By Matt Ross

29 Jul 2014

As the search begins for a new head of the civil service, read the last interview by incumbent Sir Bob Kerslake – interviewed with the new titular head of the civil service Sir Jeremy Heywood. Words by Matt Ross; picture by Mark Weeks

"Psychedelic!” Sir Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary of the UK government, admired the Bridget Riley picture he’s borrowed from the Government Art Collection. A circular, black and white fractal design, it – like Heywood – was created in the early 1960s. And there are faint hints of a ‘60s ethos around the cabinet secretary: educated in a Quaker school, he has a bust of Gandhi on his desk – “Not a role model, but an inspiration,” he once told CSW – and on a warm June day, he and head of the civil service Sir Bob Kerslake were trotting around the Cabinet Office in shirt sleeves.

There, however, the hints end. Though impeccably polite, Heywood’s manner is clipped and precise, and he allows only flickers of wry humour to emerge whilst the dictaphone’s running. This is, given the circumstances, entirely appropriate: civil servants have had it tough for a long time. Since 2010, budgets and head counts have fallen, we’ve seen substantial organisational and structural reforms, and unnamed ministers have used the media to fire salvoes at their own workforce. With years of austerity still to come, civil servants are poorer, fewer and more stretched than in 2010 – and now a general election looms.

The last year of a Parliament is always a complex time for Whitehall, as officials rush to complete the government’s agenda whilst discreetly preparing for a change of administration. And this time, things are particularly awkward: as the coalition parties position themselves for the battle ahead, tensions are visible both between and within them. Is it becoming harder to broker policy agreements as we near the election? “Not really. I think the relations at the top of the coalition are as strong as ever,” replied Heywood, deploying all his linguistic precision. “They’re both determined to see this through, and to serve the full five years.” There is anyway little new policy to agree: “All the permanent secretaries are very focused on delivering the remainder of the Coalition Agreement, and the further commitments that have been made during the course of the Parliament,” he added “There are still 102 commitments left to deliver, and so I think – as you would expect in the fifth year of a Parliament – more of the focus is on implementation of previous commitments rather than on new policy.”

Those commitments will, in many cases, be delivered by a new set of ministers: in preparation for the election, the PM promoted a set of new and female faces to high-profile jobs in a reshuffle described by former cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell as “presentational”. Meanwhile, Kerslake announced that this autumn he’ll be handing his role as head of the civil service to a new civil service ‘chief executive’, and early next year he’ll retire from his other job as the communities department permanent secretary. These changes emerged after this interview was conducted – for the details see our news coverage here, here, here and here  – but he was almost certainly aware of their main points at the time.

The timing of Kerslake’s retirement is significant: he’ll be turning 60, and a February departure will give his replacement a couple of months to prepare for the election. With hindsight, it is also interesting that many of his comments during the interview concerned policy delivery, whilst Heywood spoke at length about civil service reform.  “Between now and next May, we have a really important challenge: to deliver this government’s agenda,” Kerslake said. “Alongside that, we have to prepare for the outcome of the election, and to deliver reform. Delivering the government’s priorities is absolutely centre stage.” Civil service reform is a key element of that, added Heywood: “The reform programme is a means to an end, and that end is an effective civil service that delivers what the government demands of us. We’ve got to do the day job very well, prepare for whatever comes next, and make sure we have the capability, flexibility and understanding to deliver for the future government.”

Though the pair’s Cabinet Office minders have always been concerned that media commentators will identify points of conflict between the pair, in fact Kerslake and Heywood have worked well together. Yet their styles are very different. Last month, former education special adviser Dominic Cummings gave an interview to The Times attacking the principle of a permanent civil service, and claiming that the PM and chancellor are confounded by officials “who say, ‘Yes chancellor, yes prime minister, we’ll sort your problem tomorrow’. But nothing happens.” Is that a fair criticism? “No, it’s an extremely unfair criticism,” said Heywood sharply. “But beyond that I really don’t want to comment, because frankly it’s not an article that any of us took at all seriously.”

Kerslake, affable and softly-spoken as ever, took another tack: “It’s not useful for us to get into a debate with Dominic Cummings,” he said. “But look at the track record of delivery: see how much of the coalition programme has been delivered, notwithstanding the fact that we’ve seen a 16 or 17% reduction in the size of the civil service. On any measure, a huge amount has been delivered on behalf of the government by civil servants.”

