robust and well thought-through before they move to implementation.

“Problems arise if the policy is badly-designed to start with,” says Heywood. “The essence of the issue is to ensure that you take full account of the practicalities of how you’re going to deliver it. So the civil service’s job is to help ministers think about those sorts of issues, and strike the right balance between the ambitious, pacey preference to get things done as quickly as possible, versus the need to put in place the capacity to get things done on the ground; to make sure people are trained; to make sure you’re not setting an over-ambitious agenda which is going to lead to concerns that you’re under-achieving or things are going too slowly.”

This, of course, means challenging ministers on weak policy ideas. Kerslake argues that past problems haven’t been caused by civil servants trying to move too fast; the question is, he says, “whether the robust advice has been given, the issues and implications explored, and the connections made with others about what’s involved. It’s about good quality policy that has an eye to implementation.”


Moving to soft power
Under the coalition’s approach, that implementation phase is unlikely to mean regulations, legislation, targets, new quangos, big IT projects or organisational change – the Labour government’s favourite tools. Instead, says Heywood, success in delivery will often depend on “the private sector, the not-for-profit sector being stimulated into social action – something that Bob has called ‘policy animation’.” These days, points out Kerslake, policymakers know that “we don’t always control all the levers – nor want to”. Businesses, communities and interest groups will move things forward, he argues, if civil servants “do things that help them, prompt and stimulate them, and make them aware of the opportunities”.

To prompt this kind of a response, civil servants will need strong links outside Whitehall – both in the wider public sector, and among charities and businesses. “We’re more effective if we have connections with those who take forward the policies we develop,” says Sir Bob, calling for civil servants to strengthen their understanding of, and build relationships with, people and organisations outside the Westminster bubble.

Experience of work outside the civil service is a valuable asset here, and both Heywood and Kerslake have known life beyond Whitehall: Heywood spent several years in the City, while Kerslake built his career in local government before joining the civil service a couple of years ago. Is external experience now essential in order to reach the top of the civil service? There’s no hard and fast rule, they reply, but it’s certainly very useful. “Experience outside the civil service helps us become more effective, because we rely so much on the public and private sectors for the outcomes we’re trying to achieve,” says Kerslake.

The civil service’s growing diversity is also important in enabling it to better understand and connect with Britain’s evolving communities, and Kerslake is keen to address fears that the diversity agenda will lose out as budgetary, political and policy pressures grow. “I’m as passionately committed to diversity as Gus,” he says, pointing out that he was a member of the three-strong panel, chaired by Equalities and Human Rights Commission chair Trevor Phillips, that produced the 2007 Equalities Review. The civil service has made progress on diversity, says Sir Bob, “but we need to go further, and I think that’s best achieved by setting some ambitious goals in relation to diversity in the civil service, and seeing which practical actions will have the most impact.”

Other forthcoming changes are likely to include a sharper focus on performance management and individual accountability: “We’ll expect the highest standards of performance, and we’ll hold people accountable for what their teams are achieving,” says Heywood – though both he and Kerslake restate their commitment to the principle of ministerial accountability, which has looked weaker since the home secretary blamed problems at the UK Border Agency on a senior official last autumn.

Taking the lead
For more details on the kind of reforms that Kerslake is contemplating, we’re likely to have to wait for that white paper. It is, however, already clear that he hopes to achieve many of his objectives by strengthening corporate leadership across the civil service: this is, in most contexts, a euphemism for the kind of centralisation of controls and systems that Ian Watmore’s Efficiency and Reform Group has pursued since the election. “Very few of the big changes that we need to undergo across the civil service – things around skills, new approaches to policy – can be done by individual departments alone,” argues Sir Bob. “They require cross-civil service corporate leadership, and at the moment I’m looking at the current arrangements for corporate leadership of the civil service to see whether they can be strengthened and changed in order to match the tasks we have ahead.” In fact, he’s already decided that they can: the Civil Service Steering Board is being replaced with a Civil Service Board that will, Kerslake explains, adopt “a stronger collective, corporate leadership role for the period ahead.”

The tasks facing Bob Kerslake look substantial, particularly given that he’s tied up at the communities department for three days a week. But he does, as Heywood points out, know a thing or two about organisational change: “He’s got an unparalleled record of change management, inside and outside the civil service, and all of us sitting around the table defer to that experience and expertise,” says the cabinet secretary. Kerslake is already nearing the end of the programme of restructuring and job cuts within his own department; and as many other departments begin to emerge from the toughest period of administrative cuts, he says, there will be an opportunity to create the kind of cultural and attitudinal changes within the civil service that the coalition’s approach and policies require.

