By Matt.Ross

11 Jul 2012

Following their January debut, the civil service’s leading duo are taking the stage again – this time to champion the Civil Service Reform Plan. Matt Ross asks about politicisation, centralisation, and unwelcome press attention

In January, when Civil Service World first conducted a joint interview with Sir Jeremy Heywood and Sir Bob Kerslake, the pair – freshly appointed as cabinet secretary and head of the civil service respectively – had not yet made their mark, literally or metaphorically, on the cabinet secretary’s office. The lobby was still full of the pictures accumulated by former cabinet secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell – mostly old snaps of Civil Service Award winners and posters with inspirational messages – while the office mantelpiece displayed his framed photo of William Gladstone. And during that interview, Heywood and Kerslake were still evidently finding their way into their roles as the two halves of a double act: scrupulously giving each other a say on almost every question, they passed the baton so carefully and politely you’d think it was made of greased china.

Five months on, the physical changes are obvious. The lobby pictures have disappeared, leaving doleful rows of empty hooks. And in the office, Heywood’s trademark David Austen painting sits above the mantle-piece. He’s brought his bust of Gandhi over from No10, too, and filled a lit alcove with sculptures: melted glass oozes from a scoop in a piece by Michael Petry, beneath one of Elisabeth Frink’s leaping, twisted figurines.

We begin by discussing the launch of the Civil Service Reform Plan. How was the plan received at Cabinet? There was “a good, thorough discussion,” replies Heywood. “As is always the case with Cabinet, some ministers wanted it to go further; some weren’t so sure. We were very keen that it should come to Cabinet, because it needed to have a clear sense of involvement by the politicians. They definitely added some extra points that we subsequently reflected in the document, so the discussion enhanced the quality of the final product.”

“And those who wanted to go further were very supportive of what was there,” adds Kerslake. “It wasn’t a debate about what was there, if you see what I mean; it was a question of whether you did more.” As we talk, it becomes clear that the pair are now much more comfortable in their double act. This time round, neither feels the need to give full answers to questions about the other’s specialism – Heywood largely handles policy, and Kerslake organisational reform – but each keeps chipping in with their own thoughts, adding dashes of colour or definition to a common picture. They have, it seems, begun to master that very political skill: offering different emphases on a shared perspective, without satisfying the journalist’s eternal desire to run excitable headlines about ‘splits’.

Like every effective partnership, though, the two men have quite different manners and approaches. The reform plan explains that the Department for Education is “conducting a zero-based budget review” to rethink its structure and processes from first principles – reportedly in order to satisfy education secretary Michael Gove’s desire to push reforms further. But when I begin a question on “Michael Gove’s review of the DfE…”, Heywood jumps in to correct me. “It’s not Michael Gove’s review. It’s Michael Gove and Chris Wormald’s review,” he says. “It’s very much a collaborative effort between the new permanent secretary and the secretary of state.”

“It’s not unusual, when a new permanent secretary comes in, that they want to take another look at the organisation, at its structure and so on,” Heywood continues, leaning forward in his armchair. “That’s what Chris Wormald wants to do, with the full support of his secretary of state.”

Then Sir Bob, comfortably ensconced in the sofa, chips in: “If you’ve had to take out a third or more of your department, as many departments have, you have to think from bottom up about what you do and why you do it – so to that extent, everybody’s been involved in things which have led to some quite radical thinking about priorities,” he says affably. In other words, the pair suggest, this review simply represents the DfE catching up with everyone else. “Whilst some people may think that the DfE is the first to do a fundamental review, others round the permanent secretaries’ table think they’ve already done one,” says Heywood.

Pressed on the press
Let’s cut to the chase. Will it be more difficult to implement this plan because civil servants have spent months reading in the newspapers about how lazy and incompetent they are? Can you easily motivate people who know that some of their political masters have been anonymously briefing against them? “I don’t think the ‘noises off’ help, if we’re honest,” replies Kerslake – but the reforms, he argues, address many of the critics’ concerns. “The plan reflects the issues that they’ve raised, so where they’re frustrated we’ve picked that up and put that in the plan,” he says. “People will see a plan that reflects the issues that they’ve raised and get behind it, and I think that period of exchange is probably past us now and we can move on.”

What’s more, he says, “because of all the ‘noises off’, people had fears about what the plan might contain that weren’t realised” – so many civil servants are relieved to see that the final plan is more sensible than the headlines had suggested. And Heywood adds that “most of the ideas in this document come, in one way or another, from the civil service itself, so they’re very keen to see us implement it.”

“It’s not been helpful to have quite a lot of frankly ill-informed commentary, not really reflecting the views of the government; certainly not reflecting the broader sweep of political opinion about the civil service,” Heywood says. “Because I think all parties remain totally committed to the current model for the civil service, so I think people are sensible enough to realise that [the briefings are] not reflective of where the government is.” (See also news, p1.)

The final plan is, says Kerslake, a set of “pretty practical and pragmatic” actions that “add up to real, substantial change.” Many of the suggestions come from the civil service, but it does “address the things that ministers are bothered about”.

One of these is what some ministers see as the over-generous rewards for a civil service career. “There has been significant recent change in pay and pensions,” the plan notes, but “other terms and conditions have not been updated and are now outliers.” Here, though, the head of the civil service suddenly becomes rather coy, explaining that there will be a full consultation on any changes. Civil servants’ ‘privilege days’ may be at risk, he suggests, and the government will be considering the recommendations of Will Hutton’s government-commissioned review of public sector pay – which suggested the introduction of an ‘earn back’ scheme, linking a proportion of senior officials’ pay to their performance – but “no decisions have been made.” The government may soon have unwelcome messages about terms and conditions for its civil servants; it seems that Kerslake, however, won’t be delivering them until it’s been decided that he has to.

