Civil service chief executive John Manzoni talks to Suzannah Brecknell about leadership, transforming government and building relationships with the private sector
In Norwich, a job centre employee worked with the local prison service to help 17 ex-offenders find jobs on a local railway line. In Hastings, GPs now send patients who are asking to be signed off work to a work coach, who helps them consider ways to stay in or return to employment. In London, 120 young people are in training or employment thanks to a community event organised by a local Jobcentre Plus employee. In Brighton, a Jobcentre client says of his work coach: “I didn’t know anyone could believe in me besides myself”.
In Whitehall, civil service chief executive John Manzoni is leaning forward on his sofa and becoming increasingly animated as he lists the achievements of these civil servants. “They've all done fantastic things,” he says, “this is leadership at a local level.”
When asked which leaders have inspired him personally, Manzoni eschews a more predictable answer (“I could give you Nelson Mandela," he says, but that would be “totally uninteresting”), instead mentioning four women who were nominated for the Dame Lesley Strathie Operational Excellence Award at last year’s Civil Service Awards.
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Mary Scales in Norwich, Gaynor Ripley in Hastings, Anne-Marie Douglas in London and Wendy Perkins in Brighton have all shown initiative, creativity, determination and “probably, bravery”, Manzoni says. “They made a difference; it’s what people in government get out of bed for, that’s what the civil service is about.”
Whitehall should do more to celebrate this kind of leadership, Manzoni says, before hastening to add that operational departments (such as HM Revenue and Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions) and the operational delivery profession are good at celebrating and nurturing this talent. Supporting leadership at all levels is very much on his mind at the moment, as the civil service faces yet more austerity and reforms, which will require strong leaders to guide staff through change.
There is a lot of transformation ahead, Manzoni says, from changing what departments do (he cites Universal Credit
as an example of changing the very nature of the way policy is delivered) to how staff work.
“These are massive, human changes going on,” he says. “Guiding people through [change] always takes longer than you think; it’s always harder than you think.” Therefore, “this next period is going to take more leadership bandwidth focusing on our own organisation than perhaps we have been used to in the past.”
According to Manzoni, this means those at the very top of the civil service must “set the tone”, and make sure all staff understand that leadership matters. The civil service leadership statement – published last year – is an important first step. “We have said we need inspiring, confident and engaging leaders, and that's very different from ‘I'm the cleverest person in the room and I've got all the answers’,” he says.
The introduction of “360-degree feedback” for leaders (which is tied to the leadership statement) is also significant, he adds. It enables the civil service to see “where people aren't spending time with their teams or are not operating in a way as a leader that encourages, empowers and develops others”.
“It's very early days, but we can begin to say: ‘We're very good at this as a group of leaders, but we're not very good at that and so we need to attend to it,’” he says.
These steps will, he hopes, give civil servants “permission” to focus on leadership, and not just those in the senior civil service. To make a real difference, officials at grade 6/7 will also need to be supported to build their leadership skills.
“The world works on relationships, it works on people knowing what other people do"
The importance of leadership is also demonstrated by the fact that it will be one of four themes for this year’s Civil Service Live. The event – an annual, multi-location conference for civil servants organised by CSW’s parent company Dods – provides training opportunities for those who attend, but for Manzoni its importance also seems to lie in the chance to make connections within organisations, across departments and with other sectors.
“The future is not in a series of 28 stove pipes, the future is much more joined up across our civil service,” he says, pointing to the planned estates reforms, which will put civil servants from different departments together in around 20 hubs across the country. “Today we're predominantly in our departments. The future is going to be predominantly in shared space.”
As government moves towards that goal, Manzoni says, events like Civil Service Live provide a chance for officials to hear about the work of colleagues who are from other departments, but based in the same locality as themselves.
“The world works on relationships, it works on people knowing what other people do,” he says. “Things like Civil Service Live bring all of this together in a local place. It makes connections; it creates a sort of fluidity in our system.”
“It’s an important thing for bringing these groups together; it’s an important opportunity for the people who are doing the work to see and interact with their leadership in various forms and that's actually why it’s important for the leadership to be there.
“Being in touch with the people who are doing the real work is really, really important,” he continues, “which is why these events are really key in an organisation such as ours.”
