By Jess Bowie

20 Feb 2015

The civil service’s first chief executive has an ambitious agenda to define the next era of Whitehall reform – whatever those “damn politicians” might be planning. Jess Bowie meets him

The room next to John Manzoni’s office is abuzz with activity. Workmen are carefully handling huge, framed pictures that they are preparing to mount on the walls of Manzoni’s spacious Cabinet Office lodgings. One of the perks of being the new civil service chief executive is access to some of the best works in the vast reserves of the Government Art Collection. What has he chosen? 

One picture – at least a metre in height – is a black and white photograph of a woman in a dark dress. So far, so unremarkable – except that the woman in this picture is doubled over an ironing board, which is pinning her up against a wall. She appears to be dead. The image, by the British artist Mel Brimfield, is disturbing, humourous and – surely – a radical statement about the traditional roles of women.  

“Exactly!” Manzoni says with a grin, before explaining that it was the choice of his wife Nikki, who has a BA in Art History and an MA in Art Management. The couple met early on during his career at BP, just as he was finishing a stint in Aberdeen as a petroleum engineer. By the time Manzoni left the oil and gas giant in 2007, he was overseeing six businesses in more than 100 countries as chief executive of Refining and Marketing. 

As his wall art suggests, Manzoni is a different species of civil servant. Energetic and so corporate-minded that he sometimes refers to Whitehall as “the business” (“I’m just so used to it!” he says), he has also been unafraid to use his outsider status to speak his mind. He says he wants to be “the grit in the oyster” – to change the way Whitehall works or, in the words of one MP who prefers not to be named, “shake it to its foundations”. 

After three decades in the private sector, including 24 years at BP (where he worked for outgoing government lead non-executive Lord Browne), Manzoni entered Whitehall as head of the Major Projects Authority in February 2014, and has been civil service CEO since early October. On his arrival, he was struck not only by how “un-joined up” things were, but also by the sense that government was “doing too much for its available resources” (“30% too much”, to be precise). This is partly because, while building railways and submarines, paying benefits and running hospitals, it is also attempting to change itself: its ways of working, its technology. “It’s like flying a plane, and transforming it at the same time,” he will say in a speech at the Institute for Government (IfG) a few days later.

In the meantime, he says, the civil service has also allowed itself to drift into a defensive position.

“There’s this sort of pervasive belief that our destiny isn’t ours,” he explains. “Actually it’s 450,000 people doing really, really important things, right?” (While Manzoni’s habitual use of “right?” reveals the many years he spent in North America, there is no trace of Italy, where his great-great-great grandfather, Alessandro Manzoni, was a renowned romantic novelist, or his native Midlands, in a voice that is equal parts David Dimbleby and Steve Wright.) 

Manzoni on... SABMiller

Firstly it’s important to note that I have always declared my interests to the appropriate people in government, throughout the application and appointment process for my roles as both head of the MPA and then as chief executive. I announced my intention a few months ago to step down [as a non-executive director at SABMiller] at the next AGM in July and not stand for re-election. I will be doing it until July on an unpaid basis. It’s a big company and you don’t just leap out of roles like that until the board has a chance to find appropriate replacements. I do believe there needs to be a balance, though: there are great benefits in doing other roles outside of your job while being a chief executive. Non-executive roles can help you bring different experiences and learning into the civil service.​

“If you’re doing really important things – and by the way, the wavelength of many of those things outlives even two or three governments – I think you need to grip that,” he adds. “We need to be on the front foot. If you’re running Jobcentres or you’re doing things that big battalions do – what the bulk of civil servants do – I think that actually they’re pretty damn good at it. But here in Whitehall, we need to have a sense of control of our own destiny, a little bit more perhaps than I observe that we have.”

Following the departure of Bob Kerslake as head of the civil service and the appointment of Manzoni to the newly created CEO post, the government announced that the chief executive would “have control over the key functions that make government work more efficiently and improve Whitehall’s ability to deliver”. And you can’t go long talking to Manzoni without the word “functions” or “delivery” escaping his lips. How valuable will it be to him, as he goes about civil service reform, that he has direct control over the Major Projects Authority and the Crown Commercial Service?

“Let’s broaden it out a bit. Essentially what I have is a whole range of functions. I have the Crown Commercial Service, I have the MPA, I have technology and the Government Digital Service, I have Communications. We’ve had a period where the system had to be sort of jolted or woken up into action. That has been entirely necessary; I think it’s been quite hard. Francis Maude [the Cabinet Office minister] has led it, and it’s done several things. It’s softened up the system, it’s shown a different way, it’s given a taste of digital – look at GOV.UK or DVLA. That’s been that era. Now the next era the civil service has to own. 

