Taking up the roles of cabinet secretary and head of the civil service at a time of seismic change, Sir Mark Sedwill is leading a 400,000-strong team that is growing fast and working hard amid deep uncertainty. He talks to Jess Bowie and Suzannah Brecknell about his priorities, and what he thinks will define his time as government’s top official

Photography by Louise Haywood-Schiefer

As anyone who has served in the most senior ranks of the UK government will tell you, each day brings an unexpected snowstorm. Life at this altitude requires calm, the ability to think quickly but clearly, and the utmost ingenuity to stop the deluge from turning into an avalanche.

Sir Mark Sedwill, however, is perhaps the only cabinet secretary for whom this isn’t simply a metaphor. In one of the stranger moments of his Whitehall career, Sedwill found himself stranded in a remote part of Pakistan after a sudden heavy snowfall cut off all access to local roads. But it wasn’t all bad, he tells CSW: he ended up being the guest of honour at a polo festival, 12,000 feet up. And, while he didn’t join in any matches, he did get to hand out the prizes at the end. To his surprise, another Brit then appeared.

“Michael Palin had turned up to film part of his Himalaya series. He didn’t want us in it, though – it didn’t feel very authentic to feature a British diplomat as he was supposedly in the wilds of the Himalayas.” 

Sedwill’s background in diplomacy and counterintelligence is unusual for a cabinet secretary, but his years as “our man in” Asia and the Middle East prepared him well for the challenges of an increasingly public-facing role. Operating overseas, at arm’s-length from London and in small teams with broad portfolios, means “you end up learning quite early on in your career about exposure and accountability, which often in big organisations tends to come that much later on,” Sedwill says.

“So I guess I developed some of those muscles quite early, and have been seeking to exercise them,” he adds. He is, perhaps, alluding to his decision to write to The Times last October to defend civil servants in the face of anonymous attacks from hardline Brexiteers. It was an unprecedented step for a serving cabinet secretary, and, as he tells CSW, it wasn’t really about Brexit. Instead, it was because the episode threatened to undermine the trust between civil servants and the public.

“We should not be above criticism – we’re held accountable by parliamentary committees and that’s absolutely right,” he says. But this wasn’t about legitimate questions of efficiency or effectiveness; it “was essentially sniping about whether or not individual civil servants were aligned with the policy of the government,” he says. “I felt that went to the heart of the values of the civil service.”

So, rather than asking a predecessor or a friendly external organisation to write the letter, he believed it should come from him. “I felt I needed to show as the head of the civil service: I am prepared to stand up for this principle because it’s absolutely fundamental to the values of the civil service which I lead.” 

Sedwill’s path to leading the civil service was very nearly diverted before it even began – he recently confessed on the website of Oxford University’s St Edmund Hall (where he studied for a masters in economics) that a stint as a scuba-diving instructor while travelling after his 1987 graduation almost prompted him “to drop out and spend the rest of my life on a beach”. Instead, he joined the Diplomatic Service, with postings in Egypt, Pakistan and Cyprus – he even learned Arabic for a spell as a UN weapons inspector in Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq – before becoming ambassador to Afghanistan in 2009.

“When you start in a job of this kind you are essentially first among equals, because many of the people around you are your own contemporaries and generation”

After serving as NATO’s most senior civilian officer in Afghanistan from 2010-11, Sedwill became political director at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, then secured promotion to become Home Office perm sec in 2013 – a role he held until 2017, when he became prime minister Theresa May’s national security adviser.

Last year, he became Britain’s 12th cabinet secretary, albeit in circumstances that no-one would choose. Following the news that Jeremy Heywood would be taking medical leave to undergo treatment for cancer, Sedwill took on the role on an interim basis in the summer of 2018.

A few months later, it became permanent. Sedwill acknowledged the difficulty of the transition at the Civil Service Awards in November, a few days after Heywood had passed away. “I should not be standing here,” Sedwill said, describing Heywood as “unfollowable”.

When CSW sits down to interview Sedwill in mid-December, Westminster is in chaos: Theresa May has just cancelled a key parliamentary vote on her Brexit deal and her fate as prime minister is hanging in the balance. But then Sedwill’s entire time at the centre of government has been characterised by such extremes. He was appointed national security adviser (a role he has retained following his promotion to cabinet secretary) in April 2017, the week May called a snap general election, and, less than a year later, he was a key player in the cross-government response to a nerve agent attack in Salisbury on a former Russian spy.