In fact, Cummings’ attack ended a year of public truce in the relationship between politicians and officials. Last July, the Independent ran a set of critical comments about Kerslake, attributing them to figures close to the PM; but following that, the anonymous briefings that had characterised the previous two years died away. “It was very overstated: this sense of a crisis between the mandarins and the ministers,” said Heywood. “We never recognised that picture, but it’s good that that sort of story has disappeared from our press – for the moment, anyway.”

Kerslake acknowledged that the anonymous briefings were damaging. Such briefings were always “fairly few and far between,” he said, “but they had a disproportionate effect.” So why did they stop? “There were some very unfortunate briefings against named civil servants, including Bob,” replies Heywood. “The prime minister and other ministers deplored that and didn’t support it in any way, and made that very clear to us.” In the veiled world of such anonymous attacks, only those right at the heart of things will ever know exactly who said what – but perhaps, in this case, the PM did call a halt.

If so, his word did not hold – for whilst Kerslake had planned to announce his departure in a speech on the afternoon of 15 July, in the event a ‘government source’ leaked the news to Newsnight the previous evening. Bringing forward his speech, Kerslake added a few choice comments about the poisonous effect of such anonymous briefings: calling them a “no-win game,” he said pointedly that they damage both ministers and officials.

It has been an unwelcome part of Kerslake’s job to defend the civil service against the criticisms of anonymous special advisers. Asked whether staff are confident that their leaders are standing up for them against this kind of attack, Kerslake agreed that “it is a very common question when I go out and about, talking to civil servants. And what I always say is that I am both the champion of the civil service, and the champion of change. I stand up for the civil service and make the case to ministers for what it’s achieved – but I also say that the world is changing, and we need to change with it.”

Heywood chipped in: “If we feel that civil servants are being unfairly criticised, we do take that up; we do see it as our role”, he said. “But I have always taken the view that that is best done in private, because often those criticisms are ill-informed and don’t reflect what people actually think. So rather than having a huge argument in public, it’s much better to just take it up directly with the person who is accused of saying something, and to put the record straight.”

We moved on to the Civil Service Reform Plan, but Heywood quickly grew impatient with discussing progress on its many agendas. “You can look at this in big picture terms, and in micro terms,” he said. “And in big picture terms, you’ve seen a step change in productivity in the civil service. Public satisfaction with services, the outcomes we’re delivering, trust in the civil service have all gone up; at the same time, head count has gone down by 17% and we’re saving billions of pounds per year on the pay bill. And this is not a government that has been doing nothing: it’s been delivering big transformations in pretty much all of the public services – schools, the NHS, the criminal justice system, big constitutional questions.”

“Then look at the micro level,” he continued, getting into his stride. “On policy, we’ve got our ‘What Works’ [social research] centres; our horizon-scanning work. The UK ‘nudge’ unit is world-beating. The work we’re doing on transparency and open government is cutting-edge. Then there’s social impact bonds, payment by results – a whole range of policy innovations. On reform, look at the strength and credibility of the Government Digital Service and the 25 digital exemplars; the Crown Commercial Service, and the way it has real experts helping to manage and renegotiate contracts; the quality of project management and the performance of our major projects. Look at the £14.3bn delivered this year in efficiency savings! This is a constant journey; we’ve got further savings to make, whoever is elected next year. But both at the macro level, and in the detail of what we’ve committed ourselves to doing, it’s a pretty good picture.”

This was quite a speech – the cabinet secretary gave other examples, which we haven’t space to reproduce – and revealed something of the frustration which many civil servants feel about their public image. There have been so many changes, so many cuts, so many reforms – and yet some still view the permanent civil service as the enemy within: a hidebound, scheming impediment to policy delivery, rather than an ambitious, innovative channel for it. Heywood, who’s built a career by overcoming challenges to realise ministers’ ambitions, plainly finds this deeply irritating.

We did, though, need to talk about the micro of civil service reform – and here, Kerslake highlighted the work around skills and capabilities as “the most significant shift we’ve delivered.” The government now understands what skills it needs, he said, and has programmes to assess and develop officials’ capabilities. June’s Capabilities Plan ‘refresh’ acknowledged that training provision in four “priority areas” – change management, commercial, project management and digital services – needs improving. “There are a lot of courses already which are very strong,” commented Kerslake. “So it’s not about adding lots more courses, but about ensuring that they’re all accessible to civil servants, and that if we’re advocating particular programmes, those who’ve been on those courses are telling us that they’re really strong.”

