Interview: Chris Wormald

Written by Matt Ross on 18 April 2013 in Interview
Interview

Chris Wormald, the education department’s permanent secretary, is leading organisational changes that go well beyond the Civil Service Reform Plan. Matt Ross quizzes him on the outcomes of his "zero-based review".

If there’s one Whitehall body that’s remained in the unforgiving glare of the media spotlight almost continually since the coalition’s formation, it’s the Department for Education. In part, this level of scrutiny is simply business as usual at the DfE: “It’s an inevitable consequence of the fact that education is an issue that people care about passionately,” says permanent secretary Chris Wormald. The media’s interest is, though, much heightened by both the ambitious nature and fast pace of service reform within our schools system, and the strength of people’s views on the architect of those changes: education secretary Michael Gove.

Gove, a radical reformer and a divisive figure, is remaking schooling with a single-minded self-confidence that takes little account of the views of many education professionals and, on occasion, the practical difficulties of implementing policies. So the DfE’s rapid progress on policies such as the introduction of free schools has been matched by a set of reversals and embarrassments – most recently its retreat on replacing GCSEs with the ‘EBacc’; the naming of a DfE special adviser in an employment tribunal; and a broadside fired by ministers sacked in autumn’s reshuffle.

When former DfE permanent secretary David Bell left at the beginning of last year, Gove reportedly wanted to bring in a business leader to energetically shake up the department; and when the cabinet debated civil service reform last summer, he was one of those pushing for a more ambitious and dramatic plan. Instead, he got Chris Wormald – who jovially admits that he “can’t claim to be anything other than a classic civil servant” – and permission to undertake a ‘zero-based review’ of the department’s structure and operations.

The review, published last autumn, promises steady progress on many fronts rather than wholesale transformation. “It’s not the kind of review where there’s some kind of breakthrough silver bullet,” says Wormald. “There is almost nothing in it that isn’t already being done somewhere.” Yet by enacting changes in almost every field of operations, the review promises to put the DfE at the forefront of civil service reform: the department will be shedding half of its offices while it streamlines decision-making processes; expanding the use of temporary project teams while it regularly culls legacy workstreams. Dig a little behind this picture of a Whitehall mandarin and his plan for organisational change, and it becomes clear that Gove has probably ended up with a departmental chief and a reform strategy that are as ambitious as is possible without compromising delivery.

Feet in both camps
The son of a senior civil servant, Wormald grew up in South Wimbledon and went to Oxford University before joining the Fast Stream. He then spent 15 years at the DfE – including stints as principal private secretary to education secretaries Estelle Morris and Charles Clarke – and argues that despite the current emphasis on recruiting perm secs with experience of service delivery, “there is a role at the top of the civil service for people with CVs like mine, who have spent a lot of time in policy and around ministers.”

These facts, though, only reveal half the truth. Wormald’s school was a comp, his accent remains distinctly South London, and he’s built a reputation as someone who likes thinking about problems afresh; a reformer often found where the political heat is greatest. At the DfE, he caught the eye of former education secretary Lord Adonis, who much valued his dynamism on the academies programme and has praised him as someone who “combines engaging wide-boy charm with bureaucratic mastery”. Having moved to the Cabinet Office in 2009, Wormald subsequently built a system enabling deputy prime minister Nick Clegg to keep an eye on policymaking across government. “We didn’t have a template of how to do it when I started, so it was a challenge,” he says. “I like to think that we got quite good at it – but I would say that, wouldn’t I!” In short, Wormald is a less of a traditional Whitehall warrior than his CV suggests: “I’ve tried to mix up jobs that are very ministerial-facing with ones that are very sector-facing,” he says. “One of the jobs I learned most in was as director of academies, when I was arguing with building contractors and trying to work out how to deal with Japanese knotweed.”