No politicisation please, we’re civil servants
On fears that the plan may lead to the politicisation of the civil service, meanwhile, both Kerslake and Heywood come out fighting. The intention is to give ministers a stronger say in appointing permanent secretaries, but Kerslake is quick to point out that even now “nobody gets appointed to be a permanent secretary without the approval of the secretary of state. The only point of debate has been about whether – and this has been the normal practice for a long time – you give the minister a recommended candidate, or a choice from a set of approved candidates.”

Candidates must be approved by a panel including Kerslake or Heywood plus a civil service commissioner, adds the cabinet secretary – and that panel “has to make the judgement as to whether this person is fit to be a permanent secretary. They won’t get through unless the panel is confident that they can uphold the values of the civil service and do the job for this government or a future one. That is the best bulwark against any politicisation, and I think politicians of all parties are committed to it.”

Other fears have been raised – including within this newspaper – that proposals to give ministers a stronger say in setting permanent secretaries’ objectives may weaken officials’ ability to challenge poor policies, but again Heywood rejects the charge. “It’s possible to invent worrying fantasies, but most ministers don’t want ‘yes men’ or ‘yes women’: they want people who are prepared to speak truth unto power and give them the best possible, evidence-based advice,” he says.

When ministers appraise officials’ performance, adds Kerslake, the subject is not whether they’re receiving unwelcome advice but “how well civil servants are delivering on the key priorities for the department; how well they’re managing the department.” Another reform – which requires accounting officers to sign off implementation plans and major project reviews – will, he argues, ensure that perm secs prioritise the development of workable policies over purely political objectives.

We move on to another issue which has been making top officials uncomfortable. CSW has been told by several senior civil servants that they’re concerned at the apparent growth in the appointment without open competitions of civil servants on short-term contracts – a way of hiring individuals who ministers particularly want to bring into government. Some people think the government is expanding such appointments as a way of getting around its self-imposed cap on special advisers; but Heywood dismisses the idea. “I’ve not looked at the numbers on that, but it’s not my perception at all,” he says. “This is still a very small number, as it was under the previous administration, and I don’t really see any trend in that. So I don’t think civil servants have anything to fear from this at all.”

The plan doesn’t change the system, Kerslake adds reassuringly: it merely “makes clear how it works.” Such appointments will only be made where “there’s an identified, short-term need that’s been discussed between the secretary of state and the permanent secretary; where there’s a clear understanding that it can’t be filled by an internal process or by recruitment; and where the civil service commissioners agree.”

Making policy on policymaking
On policymaking, too, the pair emphasise that traditional civil servants are not being usurped. While the plan embraces “open policymaking”, Heywood notes that moves to outsource policy development are strictly limited. And his plan to build a stronger evidence base around the use of social policy, he argues, “will be incredibly helpful to the civil service”: the use of scientific research techniques to assess the value for money of different approaches, Heywood says, will strengthen officials’ ability to win ministers over to the most effective policies.

Although much of the coverage of this latter initiative has referred to a “NICE for social policy”, Heywood explains that it won’t be a single institution: “We’re looking at the idea of a whole series of separate entities, all of which might be at arm’s length from government; some of which might be attached to universities,” he says. “We’re still in the fairly early stages of gathering ideas about it.”

We’re running out of time; but there’s one more key concern to address. This plan centralises powers: how will its Cabinet Office champions persuade the departments to go along with it? “This isn’t about a power grab from the centre,” Kerslake replies. “It’s saying that we’re likely to be a better civil service if we operate in a more unified way, but that doesn’t have to equate to a massive centralisation.” Senior leaders from across government will be involved in deciding how the plan is enacted, he says, “so you’re going to get buy-in from the departments because they’re part of the decisions that get made – but once you’ve taken a view on something, you’d look to see a consistent model implemented across the civil service.” The centre will need to offer “good quality support for the process”, he says, but it won’t necessarily own the results: he cites the civil service’s combined HR operation, which sits within the Home Office, as an example of a unifying reform that “hasn’t led to one big team in the centre.”

To offer that “support for the process”, the Cabinet Office will be recruiting a director general for civil service reform (see news, p1) – and Heywood points out that the creation of a full-time post sets this attempt at reform apart from its predecessors. “Previous civil service reform programmes have not always been implemented to the letter on timetable,” he says, with masterful understatement. “So having a dedicated director general whose sole task will be to help Bob and me implement this thing is quite remarkable. I think it shows the commitment that we and [Cabinet Office minister] Francis Maude have to implementing this thing to the letter.”

The mention of Maude is significant here – for the veteran minister has both taken a uniquely hands-on role in pushing through efficiency reforms, and shielded the civil service from the demands for the kind of root and branch reforms that he, Kerslake and Heywood clearly see as undeliverable. “Francis has taken a very keen interest in this, and indeed in the civil service, for many years,” says Heywood. “He’s a big supporter of the civil service, and while he can be a tough boss for all of us – he challenges us all the time to improve – equally he’s fundamentally very supportive of the civil service, and we’re looking forward very much to working with him as we move onto the equally important implementation stage.”

“Like Jeremy and I, he didn’t want a plan that just gathered dust,” adds Kerslake. “That’s really been a driving bit of the thinking all the way along: this is a plan to be delivered.”


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