In the related field of performance management, Sir Bob recently came under fire from civil servants who see the new system as a form of ‘forced ranking’ – under which managers must categorise set proportions of their staff as performing well, acceptably and poorly. “It isn’t an absolutely forced ranking,” he argued. “We’ve been clear from the beginning that this has been a ‘guided distribution’ – quite strongly guided, we’ve never disguised that – and there were very good reasons for that.”

Kerslake’s gentle manner softened his refusal to compromise, but it didn’t disguise it. The system’s architects needed “to ensure that the honest conversations happened about people’s performance,” he argued, noting that previously “people converged to the middle, and didn’t identify those who were very good performers or those who needed to improve. Actually, the feedback I’m getting is that it’s bedding down and people are getting used to it. And crucially, we’ve now got a consistent way of analysing performance across the civil service, and people are having those honest conversations.”

In general, Kerslake argued, progress has been “pretty strong across the board on the set of actions in the original reform plan” – though he named office IT as a “work in progress,” commenting that “it’s good in some places and getting better in some, but we know that this is an area of priority. There’s no quick fix, it’s going to take time, but it’s one of the areas we should focus on to give the civil service the tools to do the job.” New IT kit is expensive, he acknowledged, but “it’s a good deal more expensive if you don’t improve it”: old technology makes it hard to improve productivity, and harder still to transform services.

As the chancellor announced in June, a new efficiency plan will be published with the Autumn Statement. Asked whether this means more cuts or further reform plans, Heywood said it “will be more the latter than the former: more strategic, looking at areas like digital where further efficiencies can be found. We’re not doing a new spending review; we’re not setting budgets this year.”

This will be a relief to civil service managers, for whom money is tight already. In some areas, civil service-wide pay controls have so constrained recruitment and retention of specialists that leaders have implemented major changes to escape them: Highways Agency boss Graham Dalton and chief of defence materiel Bernard Gray, for example, have cited pay controls as an important reason for changing their organisations’ operating models. Is a more system-wide solution required, avoiding the need for arms of the civil service to seek greater autonomy? “I don’t think there’s a general problem recruiting good specialists,” replied Heywood. “We haven’t seen a structural issue except for in one or two areas where you have to hire very expensive people to do very specialist jobs. Where we do think there’s a case, we’ll make that case to the Treasury – and in some cases that has been agreed.”

As the economy picks up, public sector pay is set to fall still further behind the private sector – but Kerslake argued that the civil service has other attractions: “People like the variety of work; they like the fact that they’re making a difference.” The benefits that must be added to that, he argued, are career development; good training; and a “commitment to promoting fairness and diversity.”

This latter commitment looks shaky right now: the civil service diversity strategy was allowed to lapse last year, and the government has now missed its own March deadline for replacing it. The strategy is awaiting the results of external research work – first presented as focusing on gender imbalances in the SCS – “that took longer than originally planned,” explained Kerslake. It’s the progress of ethnic minorities into the SCS that’s stalled in recent years, but Sir Bob said that “the issue we were looking to address – though particularly, no doubt, on the question of gender – was how we get the most talented people to the most senior positions. Actually, many of the things that might come out are as relevant to ethnic minorities as they are to women.” And Heywood pointed out that men still dominate the SCS: “It’s definitely true that we have significant progress to make on BME issues – and on disability issues, to be frank – but it’s not true to say that we’ve cracked gender.” So both men are keen to state their commitment to the cause; for the nuts and bolts of how they’ll pursue it, we must wait awhile longer. “We should be able to publish a strategy pretty soon,” said Sir Bob, adding with an uncomfortable laugh: “I’ll not give you a date.”

The last reform topic we could squeeze in concerns the relationship between ministers and officials. The government has established a way to create ‘Extended Ministerial Offices’, under which secretaries of state have new powers to appoint civil servants, media advisers and policy experts; but the Civil Service Commission has issued new guidelines regulating how those appointments are made, and it turns out that no ‘EMOs’ have actually been established.

“The thinking that went behind the concept of EMOs is something that a number of departments have taken on board. That broad model, even if it’s not capital E, capital M, capital O, is in place in a number of departments and is working well,” said Heywood, whilst Kerslake pointed out that in the Department for Communities and Local Government – where he’s the permanent secretary – he’s “created a post that covered strategy and ministerial offices, and that was in part prompted by the discussion we had around EMOs.” Here, the civil service appears to have performed a classic embrace-and-weaken manoeuvre, bending with the political wind whilst its roots hold firm.

