Jane Dudman: If John Manzoni and Jeremy Heywood had watched more reality TV, they would understand that bringing in alpha leaders isn't always the answer

The recent NAO report and Civil Service People Survey both suggest Whitehall could learn some important lessons about leadership and teamwork from the behaviour displayed on reality television

By Jane Dudman

19 Jan 2016

Somehow one doubts that of an evening the cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood or the chief executive of the civil service John Manzoni put their feet up in front of Strictly Come Dancing or I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here.

But this could mean they have missed a trick in their continuing search to improve civil service skills.

For if there is one lesson that shines out of TV programmes in which people are thrown together in difficult circumstances – chucked into a jungle, say, and forced to eat kangaroo testicles – it is that nicely does it. Co-operation always works better for the group as a whole than overbearing alpha behaviour, by men or women, and helps solve the challenges facing everyone, whether that’s sharing a tin of tomato soup or ensuring that the civil service has the people it needs to run huge transformation projects. In contrast, Heywood and Manzoni seem to prefer an emphasis on individual talent.

It may seem facile to compare the country’s 400,000 civil servants to a handful of slightly dodgy celebrities in a camp surrounded by cameras, but bear with me.

In its report on 13 January, the National Audit Office points out that spending on consultants in central government is on the rise, after a very sharp reduction five years ago. Used well, acknowledges NAO head Amyas Morse, consultants and temporary staff can be an important source of specialist skills and capabilities for departments that need to transform how they do business.

And spending on temporary staff has certainly fallen: in 2014-15, the 17 main civil service departments spent about £1.3bn on consultants and temporary staff; down by £1.4bn from the £2.7bn spent on such staff in 2009-10. Just to be clear, that is the amount spent on directly-hired staff, and doesn’t include the staff being used by consultancy firms on other projects across central government.

But although overall spending on consultants has gone down, the NAO points out that in the years since 2009-10, departments have been making cuts to permanent staff, but have been spending more – between £400m and £600m a year – on temporary staff to fill the gaps. As Morse puts it, this pattern suggests a short-term reduction rather than a sustainable strategy.

There is clearly a need for more specialist staff in the civil service, for a number of functions. They are needed to run projects better, to negotiate with suppliers more effectively, to provide digital skills, and, above all, to manage major change in the way the civil service itself works and operates.

But is parachuting in hugely expensive staff really the right way to do this? The Cabinet Office is reported to be drawing up plans for new permanent civil service payscales to try and help Whitehall recruit and retain specialists at a time of ongoing pay restraint.

Consultant specialists are expensive. They cost twice as much as their counterparts on the permanent payroll. As of 1 May 2015, there were 47 temporary staff in central government being paid more than £1,000 a day – and the NAO report slams the Cabinet Office for not keeping a sharper eye on just how many temporary staff on these very high day rates are being used.

The plans as they stand suggest that Manzoni and Heywood really haven’t watched enough reality TV, or they would understand that, although leadership is important, bringing in alpha leaders might not always the answer – even if it does seem appealing.

Look at the fate of Sir Philip Dilley, former chair of the Environment Agency, who resigned on 11 January after an uncomfortable grilling in front of MPs, who thought he might have been better coming back early from Barbados during a time of severe flooding. That is just one example of where it doesn’t always work to bring in private sector “experts”.

An alternative might just be to make better use of the huge amount of existing expertise and knowledge within the civil service. In fact, it will be nigh-on impossible for the government to bring in the major change it wants without using that expertise.

But this will not be easy, as is clear from the lack of engagement being reported by many staff. A mere 58% of civil servants, according to the 2015 civil service People Survey, feel engaged. The number of civil servants who want to leave their job as soon as possible has risen, as has the number of people who want to leave in the next 12 months. Together, those two groups make up nearly a quarter (24%) of all civil servants. Those are sobering statistics for the future of the workforce.

Too many civil servants clearly feel they are in a jungle, disconsolately arguing over a tin of cold tomato soup, rather than feeling part of a team that could be finding ways to collect points and get everyone out of the swamp. 

Read the most recent articles written by Jane Dudman - Jane Dudman: Time to hear women’s voices in policymaking


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