By matt.foster

17 Feb 2016

With responsibility for policing, immigration, borders and countering extremism, Mark Sedwill certainly has a lot on his plate. The Home Office permanent secretary talks to Matt Foster about the power of events, the drive to improve staff morale – and why the department’s “policy-heavy” headquarters are in line for a shake-up

No two days are ever the same when you cover the civil service for a living, but CSW honestly didn’t expect to spend a Tuesday afternoon discussing the merits of going trouser-free on public transport with the permanent secretary of one of the great departments of state.

There’s a context, of course. We’re trying to suss out why, back in May, Mark Sedwill, the most senior official at the Home Office and a sporadic tweeter whose posts normally stick to the more familiar territory of congratulating colleagues and highlighting visits – decided to share a picture of his bare feet, alongside those of a dog. Bold new staff engagement strategy? Edgy Home Office recruitment campaign? A cry for help?

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It was, Sedwill reassures CSW, “nothing to do with the Home Office, or the job, let alone the general election”.

“I saw on the Tube last week, there a was ‘go without trousers’ day. I haven’t indulged in that...But there was a ‘go without shoes for charity’ day, and that was just a picture of it!”

The perm sec, who is now approaching three years in the top Home Office post – “Don’t I know it?” – also does his bit for another charity, recently taking on the chairmanship of the civil service Lifeboat Fund on top of the day job.

Indeed, a striking black and white shot of a lifeboat on choppy waters adorns the wall of the perm sec’s office, and it’s easy to see why the head of a department that often finds itself at the mercy of events – the unexpected rise of the Islamic State militant group, for example, or the ramifications of Europe’s ongoing migration crisis – might choose this symbol of reassurance to look out on as he works through his in-tray.

“One of the things I’ve had to learn in this job is that no matter how hard you plan, how well you do contingencies, how good your intel and analysis is, you always have to be ready for the unexpected,” he says.

“And you have to be able to respond really effectively to that. I’ve tried to build that capability in the Home Office over the last few years so that, hopefully, we’re ahead of events and ready for the kind of challenges that we’re going to face – capable of responding really quickly to them.”

As well as trying to ensure that such events don’t blow the Home Office off course, Sedwill is busy ensuring that the everyday work of the department – counter terrorism, crime prevention, oversight and funding of the police, managing the immigration system – goes smoothly.

And, like each of Whitehall’s perm secs, he’s having to do that while cutting costs. The Home Office reduced its overall spending by 15% in real terms over the last parliament, according to the National Audit Office, achieving the bulk of its savings through reductions in police funding, Home Office staffing costs, and IT and consultancy spend.

But while November’s government-wide Spending Review gave the department some breathing space by protecting police funding, the Home Office is still in line for a further 30% reduction in its day-to-day administrative spending over the next five years.

Sedwill is keen to stress that that 30% figure was offered up to the Treasury by the department itself, and that he has “deliberately sought” to ensure that frontline services are protected through the settlement, leaving the core department to get on with the tricky business of finding further efficiencies.

“My focus is always on delivering capability to the operations,” he says. “Because, in the end, our job is to keep citizens safe – and that’s done through the frontline, whether it’s police officers or at the borders.”

With this in mind, Sedwill has been asked by his ministerial boss – home secretary Theresa May – to carry out a major review of the department’s Marsham Street headquarters, with May telling the Reform think tank late last year that she wanted the top of the organisation to become “slimmer, more flexible and better able to provide the leadership required”. 

What will that mean in practice?

“In my view, the role of the core department of state is the same as it was in the day we were founded in 1782,” Sedwill says. “It is to keep the citizens safe and the country secure – it’s as simple as that.

“And that’s also the mission of those quarter of a million people out there guarding the border, policing our streets, operating with people overseas to try and disrupt the threats coming into the UK, and dealing with the domestic security agencies. So the role of the core of the Home Office is to provide the leadership to that system and then to help deliver the capabilities that those people need in order to do their job in the modern world.

“Of course, there are policy priorities that reflect either the issues that government set out in the manifesto or new challenges and threats that arise […] But our fundamental job is about building those capabilities. That requires a different kind of headquarters to the traditional, very policy-heavy headquarters that a department like the Home Office has had.”

Sedwill believes the core department needs to be “delayered”, with its management structures “simplified”, and individual leaders empowered to take “more responsibility for delivering programmes of work”. This means using “more agile project management disciplines”, he explains, and ensuring that once capabilities are developed in one part of the department’s operations, they are reused elsewhere.

"In the end, our job is to keep citizens safe – and that’s done through the frontline"

He also thinks there is scope for the Home Office to work more closely with the rest of government.

