Mark Sedwill’s extraordinary career shows ministers work with talented public servants. They must inspire them, not just challenge them

The civil service is full of civil servants who have excelled throughout their career. Continued briefing against them won’t get the best from them amid unrepresented challenges, Dave Penman says
Aaron Chown/PA

By Dave Penman

01 Jul 2020

Most civil servants only come to the public’s attention if something goes wrong. That’s generally when the media focuses on them. So for many, the announcement of Sir Mark Sedwill’s departure may well have been the first time he registered with them. Like many of the very top civil servants, he has spent his entire career in public service. After leaving university he became a diplomat, serving in the Middle East where, among many roles, he was a weapons inspector in Iraq. Yes, that got my attention as well.

He was an advisor to both Robin Cook and Jack Straw as foreign secretaries and had a stint at the Border Agency as its international director. In 2009, he became the ambassador to Afghanistan, and was additionally appointed as NATO's senior civilian representative in Afghanistan. He would be the civilian counterpart to the International Security Assistance Force Commander, U.S. General Stanley A. McChrystal, who told Radio 4 that Sir Mark was the only civilian he knew who’d walk through a minefield with him.

He became permanent secretary at the Home Office in 2013, before becoming the National Security Adviser in 2017. When Jeremy Heywood fell ill, Sir Mark was asked by the prime minister to additionally take up his role of cabinet secretary, and was appointed permanently to that role in 2018 following Jeremy’s tragic death. It is not only a career of public service, but one both at home and abroad doing some of the most complex and sensitive work that keeps our nation safe.

It would be naïve therefore to ignore the extraordinary circumstances surrounding Sir Mark’s departure. Any cabinet secretary can expect their fair share of press attention, but what has been clear for some time is that there has been an orchestrated campaign of anonymous briefing. He’s been accused of being a Remainer, a blocker of reform, criticised for retaining the National Security Adviser role, and of course now the subject of finger pointing over any failings in the response to Covid-19.

Let’s also not pretend that these anonymous briefings, against Sir Mark as well as a number of the most senior leaders in the civil service, haven’t been a regular feature of this government. The prime minister tried to distance himself from it in one of his rare live interviews on the new Times radio station on Monday, saying: “I try not to read too much of the negative briefing, there is an awful lot of stuff that comes out in the papers to which I wouldn’t automatically attach the utmost credence…”

That response and casual dismissal of divisive and corrosive briefings is simply not good enough from the prime minister, who is also the minister for the civil service. Whether those briefings are explicitly done in his name or not, ministers and the prime minister have a duty to protect the civil service from political attacks. Civil servants are not only constitutionally unable to speak out in their own defence, but following changes to the civil service code brought in by then Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude in 2014, they are explicitly forbidden from doing so without ministerial approval.

That is why I have repeatedly described these briefings as cowardly. They are conducted in the explicit knowledge that those being attacked cannot respond, and are done anonymously so that ministers or prime ministers have plausible deniability.

As our country faces the combined health and economic national emergencies of Covid-19, as we confront the challenges of a post-Brexit world and at the same time try to deliver on the government’s broader agenda, the civil service will need to perform and reform like never before.

Those challenges will be met enthusiastically by civil servants, keen to deliver on what has driven them to public service in the first place: a better world for their fellow citizens. The civil service is full of public servants like Sir Mark. They have excelled in their careers at every level and have a breadth of experience that simply cannot be replicated in the private sector.

To be successful, ministers need to not only challenge, but to inspire the leaders of the service and the hundreds of thousands of civil servants who are delivering vital public services. This is not the way to do it. It is a sign of weakness, not strength, to try to eliminate challenge: all good leaders recognise this. Creating an environment where robust challenge is welcome should be easy in the civil service. It is fundamentally how the system is meant to work, and why it is independently assessed as the highest performing civil service in the world.

Yet the tactics of this government suggest its strategy is to deliver not only more centralised power, but to drive out those who challenge or are believed not to share the same political ideology.  The result will be that increasingly, we’ll lose people like Sir Mark – and that really should warrant the public’s attention.

Read the most recent articles written by Dave Penman - Opinion: In the office, but out of touch

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