By Joshua.Chambers

29 Jan 2013

Katherine Kerswell and Clare Sumner are heading up the tricky task of civil service reform. Joshua Chambers meets the dynamic duo leading the drive to shake up Whitehall’s skills, structures and working practices

Katherine Kerswell and Clare Sumner are markedly different, but very much a double act. Kerswell, the director general of civil service reform, is soft-spoken and contemplative, while her deputy is forthright and energetic. As I enter the room it’s Sumner who leaps up to greet me, before turning to introduce Kerswell.

This contrast is evident throughout the interview, and representative of their different backgrounds. Sumner is a Whitehall high-flyer and policy professional who’s worked as a Number 10 private secretary. Kerswell, meanwhile, is an outsider who’s only just come into the civil service after a long and successful career in local government. “There’s quite a special mix of our two experiences,” Kerswell says. It’s a dynamic that isn’t dissimilar to the partnership between council veteran Sir Bob Kerslake and Whitehall mandarin Sir Jeremy Heywood.

Together, Kerswell and Sumner are going to be shaking up Whitehall, implementing changes that will affect every civil servant – from salaries to terms & conditions, and from talent management to training. “Clare and I box and cox,” Kerswell says, meaning that their roles are somewhat interchangeable. However, on paper she’s heading up the overall strategy, while Sumner is running the team – 30 strong, and growing – that’s going to work with departments to implement the government’s Civil Service Reform Plan.

Flavour of the month
Kerswell may be quiet but she created a lot of noise in local government, even gaining national attention in 2008 when a YouTube video appeared in which she tried to sell a restructuring programme to staff by telling them to “taste the strawberry” because “that strawberry flavour will be the flavour of Northamptonshire County Council”. Most recently, she was chief executive of Kent County Council, which she radically restructured to cut costs: simplifying a departmental system seen as overly bureaucratic, she cut staff numbers and asked everyone to reapply for their jobs. This achieved big savings, but caused staff morale to plummet - according to senior council figures and reports in local newspapers. Kerswell left after 18 months in the post, with a £420,000 payoff and a confidentiality agreement that prevents both sides from discussing the reason for her departure.

Last year, Kerswell arrived in the Cabinet Office to deliver the government’s vision for the civil service. As an outsider, what did she make of Whitehall? “I was fascinated by it,” she says, admitting that when she was in local government “it was the standard we aimed for”. However, some weaknesses were immediately apparent, and “the biggest is role clarity and accountability”. By that, she doesn’t just mean the hot topic of senior civil servants’ accountability to ministers or Parliament, but the broader aim of ensuring that there are clear reporting lines and responsibilities throughout the civil service – not least because “it’s a really important part of us resolving performance-management issues.”

The problem she highlights was demonstrated again last year in the failure of the Department for Transport to properly let the franchise for the West Coast Mainline. The subsequent Laidlaw inquiry highlighted a confused governance structure that resulted in errors not being reported up the chain of command. While it will always be difficult to ensure clear governance on “very, very busy, complicated projects,” Kerswell says, “there is the absolute duty on all public servants, whoever you are – local government, national government – to speak truth about what is happening.” Sumner adds that the reform plan calls for Senior Responsible Owners (SROs) to remain in place throughout the lifetime of a project so that large schemes are better managed and accountability is clear. In the DfT, three different people were at different times charged with heading up the botched commissioning of the West Coast franchise.

The plan for The Plan
Kerswell is the SRO for the Civil Service Reform Plan, heading up the Cabinet Office unit that’s overseeing its implementation. Further, “we’ve got the minister [Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude], Bob [Kerslake], Jeremy [Heywood] and Lord Browne [lead non-executive director] absolutely making this matter at the large scale. Then there’s a cadre of permanent secretaries and directors-general who are all playing their part in this,” she says: each department must come up with its own plan to implement the overall vision.

Ultimately, though, Kerswell believes that while “you need the voice of the permanent secretary or director general saying: ‘This matters’,” the best communications channels involve a “message from your line manager saying: ‘This is why we’re doing this, this is why it matters.’ That’s key.”