“There’s a period when you’re reducing in size, and inevitably people’s minds are focused on what’s happening to their job and their own personal position,” he says. “Once you’re through that change, then I think you can focus on that agenda of cultural change – and that’s why quite a lot of departments, including my own, have wanted to move through the [job] reductions at pace.”

From cuts to collaboration
As the civil service emerges from this period of unprecedented job cuts, it will find itself facing a new set of challenges – and it’s at that point that we’ll learn whether Kerslake and Heywood are making progress in changing the way that officials think and operate. Watch the ‘Community Budget’ pilots as one measure of success, says Sir Bob. In these schemes – distant descendants of Labour’s ‘Total Place’ initiative – public sector workers are being asked to set out the freedoms and flexibilities they require in order to build public services around service users, rather than around public sector organisations; central departments will then have to respond. “Community budgets are a test of how well central government can understand the issues at local level and respond collectively to them, so it’s a good test of cross-government working,” Kerslake comments.

Asked to name his ambitions as HCS, Kerslake focuses on improving the civil service’s flexibility and adaptability. “I’d hope that in this period we’d develop new ways of approaching change, and that we’d recognise that to be successful the civil service needs to continue to change; that should become part of the civil service’s DNA,” he replies. “That comes back to how well we lead, communicate with and engage with civil servants. So I’d like to see a stronger civil service, but one that’s more agile; more comfortable with change, and better able to lead it.”

Heywood, meanwhile, says his ambition is to uphold the civil service’s reputation. “I want to maintain the British civil service as one of the most respected and effective civil services around the world, which continues to have the trust of politicians from right across the political spectrum, and is a fantastic place to work,” he says. “One thing that people always forget about the civil service is just how brilliant we are at recruiting some of the best talent in the country, and that’s not by accident: it’s because people know that joining the civil service and having a career here is one of the finest things you can do in this country. As long as we can keep that reputation – both for the people who work here, and the people we work for: the wider public – then I’ll be very proud.”

Given the range and depth of the tasks facing the civil service, its two new leaders will find themselves working on many fronts simultaneously – and success will depend not only on their own labours, but also on political, economic and international forces far beyond the government’s control. But for the next 11 months, at least, it’s clear how Kerslake and Heywood see their priorities: 2012 is, says Heywood, “both the year of policy implementation, and the year in which the civil service reform plan is going to take on a clear shape.”

Line management responsibilities

Responsibility for appraising and line-managing the permanent secretaries has been split between Heywood and Kerslake, with Heywood taking on the cross-cutting reports plus the foreign office and international development department, while Kerslake manages the domestic departments.

The division was made along “fairly pragmatic” lines, says Heywood, adding: “I will probably end up spending more time on national security and foreign affairs issues than Bob, and therefore it seemed more natural for me to have the line management responsibility for those permanent secretaries.”

Fair enough – but in that case, why doesn’t he oversee the Ministry of Defence? “The MoD could have gone either way,” he replies. “It’s a big domestic delivery department with huge management challenges, but in terms of policy it could have fitted more naturally with the FCO and DfID side. It’s a pragmatic judgement.”

Cabinet Secretary
John Beddington (chief scientist)
Kim Darroch (NSA)
Simon Fraser (FCO)
Paul Jenkins (TSol)
Stephen Laws (parliamentary counsel)
Mark Lowcock (DfID)
Nick MacPherson (HMT)
Jill Matheson (ONS)
Ivan Rogers (EGIS)
JIC chairman

Head of the Civil Service
Ursula Brennan (MoD)
Suma Chakrabati (MoJ)
Robert Devereux (DWP)
Martin Donnelly (BIS)
Helen Ghosh (HO)
Bronwyn Hill (Defra)
Lin Homer (HMRC)
Peter Housden (Scottish Government)
Malcolm McKibbin (NICS)
Gil Morgan (WAG)
David Nicholson (NHS)
Una O’Brien (DH)
Jonathan Stephens (DCMS)
Moira Wallace (DECC)
Ian Watmore (CO)
Permanent secretaries DfE and DfT

Read the most recent articles written by Matt.Ross - Kerslake sets out ‘unfinished business’ in civil service reform

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