By Jess Bowie

02 Mar 2015

Outgoing DCLG perm sec and former head of the civil service Sir Bob Kerslake chews the fat with Jess Bowie

Who? Credited with transforming Sheffield as its council chief executive, Bob Kerslake became permanent secretary of the Department of Communities and Local Government in 2010 and also served as head of the civil service from January 2012 to September 2014. He is now retiring from Whitehall.

The restaurant: 
Delicious Italian fare, in a quiet basement venue off Millbank

The menu:
Starter: Seared scallops with fennel & liquorice; burrata on rocket 
Main: Winter vegetable minestrone; squid ink maltagliati with king prawns and calamari
Dessert: Pear tart with ice cream 
We drank: Tap water 

We discussed:

Lessons from Sheffield
I learnt that if you’ve got big, painful things to do [like making people redundant], get on with them, and do them in an open, clear and fair way. People want a sense of structure and order to it. Because until you get through that, it’s almost impossible to get through the other things you need to do, like building leadership and trust. 

Unconfident civil servants 
I was slightly surprised when I arrived in Whitehall at just how reserved and lacking in confidence the civil service was. People often characterise it as like Yes Minister; they really think officials are in charge, not the politicians. I didn’t find that at all. I found people who were extremely reticent about what they achieved and what they did. You don’t want people who are big "I ams", but you do need that sense of "yes, we do an important job, and actually we do a lot of it pretty well". Funnily enough, unless you have that sense of confidence, it’s actually very hard to improve, because organisations that improve are very clear about what they do well, and very clear about what they need to do better.   

Advice for future heads – or chief executives – of the civil service 
Well, it’s a little presumptuous but what I’d say is: get out and talk to people. People value, and identify, themselves as civil servants. Of course, they’re part of the Jobcentre Plus, but they’ll also say “I’m a civil servant”. Secondly, when you’re doing cross-civil service reform, you’re doing it within quite a federal system of departments, which have their own ministers, perm secs, agendas. So you need to keep the ambition of civil service reform well defined.

Don’t try to do everything – you’ll find yourself constantly bumping up against what’s going on in departments. Have a sense of: “Here’s the four or five really important things, and here’s what we’re going to focus on changing.” Thirdly, build leadership at the top, and strengthen corporate leadership. One of the things I did which I’m pleased has continued is the creation of the Civil Service Board, which has given a stronger sense of senior leadership in the civil service. A final piece of advice: probably have a tough skin as well!

Outsiders in Whitehall failing the ‘tissue rejection test’ 
The civil service has a very... a strong culture; probably so strong that they don’t always notice it themselves, which does make it harder work for external people to come in and make an impact. More so than many organisations that I’ve worked at. So I won’t say it always happens, but it’s always a risk that it happens.

Biggest achievements in Whitehall
One would be working at DCLG. The department has genuinely been through quite a challenging process, but one which has made it stronger: better engagement scores, strong delivery on its business plan, strong delivery on government priorities like deregulation. I feel very proud of that. Then, I think, being able to move some key issues on for the civil service. In the reform programme, we have given a number of key areas like capability and functional leadership some real traction, which has moved them on. Finally I feel immensely proud of the introduction of the Fast Stream Apprenticeship scheme, which takes people from school, largely, and brings them into the civil service.  

His biggest regret
The biggest disappointment would be… We had quite a debate about reframing the diversity strategy, and there was a view among some ministers that it wasn’t a first priority, that there were other things we had to do first… So I wouldn’t say we didn’t make progress on it, but it didn’t go far enough. 

Whether he would take the job of head of the civil service, knowing what he knows now
I think the answer is yes. It was a bit of a rollercoaster, and there were points where it was not enjoyable. It was a terrific experience to go in and work closely with Jeremy, who I get on with very, very well; to go to Cabinet meetings; to be the head of what I think is a really important organisation with some great people – all of that was good. I’ve now learnt some things about how to work in that environment, so I think I’d do a better job if I was offered it again! But crucially, I think with hindsight, getting a clearer sense of the mandate, if you like. What is it I’m being asked to achieve? That would have been helpful. 

The Newnight report last July, pre-empting his resignation
It was very unfortunate and frustrating for me. And it was symbolic I think of something I’ve been very unhappy about, which is the sort of “noises off”; the anonymous briefings and criticisms. Civil servants aren’t in a position to fight back. They wouldn’t want to – it’s not what they’re there for. Which is what makes it incredibly unfair. For me the difficult bit was that it was impossible to do anything to clarify things until the next day. Of course in a 24-hour media world, there are endless tweets which you just can’t do anything about, until you issue a formal announcement. So it was very frustrating and disappointing, to be frank. But actually what makes it something you can manage is that you get a lot of people saying very nice and positive things to you, which is what happened that evening and the following day. So it was offset by that. 

That ‘knife in the back’ tweet
[After emergency back surgery in late July, Kerslake tweeted: “Incision measured 16cm. A pretty big knife in the back!”] The operation on my slipped disc was all a bit unplanned... I think I’ll just say I felt like it was time to have a bit of a sense of humour about it all, and I’ll leave it at that! I’ll let people draw their own conclusions. I may not rise to that giddy height again!

Whether he’d take a peerage 
It’s obviously down to the prime minister whether that happens, but if it was offered, yes I would take it. I think it would be very interesting. I think I’d be keen to contribute, not just on the civil service, but on things like local government, regeneration and local growth. [Editor's note: since this interview took place, Kerslake has accepted a peerage]

What he won’t miss about Whitehall
Aside from the noises off, which were pretty uncomfortable, I think… perhaps it’s inevitable, but the civil service is very document-driven… I won’t miss the excessive process that sometimes goes on.

I’ve been lucky, I’ve had a great private office that have spared me a lot of that. What’ll be great about [being chair of housing trust] Peabody, and I’m going to be chair of King’s College Hospital as well, is that I’ll be absolutely at the frontline: direct delivery of services that make a direct impact on people’s lives. 

Select committees
Margaret [Hodge] is very good at awkward questions! Sometimes you do well with them, and sometimes you don’t. So I think that’s fine, that’s all fair. But to ask a question in a way that’s disrespectful and disdainful is not right. Interestingly, I think it’s much less likely to happen if it’s a politician questioning a politician, than if it’s a politician questioning a civil servant. 

The job title 'permanent secretary'

It’s impenetrable to the rest of the public, isn’t it? I remember when I was buying my flat. I went to an estate agent and they asked me what job I did. I said: "Permanent secretary", and the guy said, "Now, secretary. That's a good job. And isn’t it great that they’ve made it permanent!" I thought: "...Well..." 

I was going to add that I was head of the civil service too, but I thought: "I’m not going to do that, it’s too complicated." 

His kids
My son is cooler than me; he’s 29, and a DJ. I’ve been to one of his gigs. I think he probably got some of his music interest from me, but he knows vastly more than I do. My daughter is 31 and works at DLA Piper, a legal company. I don’t go to her for legal advice. It wouldn’t be fair, would it?

I like jazz, hip hop, and soul. My hip hop tastes are probably a bit old school: I like The Pharcyde. I also play classical guitar, although I haven’t played for a while. Maybe when I stand down I’ll take it up again. 

To book a table at Quirinale, visit

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