What does a second permanent secretary do and why are there so many of them?

More and more departments are appointing second permanent secretaries. Beckie Smith speaks to civil service leaders and outside experts to find out more
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Rarely does a new civil service job get top billing in a ministerial speech. It was unusual, then, that development minister Andrew Mitchell name-checked plans to appoint a second permanent secretary at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in April in an effort to “strengthen the way government addresses all development issues”.

The role – which is intended to help “maximise the benefits” of the 2020 merger of the Department for International Development and the FCO – is not entirely new: Sir Tim Barrow spent six months as second perm sec last year before becoming national security adviser.

This nonetheless marked the FCDO’s participation in a trend – which includes the Department of Health and Social Care, the Department for Transport and the Ministry of Defence among others – of creating or reviving dormant second perm sec roles.

Some appointees – such as at the Foreign Office – are responsible for a specific policy area. DfT joined this camp when it made Gareth Davies (who has subsequently become perm sec of the Department for Business and Trade) responsible for “a number of high-profile areas”, including decarbonising transport; while the Cabinet Office drafted in Sue Gray in 2021 to oversee the union and constitution brief.

Other second perm secs, like at HM Revenue and Customs, are more concerned with what Alex Thomas, programme director at the Institute for Government, calls “making the department run”. 
The third category includes second perm secs brought in to fill a more niche role or address a crisis. In 2020, Susan Acland-Hood joined the Department for Education to help handle a row over A-Level grades; while James Bowler came into the Cabinet Office to coordinate the government’s Covid response.

As the FCDO shake-up illustrates, these roles are not rigid, but are reshaped according to departments’ needs and, often, ministers’ preferences. When Olly Robbins was appointed the Home Office’s second perm sec in 2015, the portfolio was focused on immigration. But perm sec Sir Matthew Rycroft says he now wants to restructure the job to ensure “coherence” of leadership and to fit with the “One Home Office” transformation programme. “Different times require different models [of leadership],” Rycroft tells CSW. “If the second perm sec did half of it and I did the other half, that wouldn’t feel like coherence to me.”

Instead, Rycroft says he must be “accountable for the totality of the department, not just in the sense of being the accounting officer but also in a genuine, meaningful sense of oversight of what’s going on – but also to have an empowered second perm sec and empowered DGs leading in their own areas”. Work is ongoing to define the scope of the role. 

“Even the smallest departments have to worry about IT systems and data… there’s a recognition that different skill sets are required”
Angela MacDonald

At HMRC, perm sec Jim Harra and his second-in-command Angela MacDonald divide the responsibilities of running the tax agency according to their skill sets. MacDonald tells CSW: “There’s a facet of leading HMRC which is about handling ministers, it’s about technical tax… you’re running an incredibly complicated legal technical environment.

“But you’re also running a department with 65,000 people across the UK, with the largest IT estate, with more data than anybody else, with an international dimension to our work in customs. That is a skill set which is perhaps a little less unique to taxes: running big systems, running big data, running big organisations,” she says.

“Between us, we need to do both facets. The chances of finding that vested all in one human being are, well, zero – even if you have the time to [do it all].”

MacDonald says some departments have reconsidered their leadership structures as perm secs’ responsibilities have expanded. “Even the smallest departments have to worry about IT systems and data now. There’s a lot more going on than there might historically have been… and there’s a recognition that different skill sets are required,” she says.

The Department for International Trade used a similar division of skills to bolster its leadership. In 2017, it was widely expected that the department’s perm sec would be a trade specialist, after recruitment was opened up to overseas candidates.

Plans to appoint “an international trade negotiating expert” as second perm sec were unveiled alongside the announcement that the top job would instead go to Whitehall rising star Antonia Romeo. Some months later, dual national Crawford Falconer, a veteran of New Zealand’s Foreign Office, stepped into the role, with the added title of chief trade negotiator.

Five years later, Falconer would go on to say there was “no way” he would want to be perm sec. He dismissed rumours that he had been overlooked for the interim job when Romeo moved to the Ministry of Justice in early 2022, asking: “Why would I want that job?”

“You don’t necessarily do ‘the big DG job’ in preparation for your first permanent secretary job, but you might do a second perm sec job”
Alex Thomas

Falconer did spend two months as acting perm sec later that year when Romeo’s successor, James Bowler, moved to the Treasury. But his earlier comments suggest the second-rung role has its own attraction. At DIT’s successor, DBAT, he exerts considerable influence over Britain’s trade deals strategy and heads up the government international trade profession.