It is perhaps no wonder he was first choice for cabinet secretary: his working relationship with May – first at Marsham Street, then at No 10 – has, for many Whitehall watchers, been a key factor in his continued rise.

“It’s always been clear from the amount of authority the PM has given him just how much she trusts him,” one senior official, whose career has overlapped with Sedwill’s in the counter-terrorism and security space, tells CSW.

And it is not just May who regards Sedwill highly. “I’ve never heard anything negative about him,” the same official says. “That certainly doesn’t apply to everyone in our world. When people talk about colleagues, there are often caveats. Not with Mark. People always say how nice and competent he is.”

Sedwill is an entertaining person to work and socialise with, says the source, and, while he may exude a “very polished British air”, he is not “gradeist”. “He’ll talk to anyone if he thinks they have the right information,” they say. “He also remembers people, including junior people, which goes further than just good briefing.”

Speaking of his time as Home Office perm sec, another former colleague is also quick to praise Sedwill: “He is a well rounded man, a well centred man, and a good leader of people. He is a nice guy. That sounds bland. But he is very thoughtful and considerate on issues. He also managed well when May had the ‘terrible twins’ [controversial special advisers Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill] there. He kept hold of his reputation.

Given how hard it is to find anyone in Whitehall with a bad word to say about the new cabinet secretary (“a class act” seems to be the consensus among his perm sec colleagues) – what would he say his weaknesses were?

The question is met with surprise, and a big laugh. “I’m not sure I should tell you, really, because then everyone else will be looking out for them!” Sedwill says.

To spare his blushes, CSW tries a different tack: what has he learnt about being a leader, and how has he refined his style over the course of his career?

This is more of a rich seam. Sedwill says the key thing he’s realised is that “leadership is not about you, it’s about the people you’re leading”.

“I think the biggest thing that you need to do is adjust your leadership style to the circumstances of the time and the team,” he continues. “When you start in a job of this kind you are essentially first among equals, because many of the people around you are your own contemporaries and generation. Some of them might have had aspirations to do the same job.”

Over time, however, as the leader gains more experience and their team changes to a group of people they’ve appointed themselves, their approach should change. Sedwill – who periodically sips from a scuffed plastic cup commemorating the 2015 Rugby World Cup final – can’t resist a sporting metaphor.

“You’re moving from being essentially the captain on the field to the coach on the touch line, but you’ve still got to remain connected. And then you hit a phase towards the end of that time where you have to start thinking about succession, and [...] the people in your own team who are ready to ready to step up. So there’s a real cycle and your leadership style needs to adjust according to the point in the cycle, the team around you and, of course, the circumstances in which you’re operating.”

The circumstances in which this cabinet secretary – currently at the “captain on the field” stage of his tenure – finds himself are certainly challenging. Secretary to the cabinet (and a frequently changing one at that), head of a 400,000 strong workforce getting to grips with the biggest policy and implementation challenge in living memory and the PM’s adviser on national security during a time of unprecedented threat.

The arrangement has been described as “suboptimal” by Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee chair Bernard Jenkin. Is it even possible to wear all three hats simultaneously?

Sedwill notes that the cabinet secretary role has “been quite markedly different” over time, as its job description has flexed to meet the needs of different administrations. “I don’t think anyone should think that it’s unique that I have these multiple responsibilities that stretch over a wide range of government’s efforts,” he says.

Indeed, combining the cabinet secretary and NSA roles is not just possible but – at the moment – desirable, he argues. “We concluded that in this era, as we go through Brexit, it was important to bring together the security, the economic, the social functions of government, and create a genuine sense of unity of purpose.”

Alongside the process of “navigating our way through Brexit itself”, Sedwill highlights the importance of carrying out government’s economic and social programmes which will reorient the economy so that all parts of the country can take advantage of Brexit. There is also the “very important security and international agenda” resulting from the fact that the UK “essentially has chosen for itself a new position in the world”.

“So actually my view is that it is critically important that the government is operating with unity of purpose at this stage, in support of the cabinet and the prime minister, and that will define my period as cabinet secretary,” he says. “Once we’re through that [leaving the EU], what the right institutional arrangements are thereafter we’ll have to see.”

To see government operating with a unity of purpose has also been one of Sedwill’s key aims as national security adviser. It was to this end that, after completing the National Security Capability Review, he launched the so-called Fusion Doctrine – a set of measures principally designed to improve collective working around national security )see box).