The latest Civil Service People Survey had mixed results on leadership and management of change in the civil service. The overall “leadership and change management” score went up from 38 to 41 per cent, but only 29 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement: “I believe change is managed well [in my organisation]”. Asked about this, Kerswell responds that “there certainly were some issues, but there was also a very positive message that people were saying they were experiencing more effective leadership and management of change… When you think how much change is going on, that’s a really positive situation to be in.”

Sumner, meanwhile, says that “it’s really important to link the leadership all the way through the organisation, and that’s something that the senior leaders of the civil service are very focussed on.” For example, she cites changes in local JobCentres where “individual team members are now much more accountable and have the ability to say: ‘We’re going to do these things in different ways, or use ‘Lean’ techniques to think about how we can improve the way we do business’.” Ultimately, though, Kerswell says that the civil service needs to invest in quality managers, and this means prioritising training budgets.

New tricks

When Kerswell says the civil service is going to “invest” in training leaders, does she mean that it’s going to spend more cash on training programmes? “No; it’s going to use the money it’s got in a very targeted way to make sure that we are investing in talent and the things that we really need to develop our staff in.” The government’s mid-term review, released earlier this month, committed the civil service to publishing a five year capabilities plan, which will identify the skills and capabilities that are currently lacking and set out how the shortfall will be addressed. The Reform Plan has already prioritised four key areas: digital skills; commercial skills; procurement skills; and leadership and management of change.

Further, civil servants are – thanks to the Plan – now entitled to five days of training a year, Sumner says, although this won’t necessarily be in the traditional classroom setting: “There’s a lot more e-learning.” Does that mean those days of training could all be conducted through e-learning? “If that was how your training need was best met, then that would be a reasonable thing,” Kerswell says. “But it would be odd if you could get everything you needed from five days of sitting at a computer.”

As well as improving the skills of the civil service, the Reform Plan promises work to ensure that talent is better deployed. The Plan envisages an increase in secondment opportunities, and outlines a number of development streams for promising civil servants. These include reforms to the Fast Stream, which will be managed centrally for the first time.

Talent is a subjective concept; but to help define it, a new competency framework will be rolled out in April, setting out the ten key criteria against which all civil servants will be appraised, Kerswell says. This will underpin a new performance management system. The key competencies are: seeing the big picture, which includes working with non-executive directors and ensuring that projects fit within the strategic vision of the department; changing and improving services, with a particular focus on continuous improvement and new delivery models; making effective decisions by using detailed evidence and evaluating all options; leading and communicating; working collaboratively with other teams and departments; improving one’s own skills, and managing staff to ensure they are in sufficiently challenging roles; achieving commercial outcomes; delivering value for money; managing a quality service, which in particular focuses on project management and commissioning; and delivering at pace.

Some talent may still have to be brought in from outside to fill specific business needs, Kerswell believes. However, she admits that there won’t be any movement on salary limits to enable this. Late last year, former cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell warned that “arbitrary” salary limits are preventing the public sector from recruiting the best commercial talent. The Institute for Government has also called for departments to be given more flexibility, including the discretion to pay a premium for top talent while keeping within an overall envelope of salary expenditure. Kerswell, however, argues that change isn’t necessary: the public service ethos and variety of work are sufficient advantages when recruiting, she says.

New terms
While the civil service is not considering raising salary limits, it is looking to cut back on employment terms and conditions. Civil servants are employed by their departments and agencies, and on numerous different contractual arrangements depending on when they started; given the complexity and scale of the negotiations required, won’t it be very difficult to achieve significant reform? “No, I wouldn’t agree. Each department, as its own employer, is pursuing its own negotiations around its terms and conditions of service. They’re all beginning that now, and it’s going to be a tough conversation but it’s a very positive process that we’re moving into,” Kerswell says.