Some of the expansion of roles comes after Brexit preparations and the Covid pandemic ramped up workloads across the civil service. Recalling Bowler’s appointment to lead the Covid Task Force coordinating the government’s pandemic response in October 2020, the IfG’s Thomas says: “I think one of the difficulties of the Cabinet Office during Covid was that there were too many too-senior people all trying to coordinate with each other. For an enormous coordination job like the Covid Task Force, you can see the value of having someone who was a notch more senior than the other directors general to try and impose some order.”

DHSC also used a second perm sec to bolster its Covid response, naming operations director David Williams to the role in March 2020 “for the duration of the coronavirus situation”. When Williams was picked to lead the MoD the following year, his successor Shona Dunn, was tasked with “leading on all non-coronavirus related work” for the health department – leaving perm sec Sir Chris Wormald more time to devote to its pandemic-focused work.

This move built on the longer-term trend of appointing second perm secs to oversee specific areas while the first perm sec is the secretary of state’s “point person on high priority issues and helps get them out of crises”, Thomas says.

“I also think these things go in phases,” he adds. “Once a few permanent secretaries persuade the cabinet secretary or head of the civil service that they can recruit a second perm sec, it snowballs a bit because it becomes the answer to a management problem in a way that it wasn’t necessarily before.”
The civil service’s rigid pay and progression structure may also contribute to the expansion of the second perm-sec ranks. Recent editions of the IfG’s Whitehall Monitor report have shown the civil service becoming more senior, and “some of the grade proliferation is definitely a consequence of pay restraint,” says Jill Rutter, a senior fellow at the think tank.

Thomas says the IfG has observed that “pay pinches most tightly at the bottom and at the top” of the civil service grade structure. “In the middle, some of the pay squeeze has been resolved by promoting people more… at the top, you can’t resolve it [as simply] by promotion. The way that you can resolve it by promotion is by creating an expanded grade of second perm secs,” he says.

But Thomas says ambitious civil servants are less likely to be influenced by pay than by “the work, progression and status” – all of which a second perm sec title provides.

Both Rutter and Thomas note that in some cases, job roles may be created with specific people in mind. Simply put, Thomas says, “there are people who will do a job if they get the bump up to permanent secretary”.

“You can entirely imagine [in some cases], a permanent secretary or the cabinet secretary wants someone to do a job and part of the discussion around that is whether it gets permanent secretary rank,” he adds.

While in many cases this may be warranted, Rutter warns that “what you don’t really want is to have a proliferation which is induced by trying to get around pay restraint or to give somebody a consolation prize for not getting the top job”.

The increase in second-rung jobs is also having a broader effect on top-ranking civil servants’ careers. “The fashion seems to have been recently that you don’t necessarily do ‘the big DG job’ in preparation for your first permanent secretary job, but you might do a second perm sec job,” Thomas says.

One job in particular – Economic and Domestic Affairs Secretariat DG in the Cabinet Office – has for some time “been the proving ground to move fairly rapidly into first perm sec jobs”, Thomas notes. Serving perm secs Wormald, Romeo and Sarah Healey are all alumni.

James Bowler, a former PPS to the chancellor and then to the PM, was second perm sec at the Cabinet Office and DIT before becoming Treasury perm sec; while Davies spent a year in DfT’s number-two job before being appointed to lead the trade department.

This route has been well-trodden at the Treasury in particular. Sir Tom Scholar had five years as second perm sec under his belt before moving up; while former cabinet secretaries Robin Butler and Andrew Turnbull both spent time in the same role. But the recent creation of new jobs has opened up this career path to more high fliers, and Thomas predicts the trend will be “self-sustaining”.
MacDonald says the job serves as a valuable “growth stepping stone” for prospective heads of government departments. “It’s a big step up to go from being a director general to ‘here’s a department, would you like to be a permanent secretary?’” she says. This route also generates “a good succession pipeline of first permanent secretaries” for when top jobs open up, she adds.

But adding a second perm sec role can create risks too. “It can confuse accountability in departments,” Thomas says. “From the outside, it’s harder to work out exactly who’s responsible for what – and internally, unless you’ve got very clear descriptions of the roles people do… that could create some tensions, confusions, lack of clarity.”

There has also been some concern that the increase in second perm secs could “undermine the authority” of the DGs leading civil service functions, who must sometimes go “toe to toe” with departments, Thomas says.

What is clear is that – for now at least – second perm secs are set to stay in many departments. And, as Rutter points out, “people never get downgraded”. Perm secs – first and second – will keep their rank as long as they stay in government.

MacDonald says the role is now “firmly established” as part of departments’ “structural toolkit”. “As departments ebb and flow, as there are machinery of government changes, as secretaries of state have opinions about how they want to run their departments, I could imagine you might see the format change,” she says.

“I can’t see it retreating because it’s introducing valuable capacity and real added value. I can’t see that going anywhere.”

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