The recent fracas over Sir Ivan Rogers raises a fascinating issue: when do you resign from a senior post in the civil service or charity sector? And what do resignations say about the health of an organisation?
Exactly why he resigned will be a bit of a mystery until we start to get the autobiographies of the period — and we must all be looking forward to Jeremy Heywood spilling the beans (although knowing Jeremy as a former colleague, I doubt he ever will). But let’s assume Sir Ivan felt he had been pushed too far with too little support, and so decided to walk.
This style of resignation is rare in the civil service from my experience — both as a mandarin and in government. You get hired to do the job that the government of the day wants you to do; and that is what you do, regardless of what you believe in and however daft you think the policy or instruction is.
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For instance, I spent a period as one of the Treasury team slashing public spending in the mid-to-late 1980s, trying of course to do it in the most economically and socially sensible way. You argue your point — speak "truth to power" as Rogers put it in his resignation letter — but in the end you go along with what is wanted.
What usually pushes civil servants to the roof-edge is when they are subject to constant public or semi-public criticising, whispering and gossip from politicians and their hangers-on — since they cannot respond to it. That can flip them over the edge.
Imagine being the head of an agency blamed for something which has gone wrong when the real culprit was the elected person whose folk are now spinning against you. Readers can, I suspect, fill in the many names who have found themselves in this position. No wonder you walk.
In the charity sector, where I now work, a CEO’s resignation—public or disguised as "pursuing new opportunities"—is usually more about a falling out with the board and particularly the chair. Your prime loyalty is to the cause of the organisation; you want to do X because you believe it is the best way to pursue the mission, but the board are against it, so you decide to walk.
"Deciding to resign is never easy for anyone, but it really makes little difference in the medium-term"
Arguably the problem in charities is that this disagreement happens too rarely. Boards generally don’t take enough interest or know enough to challenge the CEO — after all, they are volunteers doing it for love (and maybe an MBE or knighthood). And CEOs too often get their own way— even when they are wrong.
This is very different from the world of the senior civil servant. There, their master or mistress has the stamp of electoral accountability and legitimacy. They were elected on a manifesto that is given a sort of hallowed status (even though virtually nobody who voted for them will know what it says). And they can be turfed out of office if the public don’t like what they do.
In a charity however, the board really has no more legitimacy than the CEO— except in legal and governance terms (important though they are). A board is not elected, cannot be chucked out, and its key responsibility is to the organisation rather than the beneficiaries (who can’t really hold it to account anyway). In some ways this helps explain why in the infamous Kids Company case, the lively CEO Camila Batmanghelidjh was able to rule the roost for so long.
Deciding to resign is never easy for anyone. And it is arguable that while the resignation makes the person resigning feel better (or maybe not if they then face the dole) it really makes little difference in the medium-term. The government hardly missed a beat after an uncomfortable 24 hours when Ivan Rogers went; and few charities change direction in horror at the issue the CEO has resigned over.
So it ends up begin a very personal thing because the individual really cares and feels they simply cannot carry on. People with an acute sense of moral purpose are exactly what we need in our civil service and charities. So while we do not want to see too many running away from tricky challenges, some resignations now and then may well be sign of a healthy system.