By Jess Bowie

19 Oct 2015

Sir Jeremy Heywood has been at the centre of power in Britain for longer than any prime minister. In a wide-ranging interview, Jess Bowie asks the cabinet secretary and head of the civil service about budget cuts, Whitehall pay, the Chilcot Inquiry – and whether he ever feels like throwing it all in

There is every chance, when counting the jobs that make up the cabinet secretary’s role, of running out of fingers. The prime minister’s closest confidante, as well as his adviser on the biggest decisions of the day (immigration, extremism, contentious private sector mergers), you also hold yourself accountable for delivering the government’s manifesto (the current government has 517 official priorities). 

You must oversee inquiries into highly sensitive issues (leaks, wayward ministers), while also being a moving – yet unspeaking – target for journalists, some of whom delight in portraying you as Machiavellian and “the man who is really running Britain”. In between this, there is the work that the job title demands, literally: preparing the Cabinet’s agenda each week and filing minutes of its meetings that can stretch beyond 5,000 words. 

Yet there is more. You are also head of the civil service, leading a workforce of 440,000 people, directly line-managing 30 senior leaders, and overseeing a huge programme of Whitehall reform against a backdrop of extended public sector cutbacks, during which you must try to maintain morale even as many of your staff face the prospect of losing their jobs. 

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The amount of responsibility that rests on Sir Jeremy Heywood’s shoulders is nothing short of dizzying. It’s a pleasing irony, then, to discover that the man who sits at the peak of British officialdom – and has spent years breathing the rarefied air inside Number 10 – does not, in fact, have much of a head for heights. 

The revelation comes towards the end of our interview, which takes place in the unlikely venue of a Bristol concert hall. Heywood, here to attend this year’s Civil Service Live, is recalling the previous weekend: “I’ve got a 13-year-old son, and 11-year-old twins, a boy and a girl. So we spent half a day in the British Museum with one of my sons – he’s obsessed with the Sumerians – and then we went to see Everest. Although I didn’t actually watch it because I get terrible vertigo…” 

Does he mean he sat in the cinema with his hands over his eyes? “No, no,” the cabinet secretary clarifies. “I met them for dinner afterwards.” It’s hard to imagine that Heywood – a known workaholic – did not spent the intervening hours working: he and his wife Suzanne, a top consultant at McKinsey, both seem adept at juggling hugely demanding jobs with family life. (When his children were younger, the sight of Heywood talking to a senior minister on his mobile while simultaneously “adjudicating a Lego competition” was not uncommon, Suzanne once told The Times). During the same weekend, Heywood found time to visit his mother, a retired archaeologist (his father was a teacher), and watch his beloved Manchester United beat Southampton, which was “extremely gratifying”. 

The Kate Moss of government

If life appears to be impossibly busy for the 53-year-old Heywood – “Thank you for revealing how you spend 48 hours a day,” the Institute for Government’s Peter Riddell said to him, during a recent event about the cabinet secretary’s role – he is at least used to the demands of life at the centre of power. In 1992 he was principal private secretary to Norman Lamont during the Black Wednesday crisis, when a young David Cameron was the chancellor’s special adviser. By 9/11, he had taken up the same role with the prime minister, Tony Blair. Jonathan Powell, Downing Street’s former chief of staff, has spoken of Heywood’s “preternatural calm” as he helped coordinate Britain’s response to the terror attacks. After a three-year diversion to investment banking with Morgan Stanley, Heywood returned to Whitehall. In 2008 he became Gordon Brown’s chief of staff less than a month after the global economic crisis hit. 

“If you’ve got a problem, and you’re a PM, you go to Jeremy,” says a long-time acquaintance. “He’ll sort it out, and that’s been his reputation for decades.” 
Yet for most of his career, Heywood has been the Kate Moss of government: you’d see him, you knew he was a big deal, but you never heard him speak. The same observer says: “For a long time, his reputation relied on being a brilliant insider fixer and not as someone who particularly enjoys, or is good at, doing the outsider stuff.” 