Returning to the DfE as perm sec after a five-year absence, Wormald found he had “an interesting outsider perspective on somewhere I knew very well”. Given the requirement to cut administrative spending by 42 per cent while expanding the hands-on management of a growing portfolio of free schools and academies, he argues, the zero-based review was a good opportunity to “challenge how we do things: to look around the government, the wider public sector and the private sector for techniques that might help us, and then try to build them into a wider programme rather than doing things as a one-off.”

Moving on many fronts
The review mainly retains the bones of the DfE’s directorates and agencies – though its private office, policy, analysis and comms teams are merging – whilst expanding the proportion of staff working in flexible, time-limited project teams from three to 30 per cent. Moving out of six office buildings will cut property costs by nearly 40 per cent, and there will be big changes in IT, commercial and back office functions.

Implementation will be overseen by a new Progress and Challenge Committee – controversially including Paul Rogers of Bain & Co, the consultancy and education business which helped produce the review. Critics fear that Bain’s work in education services will leave Rogers with a conflict of interest, but Wormald argues that the committee “has no role in wider education policy at all”. It exists only to deliver the department’s own reforms, he says, and because “Bain does not have any commercial interests relating to the department”, Rogers’ position provides the department with expertise without creating a risk that the business will skew education reforms in its own favour.

Education reforms, then, will remain in civil service hands – aided, the plan says, by better decision-making processes. Railing against “complex governance and monitoring arrangements”, “multiple lines of accountability” and “slow and laborious decision-making”, the review explains that the Performance Unit is to “ensure that governance arrangements are proportionate”. This, Wormald says, means two things: creating “absolute clarity about which element of governance is about which set of decisions”, so that formal approvals are only sought from relevant managers and boards; and empowering individuals to take ownership of decision-making processes, rather than habitually falling back on a system which has “grown up organically” in which “somebody proposes something and then goes round to quite a large group of people, all of whom have their say, and at the end you emerge with a consensus.”

The current state of confusion around how decisions should be made, Wormald believes, weakens people’s self-confidence – and in any organisation, “decisions tend to filter their way up until somebody has the self-confidence to take them... So rules about decision-making can stop people from feeling that they have to refer decisions up the line.” Those rules shouldn’t force people into a certain decision-making process, he adds – if, for example, it’s “very important that everybody buys in” to the outcome, that consensual approach might be appropriate – but they will both push people to think about the best way to reach a conclusion, and give them the confidence to do so efficiently. “Look at the issue, and decide the best way to take a decision,” he says. “The danger comes when you do something just because ‘that’s the way it’s done around here’.”

In fact, this sentiment neatly sums up Wormald’s approach: he’s someone who likes to challenge assumptions. And one of the assumptions most often made on Whitehall is that, when a workstream has been initiated, it should continue – no matter how long departed is the minister who required it, or how many other demands press in on a department. So the review recognises that a smaller DfE will have less capacity, and seeks to match its resources closely to current ministerial priorities. “In the civil service, if something new happens we’ve tended to make it work somehow,” says Wormald; in future, there will be “explicit conversations between ministers and officials which go: ‘If you want us to go faster, push harder on X, that means something else needs to go slower, or not be done’.”

Such ‘stop work’ exercises are not uncommon, he adds, but “the great challenge is how you maintain that dialogue”. So the departmental board will be regularly debating exactly what its staff are doing, identifying any new priorities, and setting out “where we’ll need to reduce resource in order to increase resource on the new priorities,” he explains. “This is not about saying ‘no’ to ministers, but it is about being very explicit about the consequences of saying ‘yes’. It’ll only work if civil servants and ministers work very well together – and that will be our test.”

Mutterings in the ranks
Wormald’s task in implementing the review will not be made easier by the mood of his staff: last autumn’s Civil Service People Survey revealed a serious decline in DfE officials’ faith in their leaders. There was, for example, a fall of ten percentage points in those saying that “DfE as a whole is managed well”, and a 12-point drop in those who thought that the “DfE Board has a clear vision for the future”.