We moved on to more sensitive terrain. On the Snowden revelations, Heywood rejected the idea that the intelligence agencies’ reputations have been damaged, then clammed up. So we tried Scotland: has the civil service been barred from all contingency planning concerning the referendum, including that for a ‘no’ vote? “Ministers have said no contingency planning,” Sir Jeremy replied flatly. “Effectively, the government is very confident it’s going to win the argument on this, but in the end it’s a matter for the people of Scotland to decide.” But the Scottish civil service will be planning quite carefully – probably for both eventualities: won’t the UK government be at a disadvantage in any subsequent negotiations? “I don’t believe so, no, because I think we’ll have whatever time is needed to respond to the outcome,” Heywood replied. “But as I say, this is a matter for the Scottish people.”

It is not, of course, solely a matter for the Scottish people: we’ll all be affected by the division of assets, responsibilities and liabilities following the vote – for whichever way it goes, there will be further devolution. But this is impossible ground for Heywood. How about the criticisms of the Treasury and Scottish Government permanent secretaries, each of whom have been attacked for allegedly overstepping the bounds of civil service impartiality? Sir Bob rode to the rescue: “What we have is a civil service that works for two governments,” he said. “I think the limited number of those sorts of issues that have come up is testimony to the fact that we’ve managed this pretty well; and if we’ve managed to serve two governments and keep the integrity and values of the civil service through this very contested period of the referendum, then I think we’ll be perfectly able to manage it beyond the referendum if the vote is ‘no’.”

This potential clash between civil servants’ duties to remain impartial and to serve their elected governments illustrates a structural tension created by devolution – a civil service version of the West Lothian question. Do people just have to live with that? “There’s far more in common there in terms of the challenges we face as a civil service, and a very clear adherence to the same set of values,” said Kerslake. “In many ways, I think it works and we have the best of both worlds: they can adapt to the particular issues of their government, but within the context of a unified civil service.”

His comment implies approval of the current set-up. But what else can the head of the UK civil service say? It’s part of his job to strengthen and defend the UK civil service, including its Scottish arm; and thus Kerslake neatly illustrates the conundrums created by devolution across the UK government’s national elements.

Both Snowden and Scotland have, no doubt, been scrutinised by Heywood’s new horizon-scanning operation. This was criticised by the Science and Technology Select Committee as an “echo chamber for government views”, partly because it includes only civil servants – but the cabinet secretary rejects the charge as unfair. It’s a “very outward-facing exercise,” he responded – one that taps into the work of universities, businesses and think tanks. “The select committee may be referring to the fact that the cabinet secretary group that I chair is internal only, but that’s because we’re not doing the horizon-scanning,” he explained. “We’re taking the results and trying to work out the policy implications.”

The output of previous horizon-scanning teams, said Heywood, has “remained in the analyst community, and it has been very good as far as it went but it didn’t actually change anything because it never got up to senior civil servants who were responsible for policy advice, let alone to ministers.” He wants to ensure that this time the conclusions drawn from research enter “senior policymakers’ thinking and start to influence the way in which we plan our policy – and that, I think, has to remain confidential if it’s to be treated as serious advice to ministers.” He did add that “I hope we will be able to publish some documents before too long” – but don’t expect to see the juicy bits.

Anyway, Heywood has limited time to look long-distance: there are plenty of tighter deadlines in civil service reform; preparations for any possible change of government; and, above all, implementing those 102 outstanding policies. And right now, he has a new and urgent task in his inbox: recruit a civil service chief executive who will, in some respects, operate as a deputy cabinet secretary.

Until that person starts, though, the double act will continue – with Heywood coordinating policies’ delivery, whilst Kerslake improves the civil service’s ability to deliver policies. For Sir Bob, this last year has been one in which civil service reform developed a “momentum, going across the whole of the civil service.” A while ago, he added, observers might have thought all the impetus was coming from the centre – “but now reform is a reality; it’s happening, and it’s being led inside departments.”

“We take huge pride in the civil service’s successes and achievements,” concluded Heywood. “But at the same time we are not advocates of an unreformed status quo. Like any world organisation, we need to constantly learn, improve, and test ourselves against the best. And that’s how we see our role: to defend when defence is justified, but also to reform where reform is needed.”



Read the most recent articles written by Matt Ross - Civil service social mobility vision bags top prize


Economy HR Leadership
Share this page