As the civil service transforms the way it works, connections with external partners will be important too: “In a world where the civil service is significantly smaller and we're meeting an increasing demand, we've got to use the private sector more and more,” Manzoni says.
It’s for this reason that improving commercial skills within government has been such a priority for Manzoni and other leaders across the service. “Over a period of years we have essentially allowed our own capability inside the civil service to atrophy,” Manzoni says.
Indeed, commercial skills have featured in almost every variation and iteration of civil service reform plans over the last five years. Most recently, the Cabinet Office launched a commercial plan setting out the 14 standards to which it wants government buyers to adhere. Departments will be publishing their own commercial plans – dubbed “blueprints” – in March, and Manzoni recently told the Public Accounts Committee about a significant recruitment drive for commercial experts. Over 40 individuals had either been or were soon to be hired in the Cabinet Office, with another 40 to come, and an agreement was being finalised about taking “a more holistic view of the top 400-600 commercial posts across government", he told MPs last month.
Among the Cabinet Office’s 14 commercial standards, just three relate to the actual procurement process – most focus on setting out a clear commercial strategy and building good relationships with the market before starting procurement. This is because Manzoni wants civil servants to move away from focusing mainly on cost and price, and towards building partnerships rather than simply contracts.
The combination of a lack of capability inside the civil service and the need to be “ever mindful of cost and price” in the public sector means “we have tended to default to a mechanism which says lowest cost is best,” he explains.
“[But] you can't just do things on cost, because some of the things we're doing are genuinely really complicated, and really novel. And neither the private sector, nor us, necessarily knows what the price of that is. We don’t know how to price the risk involved, and, actually,we don't always get it right first time. So we need not just a price relationship, we need a partnership relationship.”
“Of course have to be prepared to pay, depending on the risk being taken, a reasonable fee for them to help us,” he says, “And we have to be sophisticated enough to know what that fee should be for the particular risk we're asking them to shoulder.”
In this kind of relationship, it will be capability on the part of civil servants that helps to ensure the public sector is getting good value from its partners. If it looks like contracts aren’t delivering value, officials need to be “confident enough to sit down with our partners in the private sector and say: ‘We may have mispriced this one’, or ‘No we haven't mispriced this, you're just not very efficient.’”
For these relationships to work, he says, both parties need to focus on outcomes.
“We can sort out the payment and the remuneration for it in due course, but what's the outcome we want to achieve? I think that conversation becomes a very different conversation from me having to specify exactly what I want you to sell me and then you having to specify exactly the price for exactly the service,” he says.
“It can't be an us against them in the future,” he says, “we have to partner to figure out how we're going to achieve the outcomes that are best for the country.”
Manzoni on...digital transformation
“In almost every transformation that we're looking at across government, technology underpins it. It comes down to some pretty hard things. We are significantly reducing our real estate; how do you think we're doing that? Well actually we're replacing, frankly, some of the activity which is done by human beings by technology.”
“The workforce is going to get smaller but technology will also make it easier for our workforce to do their jobs and that means we need a set of relationships with technology companies. I think it will increasingly mean discussions with that sector about what we're trying to achieve and how they can help us.”
Manzoni on…competency-based recruitment
“I want to re-examine the whole competency basis on which people are hired and promoted. While it's good theoretically, the truth is it can be gamed, it can become a box ticking exercise and to some degree it has. So we need to put some more judgement back into that and say: it’s how you do and not what you do [that matters].”
Manzoni on…supporting innovation
"I am a big fan of finding opportunities for all sorts of people to take risks. Over time we’ve put risk aversion into the system and that's not something that one can change overnight at a macro level. But every leader can ask their team: ‘What's the right thing to do here?, what does your judgement tell you to do?’ and then back that individual's judgement. That is important because that's how you change things: you put back some risk-taking. In the end, innovation is about risk-taking."
Manzoni on buying technology:
"We had a set of big monolithic contracts, and because we were a bit asleep at the switch they became a bit asleep at the switch: it all went bad. Then we woke up. We've changed the way we buy that stuff, we've done some fantastic innovation, we've got the digital marketplace out there and it’s got £1bn worth of sales, 50% from SMEs. So in many ways we've redefined what it is you've got to do to interact with government."