And fostering a sense of shared endeavour is clearly one of his guiding principles more generally: in his first letter to the civil service as cabinet secretary he told staff that he wanted their work to be led by the themes of “teamwork and impact”.

“Most public servants, civil servants included, are team players. If you aren’t, you tend to choose a different vocation in life,” he tells CSW. “Therefore, I don’t think it’s a behavioural and cultural issue in that sense. Government has very strong vertical structures, but horizontal structures are not so strong and that’s partly just the way government has evolved.”

So, he explains, he wants to build on previous programmes – from the Blair-era focus on joined-up government to the Fusion Doctrine – which have tried to strengthen cross-Whitehall working, but he also wants to extend those programmes beyond government.

“Teamwork isn’t just about government itself functioning effectively across those different departments and disciplines, but functioning effectively with others elsewhere in the public service and private sector and the third sector,” he says. He cites multi-agency safeguarding hubs and the Troubled Families programme as “impressive examples” from the grassroots level. These kinds of partnerships, where citizens can receive a coherent service without having to navigate the complexity of government are, he says, where “teamwork and impact come together”.

Yet how to truly break down organisational silos is an age-old Whitehall headache. Individual officials may have the will to find joined-up approaches to policy problems, but they are constantly thwarted by those rigid vertical structures. Can Sedwill offer any concrete examples of how he plans to achieve real change?

“Actually, there is something we can do,” Sedwill says, explaining that his time working on national security has taught him valuable lessons about how to bring all of the interested parties together around an issue. “You need a strategic plan that essentially is detached from individual departmental preoccupations,” he adds.

Rather than using joint budgets or high level agreements such as New Labour’s Public Service Agreements, he wants to see organisations working together to produce a clear set of strategic objectives, allocating responsibilities and then integrating those objectives into departments’ and agencies’ own business plans.

“It’s about aligning activity,” he says. “So rather than saying every issue needs to have its own budget and so on – that’s been tried in the past – it’s actually saying: we need the NHS to do this piece of work, we need adult social services to do that piece of work; we need housing to do this piece of work. Get everyone to agree that’s the answer to the particular set of issues, and devote resources to deliver an outcome, recognising it’s a common endeavour.”

This is similar to the approach being taken for Brexit preparations – witness units like the Border Planning Group – and it’s the sort of work that Sedwill will be encouraging in the Spending Review.

“Rather than looking at individual departments, bids and priorities, I’ll be looking at about half a dozen cross-cutting themes across security policy, social policy and economic policy that reflect the main priorities of government and asking: how do we make sure we have a coherent, comprehensive, balanced approach?”

Britain’s departure from the EU may have dominated the headlines for months, but for most of the hundreds of thousands of officials whom Sedwill now leads, the political drama of Brexit is far from their everyday working lives. What does he think their main concerns are, and how will he address them?

Sedwill agrees that while “everyone thinks that the only thing we’re doing is Brexit... most of the civil service is providing public services to their fellow citizens”.

“So they are concerned about all the things they have always been concerned about: the quality of those services, and the resources devoted to them,” he says. “Are we pursuing the digital agenda and modernising those services? Are they able to deliver the level of services they want to the public? And, of course, [they are concerned about] their own opportunities and conditions.

“We have to remember that is what most public and civil servants are doing, and they want to know that the leadership of the civil service [...] is pursuing those programmes of work with the same energy and commitment that obviously you must bring to Brexit itself. Of course we are, but it isn’t in the headlines in the same way at the moment.”

Sedwill’s mention of “opportunities and conditions” brushes over an issue that dominates CSW’s headlines: pay. As the public sector pay cap was lifted last year, other public servants found themselves receiving – or in line for – pay rises bigger than those on offer in Whitehall. Civil service pay rises remained capped at 1-1.5%, prompting unions to launch a judicial review into how the decision was reached.

Evidence submitted by government showed that civil service HR leaders and perm secs – worried about affordability – stuck to a maximum increase of 1.5%, despite an initial suggestion from the Cabinet Office that pay could be increased by up to 2%. FDA general secretary Dave Penman wrote in CSW that “absent from the entire process was any real consideration for what staff would want or indeed what might be necessary to motivate, reward and recruit”. For Penman, the 2018 pay round demonstrated that the civil service was heading for “a crisis” if the government didn’t accept the need for a comprehensive review of pay.

Does Sedwill recognise this sense of crisis, and the need for a full review?