“We don’t need Francis to be there as ‘Dad’, you know,” he adds with a smile.

Maude may well have been eavesdropping: the day after Manzoni speaks to CSW, the Conservative minister, whose name has been synonymous with civil service reform for five years, announces his intention to stand down as an MP. But as well as Whitehall taking ownership of the next phase of reform in a post-Maude era, there is another reason why Manzoni’s functional agenda will be critical: the massive public sector cuts to come.

“We’ve done an awful lot of efficiency and we’ve got the same to do again,” he says. “But we’re getting close to where – if we squeeze here, the bubble pops up here… you can’t just keep squeezing. We actually now have to do things which are not department-by-department: now we have to join things up. We have to share buildings. We have to buy centrally and create the economies of central buying. When we do buy centrally, we have to be really good at it. Like every company out there, we have to share the back office services. And we have to create technology platforms.” 

He goes on to describe how systems similar to those used by HMRC for people to pay and receive money are replicated elsewhere across government: “Those same functions are happening in 27 other places. And we have to say, ‘hang on a minute, if we create the technology, the profound technology shift that would allow us to do this once, this would be significantly cheaper’. Now the problem is, to get that, you’ve got to have functions, because the only place you can do that is from the centre. So commercial, technology, MPA, all of these things are functions.”

But, he adds, “I’m not a big centrist.” When asked about the strengthening of Whitehall’s corporate centre, he warns: “Let’s be careful with what we mean by ‘corporate centre’... the centre of government has to have some very strong functions but their role predominantly is to build capability in the departments… and to create strategies to enable us to do things in a much more efficient way.”

How will the vast public sector cuts on the horizon change the Whitehall landscape?

“Do I believe that it will look very different? You don’t take 10 or 20 billion pounds out of a system and have everybody just working harder; that doesn’t work. The majority of civil servants work very hard. So it’s not about whipping horses and making them run faster; that’s not going to do it. You have to change the way it works. It’s very, very difficult, but there’s no question that there’s 20 billion pounds worth of wider efficiencies across the public sector. The only question is ‘how do you access it?’ 

“And it’s not because people aren’t trying, it’s because it’s genuinely... we’ve devolved a lot of stuff, it’s a complicated system, we don’t have all the levers. I mean this is genuinely a difficult problem, and there are very clever people thinking about it,” he says. 

Nor does he shy away from the prospect of redundancies in the next Parliament. The civil service “has become smaller over the last five years and it will have to get smaller again,” he explains, adding: “You can do these things in a very respectful way, and if you listen to an organisation, it tells you when it’s ready to change. And this organisation is ready to change. I think that’s okay.”

When the Texas City Refinery exploded in 2005, John Manzoni’s life changed. The blast killed 15 people and injured more than 170. Manzoni was ultimately responsible for the refinery. One internal BP report was scathing about a culture that “seemed to ignore risk... and accept incompetence”. He had been tipped to replace Lord Browne as chief executive, but both men left in 2007, three years before the Deepwater Horizon explosion triggered a second disaster for the company.  

When asked what he learned from the various investigations into the causes of the refinery explosion – and how he would apply that learning to his current role – Manzoni’s normally jovial tone takes on a new seriousness.

“There were about five people between me and the refinery manager. I was sitting in London, and that day in March when it blew up, of course changed my life for two years thereafter, and more. The refinery manager, who had never sat in a boardroom and had grown up in that refinery… said to me years later, ‘we didn’t know what it was, but we knew something was up’. And actually his boss knew something was wrong, but couldn’t determine it. But there were about two or three levels of leadership between that guy and me, and both the two guys at the refinery above him had grown up in refineries. And the three levels above that, including me... were generalists.” 

Big, complicated organisations need generalists at the top, Manzoni says, because they can see that complexity. But Texas City taught him the critical importance of a balance between generalists and specialists. 

“Because the specialists are the guys who really understand,” he adds. “They don’t have it here” – he points to his head – “they have it here,” he says, gesturing to his gut. “And they can tell you when something’s wrong, even if they may not be able to articulate it in a way that a board can understand. And that is exactly why one of my observations coming into government is: this is all about delivery. And in the matter of delivery, I don’t care how clever you are, you need experience. 