As someone coming in from outside, what are the terms & conditions that she believes are out of line with those elsewhere? “Coming from local government, privilege days went in the ‘80s, so we [in local government] are in a very different world,” she says. “If [civil servants] talk to their friends and say: ‘They’re doing this to me at work,’ and start sharing what terms and conditions their colleagues have in terms of sick pay, in terms of leave, in terms of training opportunities, actually, when you look at what the civil service is offering… I think it’s a very positive employment package and it rates very well against a lot of local government. It’s difficult when people feel they’re losing something; but when you do the ‘pub test’, I think you can see it’s a balanced package that’s being offered.”

In the past few weeks and months, the national newspapers have homed in on sick leave in the civil service, pointing out how much higher its sick rates are than the private sector’s. Are civil servants taking too many sick days? Kerswell responds that “in any large organisation there are problems with sickness,” but adds that within the civil service “it goes back to my point about how important managers are in teams”. If people really are sick, she says, that’s one thing – but if it’s a matter of absenteeism, “that is different. It’s about cracking down on absenteeism and ensuring that people are safe and healthy at work and able to do their jobs properly.” But she rejects the idea of a link between generous sick pay and high rates of sickness absence in the civil service, arguing that “the thing that makes a real difference to sickness and absenteeism in the workplace is whether people are healthy, whether the working environment is healthy, and whether people are balancing their working hours and personal

Kerswell concludes that the review of terms and conditions will be a “robust, positive process. People might think: ‘I don’t know what they’re talking about, how can it be positive?’ But engagement and proper talking is the meat and drink of what proper organisations do.”

The phoney war
Kerswell talks about positivity in the civil service, but that must be difficult when – week in, week out – there are briefings in the national newspapers from unnamed special advisers and ministers attacking the civil service. Most recently, The Times ran a campaign dubbed ‘Whitehall at War’, which it launched with a front page article attacking departments’ use of consultations. Is Whitehall at war? “No, of course it isn’t,” Kerswell replies (see news). Sumner adds that “The Times’s campaign has partly been galvanised by the fact that Yes, Prime Minister is coming back to our screens (see Culture), and there’s been an internal debate about which of us like Yes, Minister and which of us like The Thick of It. My take is that in the civil service, you work in these areas that get an incredible amount of scrutiny… The danger is that through the media prism, everything looks black or white.”

One former minister, Nick Herbert, complained to The Times that civil servants believe it’s their job to challenge government policy. Is it? “Yes, the duty of every civil servant is to do that, and to give the best professional advice you can to your minister. Even if you think: ‘Oh God, they really don’t want to hear this,’ that’s what you’ve got to do. It’s your job,” Kerswell says. “Sometimes that can be felt as: ‘You’re just being obstructive, you’re just getting in the way,’ [but] you’re actually doing your job. Sometimes civil servants don’t say it in the best ways, either. Everybody’s a human being here. I think it’s a necessary and healthy tension that makes the system work.”

Both Kerswell and Sumner are enthusiastic about the Reform Plan’s provisions for contestable policymaking, which include the commissioning of outside bodies to provide policy advice. Both women were involved in the first of these schemes, under which the IPPR think tank was commissioned to report on international models of civil service accountability – focussing on the contractual model in New Zealand, and on the private office arrangements of Australia. The final report is late, and hasn’t yet been received by the Cabinet Office, Kerswell confirms (see news).

However, changes to permanent secretary accountability have already been made – most notably the publication of permanent secretaries’ objectives. Kerswell believes that perm secs’ cross-cutting objectives on civil service reform will ensure significant leverage when implementing the Reform Plan. She also thinks that they should make more regional visits outside Whitehall, and engage stakeholders more closely within their specialist policy areas.

The interview ends and we wander downstairs for photographs, with Sumner leading the way through the corridors of Whitehall. As we stand outside in the freezing cold, both are still smiling – and that’s before the photographer has asked them to say ‘Cheese!’ These may be difficult times in Whitehall, but both these two very different characters are sure that only an open, positive approach will shepherd civil servants towards a brighter future. “When you’re leading a large change programme, the whole point is to be positive,” Sumner says. And to the extent that change within the civil service will address the Whitehall flaws criticised by ministers, their work on reform is important to creating a better relationship between politicians and officials. Now that would be something worth smiling about.

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