The explanation, says Wormald, is that the survey was conducted while DfE was “in the review process, but before the results had come out – so it wouldn’t surprise me if staff were feeling uncertain.” During any period of organisational change, “some people will find it challenging... The question is how you manage and lead your way through that”.

Following the review’s publication, he argues, “I’m extremely pleased with how the organisation has responded. It’s a tough challenge – and it’s particularly tough if you work on one of our sites that is going to be closed or relocated – but overall I think it’s responded very positively.” The perm sec sounds confident that, despite the review’s plans to cut nearly 1000 jobs and increase the 2010-2015 admin budget cut to 50 per cent, this year’s survey will show an improvement – and his own bosses, keen to stop the slide in morale, have inserted into Wormald’s own performance targets the aim of improving staff engagement faster than the Whitehall average.

Morale has surely not been improved by the endless media stories about the DfE’s special advisers, who – among other things – have been accused of attacking journalists using an anonymous Twitter account, and named in an employment tribunal case in which the department paid out £25,000. It’s clear, from leaks going back to Bell’s days, that at least some officials are unhappy – but Wormald says that “I see excellent working relationships between civil servants and special advisers. I’m in a slightly unique position, in that I’ve worked with senior ministers and special advisers now from all three main political parties – so it’s not a party-political point – and actually what I’ve observed in all these cases is professionals getting on with the job.”

He gives much more ground when asked about the allegation – levelled by former DfE ministers Nick Gibb and Tim Loughton, among others – that the department’s handling of parliamentary written questions has been poor. “This is not something the department is good enough at yet, particularly in terms of its speed of response,” he says, explaining that he’s introduced a set of reforms including an “account manager” system under which “a single person is responsible for a parliamentary question throughout its entire passage through the building.”

The policy on policy
Wormald is also keen to improve the quality of policymaking; and as the head of the policymaking profession, it is his duty to do so right across government. In each of the three departments where he’s worked, he says, he’s noticed a “a culture of the way things are done” in policymaking; and while each particular approach had “grown up for a reason” and tended to suit the nature of the department’s work, he’s keen to “challenge the culture that says: ‘We do things like this because that is the way they are done around here’. We want a culture where the style of thinking and policymaking is much more dependent on the problem that’s in front of you.” (Also see news)

The perm sec namechecks a series of current policymaking initiatives – the ‘What Works’ social policy analysis centres, for example, and the open policymaking agenda – but his main aim is to ensure that people reconsider the best way to develop each new policy; in other words, to challenge their assumptions and to think afresh. “I’m very keen for people to move around departments quite a lot, because it challenges all your perspectives about how you make policy and how you think about things.”

Asked to name the characteristics of an education policy that’s likely to be successfully implemented, Wormald pauses – then suggests one useful indicator. “When you look at successive governments’ successful reforms, I think the question of whether the most successful school leaders are with you is absolutely key. You can’t and shouldn’t ever aim for 100 per cent consensus – but look at the top heads, the leading edge of the profession; the policies that win those people over are the most successful.”

It’s clear that, in the period since May 2010, the DfE has sometimes managed to win over those key educationalists and deliver an ambitious set of policies; and sometimes, it has stumbled or been defeated as it tries to satisfy the impatient ambition of its secretary of state. Its task will not become easier in future years, as its service delivery responsibilities increase while its administrative budget falls faster than almost anywhere else on Whitehall; but Wormald has clear plans both to improve policymaking, and to strengthen the capacity of his department to make and enact decisions. And none of it requires big, new, over-arching ideas or sweeping change; in fact, applying a universal approach to a host of quite different tasks and circumstances would, in Chris Wormald’s view, be quite wrong. What’s required, he believes, is a bit of fresh thinking about how to deal with each new problem. “The key is to have looked at the issue in front of you and decided the best way of taking a decision,” he says. “What sets alarm bells ringing is when you see every decision being taken in the same way. Just sit down and talk about the issue and the best way to handle it – and then do that!”

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