It is generally understood that when Gus O’Donnell retired in 2011, the role of cabinet secretary and head of the civil service (one and the same under O’Donnell) was split so that Heywood, as the new cabinet secretary, could continue as he ever had: as the consummate sorter of issues and – in the words of one former colleague – “the man politicians could rely on to take on huge policy challenges and help wrestle them to the ground”. Meanwhile, in the newly separate role of head of the civil service, Bob Kerslake, with his impressive track record of organisational change, would oversee Whitehall reform and travel up and down the country to meet and enthuse officials. 


Sir Jeremy Heywood photographed for CSW by Paul Heartfield


The role split did not work out, and, after Kerslake stood down as civil service head last summer, Heywood found himself doing both jobs. These days, then, Sir Jeremy is both seen and heard. He fronts many more events (here in Bristol he is about take to the stage in front of a packed hall of officials), he gives around 50 speeches a year, blogs regularly and is also now on Twitter. “People say it’s the most boring Twitter feed in modern Britain, but I take that as a badge of honour,” he says with a grin.

Of Heywood’s transition into a more public public servant, one Whitehall watcher says: “What’s interesting is Jeremy has changed. He’s taken on the new role, and with a lot of enthusiasm, too. He now very distinctly thinks of himself as leader of the civil service, in a way he didn’t until just over a year ago. That’s a really big change in his role that I think people haven’t appreciated.”

Heywood has no plans to go anywhere soon, but if he had a fistful of things he could tell his successor about his current job that he didn’t appreciate until he started doing it, what would they be? 

“Ooof! That’s a very difficult question,” he says.

“The interesting thing about this job is how every three-month period, or certainly every six-month period, is different. So for the last five years – and I was cabinet secretary for three of those – we were focused on delivering coalition policy, and helping the coalition resolve its disputes in an amicable fashion. The last three months has been about helping a new Conservative-only government deliver a running start to its manifesto commitments and carry on the programme of civil service reform. The next six months will probably be dominated by Europe and terrorism and so on. Each period is different. So above all in this job you’ve got to be versatile, you’ve got to be responsive, you’ve got to be flexible, you’ve got to be able to delegate to a brilliant team of people.

“I guess if I look back on what I’ve found surprising over the last few years – well it’s not so surprising, because people always told you this would be the case – but I spend an awful lot of my time on people management: recruiting people, motivating people, hearing their feedback, giving them feedback. I’ve got 30 people who report directly to me, including 26 perm secs and the civil service chief executive John Manzoni. So I spend a lot of my time talking to them, making sure they’re happy, making sure they understand how their performance could be improved, if it can be... I think pretty much every chief executive I’ve ever spoken to over the years has said: ‘You’ll spend a third of your time on people issues.’ It’s absolutely right. So that’s one big thing: prepare yourself to be a, sort of, personnel manager, and a motivator of people.”

The future of the civil service 

After five years of public sector retrenchment, there are now big questions about how to deliver the billions of pounds of savings the government still has planned. When CSW meets Heywood, a Spending Review process in which each department has been asked to model cuts of both 25% and 40% is already well underway. 

How will these cuts work? Will they lead to more “salami slicing” of departmental budgets, or will they precipitate a fundamental rethink of the way the civil service is organised? 

Heywood begins his answer by saying how proud he was of the way the civil service rose to the challenge of delivering cuts in the last parliament, which, in some cases, led to very significant changes in the way departments were organised. Despite the fact that “pretty much everywhere had less money”, public service outcomes either “stayed the same or got better,” he says. 

“So I’d argue very strongly that we saw in the last parliament a very big improvement in productivity and efficiency in the public sector as a whole, and the civil service in particular. And I think that’s something we should be very proud of and should broadcast more widely, because the public like to know that their money is being spent well,” he says. 