“Whether the answer is a full review of pay or not I’m not sure. But of course I recognise, and I have experienced, the fact that there’s been a suppression on pay for a long period,” he replies, before adding that although this suppression is now being eased, “there still needs to be control because pay is a very large part of the resources that the taxpayer provides to government”.

“My own view is that we will need to create more flexibility, but that flexibility needs to come alongside reform as well,” he adds.

“It is critically important that the government is operating with unity of purpose at this stage, in support of the cabinet and the prime minister, and that will define my period as cabinet secretary”

But the pay discussions revealed by the judicial review showed that permanent secretaries agreed to hold a joint line across the service rather than taking advantage of delegated freedoms. Pushed on whether perm secs are actually availing themselves of the opportunities for leeway, Sedwill says that while creating a flexible pay system is important, “you’ve got to remember that if one group get more, another group are going to get less, and you have to manage that”.

In terms of broader civil service reform, Sedwill has made it clear that he and civil service chief executive John Manzoni will continue to drive the Brilliant Civil Service agenda which began under Jeremy Heywood. During December’s PACAC hearing, Sedwill listed improving diversity and building capability among his priorities as cabinet secretary, but noted that Manzoni is taking on parts of this work that were previously under Heywood’s jurisdiction.

“It is quite organic,” Sedwill told MPs. “John chairs certain meetings that Jeremy Heywood [...] might have chaired, or that I attend, rather than chair, so I don’t have that particular burden. Essentially, we have created a strong team around the two of us to ensure we have that resilience across the system.”

And what of Sedwill’s personal resilience, in such a demanding job during such dramatic times? As in previous high-pressure roles, he is, he says, strict with himself about carving out time away from the office. While he is posing for photographs, CSW notices a standing desk, on which the new cabinet secretary has displayed a collection of coins given to him by the great and good over his diplomatic career. Among them sits a small smiley face made of plastic beads, created by “my daughter when she was little”. It’s a touching mixture of the professional and the personal.

When he is at home in the South West – he does the weekly commute to Whitehall – he tries to switch off and be “in the moment” with his family as much as possible. Walking the dog, and the company of “friends who don’t spend all their time thinking about the sorts of things that are the preoccupation of central government”, also help.

“It’s the only way that one, certainly that I, could do this job, and do it successfully,” he says.

The Fusion Doctrine

Speaking to the Defence Select Committee in May last year, Sedwill described the Fusion Doctrine as a means of ensuring the UK is “deploying the full set of our national security, economic and influence capabilities... against the full set of our national security, economic and influence goals”.

For government, this means the creation of some new structures and roles to support the National Security Council with both strategy and delivery. For example, there are now implementation groups headed by senior responsible owners for each of the NSC’s priorities.

The doctrine also sets out government’s plans to link economic and national security goals, as well as ensuring that all of the nation’s capabilities (not just those controlled by government) are being coordinated to protect national security.

Speaking to CSW, Sedwill reflects that the doctrine has grown from government’s response to the Chilcot report, and is designed to ensure there is not only proper rigour and process when strategy is set and decisions are made, but that there are effective mechanisms to deliver those decisions using all of government’s capabilities as well as its “catalytic” ability to get other partners involved in reaching strategic aims.


Sedwill on... Windrush

As the Windrush crisis unfolded over the spring of 2018, many commentators wondered why it had taken the Home Office so long to spot a problem which had been brewing for some time. Similarly on Universal Credit, early warnings about the system were ignored until the stories of impact on individuals became impossible to ignore. How does Sedwill think government can get better at spotting and averting this sort of policy problem? The answer, he says is to ensure that frontline staff have the opportunity to “feed up quickly and effectively any tensions or problems they see arising”.

“That means ensuring that we allow people the discretion to feed concerns up, and we trust their judgement,” he says. “I have experienced this myself when I was in the Home Office: someone somewhere was aware that a problem was bubbling away, but didn’t quite have the mechanism to raise it.” He adds that it’s not only important for frontline staff to raise concerns, but for those with policy responsibilities to take account of those concerns.

Is there anything he could have done differently when he was perm sec at the Home Office to avert the Windrush crisis? “I don’t know,” he replies, “because I don’t yet know what the lessons that will come out [of the review] are. As I understand it, the fundamental problem was that people were misinterpreting some of the legal guidance. I wasn’t aware of that problem. And, of course, had it been brought to my attention I would have sought to do something about it.”

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