By Joshua.Chambers

21 Nov 2013

The new Home Office permanent secretary, Mark Sedwill, arrived in Marsham Street soon after having worked in Afghanistan. He tells Joshua Chambers how he’s using his experience to turn the embattled department around.

A picture of a large snake large looms behind Mark Sedwill, permanent secretary of the Home Office. It depicts a black anaconda surrounding a map of the United States, its tail starting in the North-West, its body covering the eastern, southern and western borders, and its head – fangs bared – striking into the heart of the country.

The picture represents Union general Winfield Scott’s naval blockade of the Confederate Army during the American Civil War. The snake surrounds its enemy before eliminating it, Sedwill explains – and that’s how he thinks Whitehall should tackle difficult policy issues: working together from all sides to force a solution.

It’s an obscure international example for a permanent secretary in a very domestic role, but this befits Sedwill’s background as a diplomat. Until last year he was stationed in Afghanistan as the UK and NATO’s special representative. And his experience of working with intelligence agencies, tackling security issues, and facing international press coverage will be useful in what is perhaps the most frequently embattled of government departments. “We probably get more media and parliamentary attention – and therefore criticism and challenge – than any other department,” he notes. “It’s difficult to think of a time when the Home Office hasn’t been in the spotlight.”

After years of difficult headlines, critical parliamentary reports and prominent service failures, Sedwill’s task is to give the Home Office its self-confidence back. “Don’t worry about [being in the spotlight],” he’s telling his staff. “Complaining about the media or parliamentary environment is like complaining about the weather: it doesn’t achieve very much. What you can do, however, is make sure that by being consistently competent, by being really professional in the way that you operate, that the core of what we do is done well; and then – eventually – opinion and reputation will follow.”

How bad did things get?
Sedwill spent some time in the Home Office back in 2008, working as the international director of the now-defunct UK Borders Agency. What did he make of the department when he returned in February as permanent secretary? “One of the first things I did was look at the staff survey,” he replies. “And if you look at the engagement scores, the sense is that every member of staff feels connected to and cares about the mission of the Home Office: preventing terrorism, cutting crime, reducing immigration.” The 2012 survey shows scores of around 70% for these questions.

On the questions about pay, benefits and the institution, though, there are much lower scores of 20 to 30%. “What that told me was that people really care about what they do, and what they’ve achieved, but there is a lack of confidence in the institution. My key task as permanent secretary is to close that gap,” Sedwill says. “That is going to take some time, but I want to build people’s confidence in, and engagement with, the Home Office.”

He believes that his staff lack confidence in their employer partly because “they’ve been through quite a lot of instability. We have had five home secretaries in five years, and we’ve had four permanent secretaries in four years.” The less than permanent nature of Home Office leadership “inevitably has an effect on the organisation’s competence and coherence,” Sedwill believes, so he wants to be a “long-serving permanent secretary” to give the organisation some stability.

Instability isn’t the only reason the Home Office has moved “from one setback, one crisis, to another” over the past decade, however. Technology has often caused problems, Sedwill notes – particularly in the immigration system. “It’s fragmented and it’s fragile. That’s not the fault of anybody in the organisation: it’s just a fact.”

These problems are compounded, Sedwill believes, because Home Office employees haven’t always felt that their concerns are being listened to. Departmental structures have failed to ensure that staff concerns reach departmental leaders, he says, adding that “there has probably not been enough willingness to expose problems early, share them, get them some support.” These points are mirrored in numerous reports by parliamentary select committees, the National Audit Office, and even the department’s last capability review.

The immigration part of the Home Office has the worst reputation for ignoring staff concerns, with the Home Affairs Committee last year criticising its “bunker mentality.” Sedwill agrees that the UK Border Agency in particular “wasn’t a transparent organisation; it tended to hold things in rather than share them when they became apparent”.

Another immigration overhaul
After damning reports by the Home Affairs Committee on the state of the UK Border Agency, home secretary Theresa May decided to scrap the organisation earlier this year, having split the UK Border Force off from the agency in 2012. All national immigration border work now sits within the Home Office, and Sedwill says the decision allows for the creation of three distinct units that “rationally fit the challenges that they face.”