Sir Jeremy Heywood photographed for CSW by Paul Heartfield


“Now, as we come on to this parliament, we have to do the same all over again. And of course it will be very challenging because we’ve already taken some of the low-hanging fruit, and we got rid of a lot of the most obvious waste, but we need to keep on finding ways of squeezing out cost. Again it will be a combination of fundamental transformational change in some places – where you’ve got a reform programme, for example. In other cases, it’ll just be continuous improvement.

“Digital has got a lot to offer here,” the cabinet secretary adds, saying that he is confident that tech innovation can bring “the big savings that are needed without damaging public services”. As for whether any Whitehall departments are at risk of being abolished altogether, Heywood says he sees no great enthusiasm at the top for machinery of government changes. Beneath the existing departmental brass plates, however, “you’ll see a lot more joint units, a lot more shared services and a lot more digital platforms that are common across departments”. 

A key question for civil servants is how much of the planned savings will come from cutting staff numbers and increasing efficiency – and how much will come from bearing down on officials’ pay and conditions. 

Heywood says no “precise calculation of that” has been made, “nor have decisions been taken”. “We haven’t got a sub-target for what each of the individual components will be required to deliver by way of savings, but overall we’re looking for something of the order of £20bn of extra efficiency. But that could come through better digital processes, it could come through pay restraint, or it could come through closing down particular lines of work. It’s got to be the whole menu of options.”

However demoralised they may have felt by Osborne’s announcement of another five years of pay rises capped at 1%, civil servants have accepted that austerity will, for the time being, continue. When asked about pay, Heywood’s senior colleagues frequently point to the other benefits of being a civil servant, such as the opportunities for interesting work and continuous professional development. “We’ve got a different sort of offer as an employer,” the health department’s perm sec Una O’Brien told CSW last month. It’s true, of course. But come 2020, after 10 years of pay restraint, officials are surely going to lose patience with being told to focus on their “interesting work”, rather than on pay. When is Heywood going to tell them that there’s light at the end of the tunnel? 

“I don’t think it’s right to talk in terms of ‘light at the end of the tunnel’, because I think most civil servants really enjoy their work, are proud to call themselves civil servants,” he replies. “And, of course, they’re realistic that pay isn’t as much as they would like in some parts of the country. Everyone would like to get paid more. But people understand that the country’s been going through a tough time, we’ve had to get the deficit down and they also know there’s a trade-off, to some extent, between the amount of money that individuals can get paid and the number of staff that are employed. So of course people realise it’s been tough, of course they realise that there’s some further austerity ahead and it is going to be tough for the next few years again, but that doesn’t mean to say we’re in a tunnel. We can be very proud of what we’re achieving.”

He points to the civil service’s annual People Survey. “It shows that people are very engaged, they love their jobs, they like the teams they’re working with,” he says. “If anything, morale has gone up over the last few years. So this is not doom and gloom. Of course people would like to get paid more for their families and themselves. But people are very realistic, very committed professionally, and are producing fantastic results.”


Sir Jeremy Heywood photographed for CSW by Paul Heartfield


Heywood’s remarks are supported and then somewhat undermined during the two Civil Service Live sessions he appears at after our interview. In the first, entitled What I’ve Learned About Leadership, the mood is upbeat as the cabinet secretary and other panellists share stories about good and bad bosses they have had over the years, and impart advice to officials hoping to climb the career ladder. However the next time he is onstage – for a session about the new government’s priorities – the mood among delegates feels more fraught, particularly during the Q&A. 

An audience member kicks off questions by saying that, while officials understand the need for cuts, she “would like to know what thought goes into the stress that goes on us on the frontline in delivering the policies with ever-decreasing resources – and pay cuts”.

“A very good starting question!” says the Department for Education’s perm sec Chris Wormald, who is co-chairing the event with Heywood. The hall erupts in uneasy laughter and applause.

Heywood concedes that times are “very, very tough” for the civil service. “I don’t want anyone to leave today without knowing that it gives nobody any pleasure to visit these cuts on the civil service,” he tells the woman. “It’s done only because it has to be done, and it’s done in the most sensible, carefully thought-through and humane way possible.”

