Interview: Richard Heaton

Written by Joshua Chambers on 17 October 2012 in Interview
Interview

Last year the cabinet secretary’s job was split up, creating three vacancies; and now the third job – that of Cabinet Office permanent secretary – has been filled. Joshua Chambers interviews Richard Heaton

Richard Heaton’s Treasury office sits just next door to the Churchill War Rooms; and at the time of our interview, that seems quite appropriate. With tensions mounting again between civil servants and some ministers, elements of the civil service feel as if they’re under siege.

The latest clash was sparked by Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude’s allegation that some permanent secretaries are deliberately blocking the implementation of coalition policies. Then, on the very morning of this interview, the flames were fanned by the catastrophic failure of the Department for Transport to properly award the West Coast Mainline rail franchise, leading to the suspension of three officials.

It’s quite a time for the youthful Heaton to take over. Because his department coordinates policy and civil service reform across Whitehall, his work will be affected by the fallout from both events; but he’s only been in post for two months, and must still be finding his way. Certainly, he hasn’t had time to decorate: there are no paintings on the sparse white walls of his office, while the centre of the room is dominated by two sofas that are notably uncreased – unlike his furrowed brow.

Heated times
Heaton recognises that some ministers feel frustrated, “and to overcome frustration we need to demonstrate really clearly and consistently that we’re aligned politically with ministers,” he says.

But he argues that this ministerial frustration is quite rare: “Ministers have said quite consistently that the civil service is delivering, and that’s a really important message”. In particular, he highlights the contribution of civil servants to the success of the Olympics, which the prime minister himself has noted by writing a letter to every public official involved.

The permanent secretary of the Cabinet Office’s answer to the current discord is for more explicit agreement between civil servants and ministers on the actions that must be taken. Sometimes, he suggests, ministers might think they’ve made a final decision, while civil servants have the impression that the discussion has merely covered a favoured course of action. Civil servants must push to get greater clarity, and shouldn’t be cautious about doing so because “all ministers that I’ve come across are really, really content and happy to accept challenge and advice,” he says.

Maude made his criticisms whilst announcing the publication of permanent secretaries’ objectives online; something designed to sharpen civil service accountability. Heaton says he’s positive about this move “if it adds to clarity – and where clarity is missing, the objectives can be useful in nailing down the deal, the agreement, the things that we said we’d do.” He also notes that publication will add “openness” to public administration, fitting well with the transparency agenda.

Healing tensions
Heaton’s answers on the tension between the civil service and ministers are notably diplomatic; he defends the civil service, but manages to do so while agreeing with his minister – and setting out a course of action that could reduce friction in the future.

He’ll need all his skills of diplomacy in his Cabinet Office role, which he’s combining with the job of first parliamentary counsel – another permanent secretary-level position, in which he’s responsible for drafting all government legislation. The two jobs give him a huge number of reporting lines. “My ministerial principals as first parliamentary counsel are the leader of the House of Commons, who chairs the legislation committee; the leader of the House of Lords; the chief whip in the Commons; the chief whip in the Lords,” he says. The minister for government policy, Oliver Letwin, also “takes a close interest in how legislation is drafted and, in particular, we have this shared agenda about de-cluttering legislation”. Meanwhile, on the Cabinet Office side, he must serve the seven Cabinet Office ministers (including Letwin), the deputy prime minister and the prime minister.

Heaton also reports to Sir Bob Kerslake, head of the civil service, in his role as Cabinet Office permanent secretary; and to cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood in his role as first parliamentary counsel.

Clarifying the Cabinet Office
Heaton’s combination of two senior roles certainly complicates his position, but some of his job’s complexity simply reflects the nature of the Cabinet Office. “The Cabinet Office is never going to be a single, hierarchical, homogenous department of state with very, very clear lines of reporting up to a single minister with a single permanent secretary, because we’re different from that,” he says.

Alongside its specific policy responsibilities, such as constitutional reform and third sector policy, the department has specialist units such as the Joint Intelligence Committee, the Government Procurement Service and the Government Digital Service. Meanwhile it works as a corporate headquarters, reforming departments’ administrative affairs through the Efficiency and Reform Group, and coordinating policy via the Economic and Domestic Affairs Secretariat, its foreign affairs equivalent and the National Security Council. Delve too deeply into any of those areas, and Heaton could become bogged down micromanaging the department’s work. That’s why the Cabinet Office employs a number of very senior officials, who report to Heaton – including the government’s new chief operating officer, Stephen Kelly.

Heaton sees his own role as providing leadership and coordination to a disparate organisation. He’s also confident he can do two jobs because, ultimately, he sees both of them as about being a leader rather than a policy expert. He wants all Cabinet Office civil servants to know that “there is a permanent secretary and a leadership team that will help them be even better – by providing coordination, by being really clear about what our values are”. He points to the need to align different elements of the department’s work “by getting communications running in the department, and by explaining how we’re organised by publishing really simple things like organograms.” Heaton adds that “there’s some really basic reassurance I’m giving to people who otherwise are fighting battles by themselves. I’m saying: ‘I can help you slot that into a much more powerful organisation that will help you do even better’.”

“The Civil Service Reform Plan is also big on professional leadership,” he adds. “We are not going to be amateur on the question of – sorry, this sounds like a terrible slogan I’ve just made up – we can’t afford to be amateur on the question of professionalism. We’ve got to be serious about it,” he says, combining a smile and a wince. “I have just made up a slogan, haven’t I?”