The Border Agency tried to merge too many distinct functions into one, he argues, citing policymaking as an example. “When it was first put together it had responsibility for [immigration] policy.” That was “weird” in a service delivery agency, he says; and even when policy responsibility was moved back into the department in 2010, there were still people in UKBA doing that work and “marking each other’s homework”.

UKBA was only formed in 2008, as a merger of two Home Office functions and some responsibilities from the Foreign Office and HMRC. However, Sedwill says that the split has not returned them to their previous structures. Now, there is the UK Border Force, which handles border policing; UK Visas, which manages visa processing; and Immigration Enforcement, which deals with around 100,000 people per year who are not compliant with UK visa rules. “Those are three very different missions; three very different organisations that need different cultures. To try to put them all together into one and create a consistent culture to deal with those very difficult tasks was simply asking too much of an institution,” he says.

Further restructuring will come if the new units don’t succeed, Sedwill warns. The Border Force must stay on top of queues, meet service standards, seize goods being smuggled, and prevent unwanted entrants to the UK. UK Visas must provide “excellent customer service that is world class,” and get on top of backlogs. And Immigration Enforcement must take “robust and quick action”. Whether they retain the current structure “depends on whether each of them is able to deliver successfully that set of objectives I’ve set out.”

Upgrading systems
Meanwhile, the Home Office is upgrading archaic IT systems and joining up dysfunctional processes. “The ICT platform is fragmented even within the immigration system, let alone properly integrated across the immigration system with passports and into law enforcement more generally – let alone into wider government,” he says.

The department is also sharing more services across Whitehall. It’s working with the Ministry of Justice to integrate corporate finance functions; moving legal advice into the Treasury Solicitor’s Office (see news); and sharing human resources with the Cabinet Office. “I’ve got a big and difficult enough brief as it is; I’m not particularly bidding to run large parts of the government platform here,” he says. “What I need in the Home Office is world-class services. I don’t necessarily want the Home Office to try to be a world-class provider – I need to be able to get services from wherever I can.”

Sedwill doesn’t think these services should necessarily all be controlled by the Cabinet Office. “It’s important not to confuse shared services with centralised services. Shared services does not mean it’s either done by us or done by the Cabinet Office, it may well be done by another government department,” he notes. Lord Browne, government’s lead non-executive, suggested earlier in the year that departments should focus on policy delivery and centralise their back- and middle-office functions into the centre of government. Sedwill thinks “there’s something in that,” but adds: “I’m always wary of monopoly provision of anything, because I think if you have a single provider and you don’t have choice, whether that’s a back-office service or anything else, the risk is that the single provider is not properly accountable to the customer.” That said, he notes that “some of my colleagues are more concerned about this than I am.”

Improving skills
As part of this move to share more services, Sedwill wants to make his department a better customer. The Home Office also needs to improve its programme and project management skills – in part by training existing staff, but also by recruiting from the private sector.

The permanent secretary accepts that, in these key skill-sets, “we are unlikely to compete on pure salary terms.” However, that will always be the case, he notes; instead, the civil service must market its jobs to show they’re more rewarding than private sector careers.

Sedwill has set out a positive message about making sure that staff value their jobs, and training people to give them new skills. But CSW has been told by some senior civil servants that civil service reform became too much of a negative conversation about terms and conditions: what does Sedwill think? “I think that is a general frustration that all of us who care about civil service reform feel,” he replies.

This negativity was “inevitable,” Sedwill thinks, because it was “important to tackle the question of pay, pensions, and modernising terms and conditions.” The Home Office has just removed progression pay and introduced more flexible working terms, he notes. “All of us care about our individual pay and conditions; all of us have responsibilities for our families,” he says; but he believes that as people become accustomed to the new terms and conditions, they’ll be more open to the positive parts of civil service reform. This “very, very positive agenda” is “fundamentally about modernising the environment in which we work; the way in which we work; the tools that are available to us; and the skills that we possess. I think that’s a pretty good offer.”