Another woman takes the microphone. “You talked about leadership and leading from the front. If that’s the case, how can you justify MPs awarding themselves a 10% pay rise?” she asks.

After another round of applause fades, Heywood explains that MPs’ pay is set by an independent body, so is not only out of the hands of MPs themselves, but of ministers and civil servants. 

“It’s got nothing to do with us. What we can do is get our heads down and implement the budgets we’ve been given in a fair, reasonable and balanced way. That’s all I can do. I can’t control MPs’ pay,” he says. 

Headline attraction

One of the eternal joys of being a civil servant is that the press can attack you and, however outlandish the claim, you don’t really have a right of reply. Heywood understands this bind all too well: certain parts of the media – ideologically opposed to the very notion of a permanent and impartial bureaucracy – write about the cabinet secretary with vitriol. An “eminence grise”, manipulating David Cameron’s every move for his own ominous ends, Heywood is “Sir Cover Up”, and – as one journalist put it last year – someone whose fingerprints “can be found on virtually every crisis, scandal and major Downing Street decision in recent history”. 

“Nothing quite prepares you for having your name in lights in the newspapers,” Heywood says. And, while he does not name specific stories or publications, he concedes that he gets “a terrible press from some parts of the media”. “That’s their job,” he shrugs. “You just have to protect your family and get on.”
But does he ever try to correct the myths – and there are plenty – that are printed about him? 

“Look, you just have to accept it’s part of the job. Even if you don’t see yourself as a public figure, other people do, and therefore you’re subject to criticism like other people are. It just goes with the terrain. You’ve just got to harden yourself up and carry on doing the job. The only thing that I find disappointing is when personal criticism of me leads to some reflection on the civil service as a whole, because it’s a very big part of my job to make sure that the public, parliament, media commentators – anyone who’s interested – understand the great, interesting work that is going on in all parts of the civil service on every single day of the year, including Christmas Day. So that’s the most important thing, and anything else that distracts from that is obviously unwelcome.”

Some in the press have blamed Heywood for contributing to the delays in releasing the Chilcot report into the Iraq war. Others argue that he has, on the contrary, brokered a deal to enable the report to disclose a lot more information than was Whitehall’s intention. When asked by CSW about the precise nature of his role in the inquiry, he does not shy away from the topic. 

“Quite rightly there’s a lot of interest in this,” he begins, before going on to describe his own frustration at the delays to publication. 

“I can quite understand the public concern and that of families who lost loved ones in that war, I can quite understand their anger and frustration. That said, there’s very little the cabinet secretary or the civil service can do about it. It’s an independent inquiry, it’s a very, very difficult task they’ve been given – they’re doing it to the best of their abilities – and a hugely complicated subject. Thousands, if not millions, of words have been written on the subject, they’ve got to go through all that and give a dispassionate assessment, and they obviously need time to do that. 

“My role has been simply to work out which of the documents that the inquiry have seen should be published,” he adds. “And just to be very clear, any piece of paper they want to see, they can see. It’s not a question of the inquiry not seeing material. The current inquiry sees everything because they’ve got to see everything. No matter how top secret, no matter how sensitive, they’ve seen it all. 

“The only question, which, under the rules of the inquiry, falls to me as cabinet secretary to give the view on, is if there’s a dispute between government departments about what can be published in the inquiry, then I have to make a judgement. So some issues came to me some time ago on that question where government departments had said: ‘You can see this yourselves but we don’t want it published’. [With] intelligence material, material relating to Tony Blair’s correspondence with George Bush, government departments basically took the line: ‘We’d never release this stuff. Of course the inquiry should see it, but we’d never release it publicly’. 