The Counter-Extremism Strategy – launched late last year in an attempt to bring together the work of departments, agencies, local government and the third sector in the fight against radicalisation – is a case in point.

The strategy is overseen by a small new Home Office directorate, but relies on contributions from other departments including Communities and Local Government, Education, International Development and the Foreign Office – as well as organisations outside Whitehall. Sedwill says it’s vital that the department doesn’t try to claim it alone has all the answers to this highly complex problem.

“The work we’re doing on counter-extremism will succeed only by engaging that much wider community, not just working across government, but also by actually working at the local level in communities, with local government agencies and with partner organisations, and with community groups themselves,” he says, adding:

“We mustn’t allow the focus to just be Whitehall, the national media, the policy environment around Westminster. In fact, this is why I talk all the time about those quarter of a million public servants out there keeping their fellow citizens safe.

“Those people are out on the streets of every city in the United Kingdom day-in, day-out, dealing with the social issues, rooting out people who present a criminal threat or are seeking to indoctrinate people who are vulnerable, or prey on them. You can’t do that by being focused on Whitehall – you’ve got to do it by being focused on what’s happening on the streets, in people’s homes, in cyberspace, and bringing that back into the central policy process.

There’s no doubt that the Home Office has experienced a turbulent decade. The department was infamously described by John Reid, one in a long line of Labour home secretaries, as being “not fit for purpose” in 2006, and saw a chunk of its functions hived off into a newly-created Ministry of Justice just a year later.

The coalition government heralded still more organisational changes. The UK Border Agency was scrapped after repeated criticism from MPs; two new directorates – UK Visas and Immigration and Immigration Enforcement – were established; and the Passport Agency was brought back in-house in the wake of a headline-grabbing summer crisis in 2014.

The way the Home Office has handled the transition from these old agencies, and the bedding in of the new system, is one of the things Sedwill looks back on “with the most pride” over his three years in the job.

“I think we’ve had real success in taking an institution that was widely perceived as being ineffective, reorganising it, bringing in the right kind of leadership and actually really achieving concrete progress,” he says.

In an effort to further cement the new structure of the immigration directorates, the department recently drafted in Olly Robbins – formerly deputy national security advisor at the Cabinet Office and described by Sedwill as a “really heavy hitter” – to act as a second permanent secretary, handing him responsibility for overseeing the Border Force, UK Visas and Immigration, Immigration Enforcement and the Passport Office.

“Those four institutions are each led by a director general,” Sedwill explains. “And so I felt it was right to bring in a second perm sec to bring that team together and provide that overall leadership to those operations, to ensure that they’re properly connected and that they’re delivering across the Home Office agenda, contributing to the work we do to cut crime and to prevent terrorism, as much as to control immigration.”
But while Sedwill is clearly proud of the progress of the immigration directorates, it hasn’t all been plain sailing for the perm sec, who has recently had to grapple with a controversy of a different nature.

In a situation described as “deplorable” by MPs on the Home Affairs Committee, the department was last year forced to pause its attempt to overhaul the complex formula used to allocate central government funding to police forces, after police and crime commissioners spotted an error in the data underpinning its calculations. Some PCCs even threatened legal action over the planned changes.

“As a result of the Home Office’s error, confidence in the process has been lost; time, effort, resources and energy have been wasted; and the reputation of the Home Office has been damaged with its principal stakeholders,” the committee said, urging the department to bring in an independent panel of external advisers to oversee fresh attempts to get the reform right.

After Home Office minister Mike Penning was forced to tell the Commons that the reforms would be paused, Sedwill quickly a ordered review into the incident. A letter from the perm sec to HASC chair Keith Vaz explained that errors of “analysis and judgement” had been made “by several individuals at all levels”.

“This will be addressed in their performance appraisals and through the department’s formal performance development and improvement procedures,” he wrote.

Sedwill tells CSW that he took the error “very personally”. But he says he has been “very clear” with ministers, MPs, police and crime commissioners and chief constables about what went wrong – and vows it won’t happen again.

“The error shouldn’t have happened and we certainly should have dealt with it better,” he says. “I commissioned an internal review to find out exactly what happened. There were technical errors at the root of this. You know, mistakes happen, but essentially, within the department, the analysts responsible for the data and the policy people responsible for the work on the funding formula didn’t understand enough about each other’s work in order to ensure that the mistake was corrected, and that it didn’t have the disruptive impact that it turned out to have had.

“I’m deeply frustrated it happened. We’ll learn the lessons, we’ll apply those elsewhere in our policy functions as well. And in the end, of course, we still have to wrestle with the underlying question which is to allocate central funding to policing in a way that meets the demands of the modern era.”