Charming select committees
One part of the Civil Service Reform Plan aims to increase civil service accountability to Parliament. Sedwill’s predecessor, Helen Ghosh, had a notably poor relationship with parliamentary select committees. Sedwill, on the other hand, has earned praise from the chair of the Home Affairs Committee, Keith Vaz, for his open approach. What’s his secret? Sedwill jokes that he has a good relationship “so far”, then continues that it’s a fact of modern life that parliamentary select committees will be tough and expect clear answers. “In the social media era, there is an expectation that Parliament will be tougher in holding the executive to account. It is really, really important that we get these relationships right. Frankly, it’s not very comfortable: I work really hard before I appear before the Public Accounts Committee or the Home Affairs Committee to make sure that I am, as far as I can be, on top of my brief. I usually get a pretty hard time there, but what I hope they realise is that I genuinely believe that it is right that they are holding us to account in this way.”

Sedwill deliberately avoids “trying to brush them off with a load of rhetoric”, and believes that this approach creates a positive impression among many committee members. This in turn enables him to have a “straightforward and mature discussion about the fact that, in the Home Office, we deal with arguably the most difficult brief in government”.

While on the topic of accountability, it seems pertinent to raise concerns about the Security Service (MI5) after the leaks by American intelligence contractor Edward Snowden to the Guardian. Sedwill is strong in his defence of these agencies and their accountability, saying that “everything they do has to have ministerial approval.” He worked with intelligence agencies in Afghanistan, and agrees with Andrew Parker, MI5’s director general, that the Snowden leaks have damaged the ability of British intelligence agencies to do their job. “This has been a deeply, deeply damaging episode – not only to agencies, but also to security generally,” he says. British intelligence agencies are “genuinely world-class,” and “anything that undermines [them] damages the national security of the UK.”

While the Home Office oversees the Security Service, the department’s newest minister, Norman Baker MP, has written a book alleging that British intelligence agencies covered up the murder of former government scientist Dr David Kelly, after Kelly leaked information that cast doubt on Britain’s reason for invading Iraq. Baker also told the Argus newspaper in 2005 of his “doubts” about the death of former foreign secretary Robin Cook, pointing out that Cook died on Ministry of Defence land (he did later comment that this observation was a “flippant comment”).

Sedwill was private secretary to two foreign secretaries (Cook was the first) in the run-up to the Iraq War. Has he worked with Baker to engage him in MI5’s work and convince him that they do act responsibly, within the law? The former diplomat is at his most diplomatic: “[Baker] is a minister of state in the Home Office. He’s got a [crime prevention] brief. He and I work very well together, actually. This topic has not come up, nor would I expect it to.”

Future of the Home Office
We’re sitting on the sofas in the corner of Sedwill’s private office. He doesn’t have any notes, but he does have a copy of the Highway Code sitting on his coffee table. Why? “It’s a little like the anaconda,” he says: a prop to inspire him to improve Home Office operations. This one is about simplification: the whole of our road traffic legislation would fill the room, he says, but government has simplified it all into a convenient guide. “It’s a fantastic example of how government, when it gets it right, can communicate a complex business in a vivid and simple form”.

That hasn’t yet been achieved in the immigration system or other parts of government, he thinks, so he’s launched a ‘Highway Code project’ to streamline procedures. Simplicity is especially important as you automate systems, he believes, because “if you automate complexity, you just end up with chaos.”

The interview has discussed cultural problems, project management skills, immigration reform and security service accountability – to name just a few topics. If we were doing another interview in three years’ time, what would it cover? Cutting crime, preventing terrorism, and staying ahead of criminal threats – particularly in the online world – would certainly come up, he thinks. The immigration system would also be mentioned. And civil service reform will still be required, “because the world doesn’t stand still,” he notes. “There will be more technological advances; there will be changes in society that we have to stay ahead of.”

“So while the specifics will change, and the concrete challenges will be different, I think the overall agenda and those challenges as a whole will feel remarkably familiar,” he says. But by then, he does hope he’ll have achieved his ambition: “Restoring the Home Office’s reputation with the public as a great department of state, trusted to keep them safe.”

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