“Actually, ironically, even though the newspapers accuse me sometimes of trying to cover things up, or whatever phrase they use, I took the view after a lot of deliberation – not months, but several weeks, to be fair – that it was right in this very exceptional case that this material should in general be published. And it will be, as a result of that judgement that I took. So I was really trying to find the right balance between what the inquiry wanted to do, and what departments wanted to do, with government lawyers. And in the end, I basically sided with the inquiry because I think in this very exceptional case, for Tony Blair’s memos to George Bush not to be published wouldn’t be right. For the Cabinet minutes not to be published wouldn’t be right.” 

“So you will see, when it is finally published, that there’ll be a lot of material that would never previously have been published alongside an inquiry of this sort. And I think that was the right judgement to make. So it frustrates me a little bit, to be honest, that I’m being accused of trying to get in the way, or covering things up, because that is just absolutely not the way in which I’ve approached it.”

Keeping the state together

In the 1999 film American Beauty, Kevin Spacey’s character Lester Burnham quits his well-paid office job and, on a whim, applies to work at the till of a fast food chain. “I’m looking for the least possible amount of responsibility,” he explains to a staff member. Does the cabinet secretary ever wish he had something other than keeping the state together to do? Does he ever have a Lester Burnham moment where he wishes he could pack it all in and do something completely mindless? 

“I never have a moment where I want a mindless job,” he laughs. He then looks pensive. “In my job, I have the real pleasure of going around the country meeting civil servants working on really fascinating issues – you know, using open data, or nudge – and I sometimes think it’d be great just to go back to being a sort of civil servant with an area of policy that I need to become the expert in and where I could use some of these brilliant new techniques. So sometimes, yeah, I’d like to go back to the coalface. But no, not mindless. I think that would drive me mad.”   

While Heywood is unlikely to empathise with Kevin Spacey’s more recent work as the bloodthirsty senator Frank Underwood in House of Cards, it does emerge during our interview that he is a fan of another American political drama: The West Wing. He is currently “re-watching it” with his 13-year-old son. 

Re-watching? How many times has he seen it before?

“I’m not going to confess.”

A show about a group of people with a strong sense of public duty advising a political administration on complex policy problems? It may not sound much like escapism for a man with Jeremy Heywood’s brief. But, for this cabinet secretary, it’s probably as close it gets.

...whether civil service reform is off the agenda
“It’s not off the agenda at all. We’re not talking about it – we’re just getting on and doing it! We’re being a bit boring, basically, because we’re saying the same thing every time we speak, so people get a bit bored with it. But hopefully they’re listening. So we are doing the three things that I keep constantly saying we’ve got to address: we’ve got to improve our commercial capability, we’ve got to improve our diversity and our talent management, and we’ve got to be the most digital government in the world. So those are the three priorities. All of them can only be delivered with strong leadership, so we’ve put a lot of weight on improving leadership throughout the civil service. And it’s not going to change: as long as I’m head of the civil service – and I know [civil service chief executive] John Manzoni supports this as well – those will be the priorities. It’s difficult to make them exciting. But they are exciting, actually, and we are going to keep ploughing away at those three priorities over the period ahead.”

...the GDS departures
[Asked if Mike Bracken and others left the Government Digital Service because they felt they no longer had a backer to support their ideas] “Well, I talked to Mike at length only last Friday – we had a good lunch to wish him on his way. That’s not his view. He knows perfectly well that I’m a massive supporter of digital and it’s been one of my top priorities from the moment I became head of the civil service. Matt Hancock is a huge supporter. Francis [Maude] deserves a lot of credit for bringing in Mike and for giving this rocket boosters to start with. But Matt is every bit as committed to the agenda as Francis was, the prime minister himself has said that GDS was one of the great unsung achievements of the last government. The whole government is very supportive of transforming government by making it smarter, making it more digital, more responsive. So the backing from the top could not be clearer.
Yes we have lost Mike, and we’ve lost two or three other people. It’s a rapidly turning over part of government. We’ve brought some good new people in as well. I’ve got absolute confidence in the team that we’ve got and it’s got my full backing. It has to: there’s no way we can make these savings without mainstreaming digital. So I think Mike would be the first to say the stories in the press are completely misguided.” 

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