The plan does seem to run counter to Oliver Letwin’s recent speech on the civil service at the Institute for Government, where the minister said that “though [civil servants] need to work closely with economists and accountants and scientists and statisticians, they aren’t themselves meant to be experts in any particular technical discipline,” and attacked an “excessive fascination with the skills in corporations.”

Departmental HR staff might be confused by the apparent contradiction between the plan coming out of the Cabinet Office, and the pronouncements of one of its ministers. What direction is the civil service moving in – and should departments be looking to recruit more specialist skills? “The bridging way to answer your question is to say: ‘What does it mean to be a generalist?’,” he replies. “Clearly, speaking Latin isn’t the key skill. Knowing how services are delivered, knowing how to commission services: that sounds quite close to a generalist skill, given that’s the sort of mode that public service is moving into.” So people in ‘generalist’ policy or private office jobs do need some ‘specialist’ skills.

Heaton also defends the need for purely specialist roles. “In addition, there is the need for very, very clear professional expert support and hubs,” he says. “I don’t want to undermine the strength of a purely professional career. There are people who have joined a profession and want to remain being an economist or a statistician or a lawyer, and that’s fine as well.”

This is Heaton at his best. Clear, concise, and managing to navigate the tricky eddies of opinion at the heart of Whitehall. It seemed appropriate that the economist Gus O’Donnell, and then the management consultant Ian Watmore, headed the Cabinet Office as it sought to stem financial collapse and find quick savings from across Whitehall. Now, perhaps it is best that there’s a lawyer in post to deal with the tense wrangling over civil service reform, which is surely set to continue for the rest of this Parliament.

In the past, the Cabinet Office’s disparate, fragmented nature has led to duplication and made it difficult to coordinate its work, Heaton thinks. “I know how rubbish it is when a centre of government doesn’t function properly or confuses its messages or trips itself up,” he says. When has he experienced central government not functioning perfectly? Heaton pauses for an awkward 12 seconds, punctuated halfway by a quiet “erm”.

“I can’t immediately think of one, but it may come to me,” he replies. That’s his cautious, legal side coming to the fore.

Order, order
Heaton’s ability to navigate complex problems comes from his professional training as a lawyer: he qualified as a barrister at the Inns of Court, before spending much of his career in the Government Legal Service.

“Quite often, it’s the lawyers [in Whitehall] who join people together,” he says; he adds that “the Government Legal Service is a cross-government grouping”, so it’s used to reconciling different factions and opinions within the civil service. This is only his second non-legal job, he admits, “so I don’t pretend that my legal skills equip me to do any civil service job; it’s a question of knowing the things I’m good at”.

Heaton is clearly articulate, and speaks often about the importance of good communication. Does he think his lawyer’s background will help him set out his vision for the Cabinet Office? “My style is to communicate very openly, very plainly. If that’s a lawyer’s thing, I don’t know, but it’s something I’ve always enjoyed doing,” he says. “I’ve got an ear for jargon and I don’t like it. I think it turns people off; it turns me off. I’ve always been suspicious all the way through my career, before government and in government, of professional cliques and legal language. One of the reasons I’m passionate about being first parliamentary counsel is that we have an opportunity to write the law and explain the law in plain English. Expressing things in clear, simple language is just what I do naturally.”

One man, two jobs
Both of Heaton’s jobs sit within the Cabinet Office, but he sees them as quite separate positions and will demarcate his two roles. Ultimately, he says, he intends to spend half of his time as first parliamentary counsel, and the other half running the Cabinet Office. “At the moment, while I’m putting in place leadership structures and a Cabinet Office story and working out the things we need to do across the department, it’s probably more Cabinet Office permanent secretary than first parliamentary counsel – but once it settles down, I hope it’ll be 50-50 or thereabouts.”

It does sound like a lot of responsibilities for one person to have to juggle. “Well, yes,” he responds, “but my distinguished predecessors as first parliamentary counsel were career drafters, and I’m not a career drafter. I don’t have, let’s be honest, the skills to draft an act of Parliament. I could do it, but I don’t have the skills that my colleagues in these corridors have. So I don’t spend my time drafting.” This makes the legal job less onerous than it might be, he explains: “My predecessor [Stephen Laws] kept a drafting practice going, so that explains why I can do the first parliamentary counsel role in 50 per cent of my time.”

The number and range of Heaton’s responsibilities, though, must make it difficult to stay on top of his brief; and he stumbles on some questions regarding the details of Civil Service Reform, which he must both help roll out across the civil service, and implement in the skills and working practices of his own legal team.

There are a couple of reports due out this month, according to the Cabinet Office business plan: a review of alternative delivery models, and a shared services delivery plan. Asked whether the first is on track, he pauses before saying: “Um, yes” – though he explains that he hasn’t got the details in front of him. On the shared services review, he is quiet on the timescale (CSW understands that it is now expected next month).

However, Heaton is much clearer about the changes that the Civil Service Reform Plan will bring, particularly on skills. The two clear priorities are commercial and digital skills, he says. By commercial skills, he means “understanding the market; commercial risk; the drivers behind the behaviour on the other side of the negotiating table; and the sorts of packages, deals, and incentives that drive behaviour amongst private sector players.” And digital skills doesn’t mean IT as such, he explains; it’s about “knowing the capabilities of digital delivery of services.”

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