Turning around Home Office morale is another challenge facing the department’s perm sec. The latest civil service People Survey finds employee engagement six points below the civil service average – at 52% – and a point down on last year’s score. And while there’s strong engagement with the department’s organisational objectives – the Home Office registers a score of 80% – the scores for “leadership and managing change” are eight points below the average, and again a point below the 2014 position.

Perhaps more worrying, 18% of respondents across the department and its agencies said they had “personally experienced discrimination at work” in the last year, with 16% saying they had been subject to “bullying or harassment” on the job.

When reminded of the statistics, Sedwill says that “one person feeling bullied, one person feeling harassed, one person feeling discriminated against is one too many”.

“This is something we take very seriously,” he adds. “My board spends probably more time on this single topic than any other individual topic. I expect all of my directors general and indeed my new second perm sec to incorporate the right actions into their personal objectives, in order to tackle these issues.”

On the broader picture of staff morale, Sedwill acknowledges the apparent mismatch between pride in the work the Home Office does and the day-to-day “stresses and strains” experienced by staff.

“When I first came to this job I looked at the People Survey for the year before I arrived,” he says.

“And it told me two big things: first, there were high levels of commitment to the mission of the Home Office. If you actually look at the engagement of people with what they do – keeping citizens safe in the various ways that they do, keeping the country secure – that engagement is high. And that’s one thing I take a great deal of encouragement from. 

"Like a lot of other big institutions going through a transformation at the pace that we’re going through, we have real challenges around managing change, we have real challenges around bullying and harassment"

“But there are significant levels of frustration with some of the institutional constraints. And like a lot of other big institutions going through a transformation at the pace that we’re going through, we have real challenges around managing change, we have real challenges around bullying and harassment and discrimination and ensuring that we really tackle not only the hotspots, but some of the underlying issues.”

Sedwill also believes more can be done to improve diversity: the majority of the Home Office’s directors and senior managers are men, even though women outnumber their male counterparts across the wider workforce. As part of the new objectives rolled out to all perm secs across Whitehall last year, Sedwill has been set the task of increasing the representation of women, and of black and minority ethnic staff, in the senior civil service by April of next year.

“We’re not just going to have a strategy and some rhetoric about this,” he says. “We’re going to have a plan of action to deal with it.” Increasing the representation of women and BME staff in the senior civil service is “not the only issue” he says, but is a vital step because it “starts to provide role models and examples to which others can aspire”.

But while there’s work to be done, there are also reasons for cheer. Stonewall this year named the Home Office – which has long been listed among the LGBT charity’s top employers – as a “star performer”, meaning the department will now work to offer advice to other organisations about becoming an exemplary place for LGBT staff to work.

“One of the questions I’ve asked, and I’ve challenged the organisation to come back to me on this is that, given that we’ve made so much progress in that area, what are the lessons we can learn about dealing with the diversity issues for other groups, for gender diversity, for BME staff?

“Because LGBT equality is an area where we have made very, very significant progress and we should be really proud of what we’ve achieved. We should never be complacent, but we should be proud of what we’ve achieved.”

It’s hard to think of another government organisation whose remit is quite as wide as the Home Office’s – and the department’s susceptibility to events undoubtedly makes it difficult for senior leaders to ever truly switch off. But Sedwill says he tries to “stay sane” by being “absolutely ruthless” about giving himself dedicated downtime.

“Of course, if something really significant happens I would expect to be disturbed and I would respond. But one of the things we have to learn, particularly in a high-pressure environment, is not to allow the everyday pressures to dominate our entire lives.

“You’ve got to be able to switch off, you’ve got to create space for yourself. And you know, I believe in being absolutely in the moment you’re in. So when I’m with the family, I’m with the family. When I’m walking the dog, I’m walking the dog. And I don’t expect to be disturbed unless something really serious is there to interrupt that.”

There are lighter sides to the job, too. The Home Affairs Committee may have given Sedwill a tough time over the police funding row, but that didn’t stop him making a prominent appearance on HASC’s traditional Christmas card – albeit as Darth Vader.

A copy of the Star Wars-themed missive, which also features Theresa May as Princess Leia – “that I’m not going to comment on!” – still sits behind the perm sec’s desk. So how did he feel about being cast as an intergalactic baddie?

“Somebody said, ‘you know, you should be mortally offended by this’. But they’re very inventive about their Christmas cards! I thought it caught the moment, it’s the big film of the season.

“And in the end, you know, who am I to complain? It’s always better to be one of the stars, even if you’re the dark lord, than to be disregarded. I think he’s the coolest character in the pantheon – so I’m not that bothered.” 

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