“One of the things that’s unbelievable about the UK civil service to me is that, for an organisation that’s doing so much stuff, we don’t have any career paths that teach civil servants how to get 25 years of experience. They’re all bloody generalists! They’re incredibly intelligent generalists, right? And we hop them around, and we think Private Office is going to do it. In the matter of delivering things, I have to tell you it won’t. It just won’t.”

By offering civil servants career paths in delivery, Whitehall would be far better at mitigating risk, and give officials more confidence to speak truth to power. “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.” 

Manzoni has always been known to work hard – during a recent select committee hearing, he said he works seven days a week. When he does make time to unwind, he, his wife and his daughters – one is just finishing school and the other is at university – enjoy sailing. Skiing is another passion: “We’ve lived in a lot of places with mountains in my life,” Manzoni says. 

After leaving BP to run Canadian oil and gas firm Talisman Energy, Manzoni could see the Rockies from his desk. He was CEO there for four years from 2008. Does it feel strange suddenly to have to report to someone, namely the cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood?

“I must say I haven’t had a boss for quite a lot of years, actually!” Manzoni says, preferring to think of the structure at the top as a “triumvirate”. “There’s Jeremy, [Treasury perm sec] Nick Macpherson and myself. Those are three really important people, and we need to be aligned in what we’re trying to achieve. And if we can be, we can do whatever we choose to do.” 

Manzoni also recognises the limits to his power – not least his lack of direct line management over the heads of departments. “You can’t sit on top of an organisation this big, this complicated, and expect to control everything,” he says. “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.”

Thick Of It or Yes Minister? I don’t know The Thick Of It at all!
Ayn Rand or George Orwell? No... I’m not playing this game!
Courchevel or St Barts? Courchevel
The Smiths or Bach? Who?! 
Bach Oh Bach, no question!
Pilsner or Peroni? [Both beers are brewed by SABMiller] Oh that’s tricky, since...! I’d have to say Peroni, unless it was Pilsner Urquell.​
Chief execs or perm secs? [Thinks]...chief executives.

Manzoni’s vision is impressive and his energy infectious. But there’s another – potentially huge – block on his power: politicians. No matter how rational or persuasive his arguments, if his agenda isn’t top priority for the next administration, it could fall by the wayside. Without prime ministerial backing, wouldn’t his plan to implement reform be seriously hampered? 

“This is my point. If the civil service spends its time worrying about what the damn politicians want and don’t want... we’re going to carry on! This is 450,000 people for goodness’ sake! We know what we’ve got to do…” he says, sounding like Sir Humphrey on steroids. 

He then bursts out laughing. “That’s what’s going to get me fired sooner or later, right?” 

Despite this fighting talk, Manzoni makes clear he understands that the civil service is there to serve the government of the day. But his mission is to take control of civil service reform, against odds that have challenged his predecessors.

“I think it’s really, really important that the leader of the civil service leads the civil service. He can’t be looking upwards waiting for instruction the whole time; that’s what leadership’s about. I have to stand in a place where I can say ‘I know what we’ve got to do, and we’ve got more directors-general around here who know what they’ve got to do... and if they [politicians] don’t like it, they’ll fire me. That’s fine! But I’ve got to stand there to make other people feel okay, because you know what? It’ll make people feel proud if we can get there.”

With a track record at the MPA that has already earned him respect in Whitehall, Manzoni is popular with many of his colleagues. The FDA’s general secretary, Dave Penman, has also praised his refreshing candour, and the IfG supports his functional leadership agenda. Even the select committees appear to like him, despite the unlovely approach taken by Tory MP Stephen Phillips, who opened a Public Accounts Committee hearing by abruptly asking Manzoni “What is the point of you?”. 

One member of the same committee tells CSW that Manzoni is “great news” for Whitehall. “If anyone’s the darling of PAC, it’s him”. Another MP, who is on the Public Administration Select Committee, agrees: “I’ve been impressed by his skill – he’s fluent and able, and he has a nimble mind. He comes in with ideas that will shake the civil service to its foundations if he’s allowed to have his head.” 

The same MP sounds a note of caution, however, fearing that the “forces of inertia will squash” Whitehall’s new chief executive. A high-flying former businessman crushed under a giant bowler hat, in place of the ironing board that now features on his wall, perhaps? Such pessimistic imagery is not new to the man himself. As Manzoni acknowledges later, in his IfG speech, if he pushes too hard, he knows he will “get neutered and blocked,” adding, to nervous laughter in the audience, “and I won’t even notice it’s happened.” 

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