Old guard, new tricks? Alex Thomas on what the new civil service chief operating officer must prioritise

Recent appointments may have gone to experienced insiders, but the new civil service chief operating officer must build on the momentum of outsider John Manzoni and help tackle persistent problems

Alex Chisholm

By Alex Thomas

20 Apr 2020

New civil service COO Alex Chisholm. Photo by Niklas Hallen

When John Manzoni was appointed as chief executive of the civil service in 2014 after a 20-year career in the oil industry, he was seen as an outsider. The view at the time was that he had been brought in by Francis Maude, then minister for the Cabinet Office, to shake things up.

The government announced last month that Manzoni’s successor is to be Alex Chisholm, previously permanent secretary at the department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, leaving a big gap there at a time when the government is embarking on a huge programme of private sector support. Chisholm’s time in the civil service, and before that as a regulator in Ireland and the UK, mean that he is much less of an outsider than Manzoni.


At the same time, the appointment of Jeremy Pocklington as permanent secretary at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government was confirmed. Add to that the appointment of Matthew Rycroft, previously perm sec at the Department for International Development, to the Home Office, long-serving insider Ken McCallum as the director general of the security service MI5 and career diplomat Dame Karen Pierce to the Foreign Office’s sought-after ambassador job in Washington, and it confirms that this government is happy appointing experienced career civil servants to top jobs.

However, Pierce aside, these appointments do demonstrate the need for the civil service to keep focusing on the diversity of its top team, particularly as they come after the departure of Clare Moriarty and Dame Melanie Dawes, two long-serving female permanent secretaries.

The title may have changed, but the role remains the same

Manzoni was chief executive of the civil service, while Chisholm will be chief operating officer – but this is a distinction without a difference. Manzoni was never “chief executive” and it was implausible to think that he would be, especially as on his appointment, the role of head of the civil service reverted to then-cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood.

Although upgrading the functions may not set the pulse racing compared to high level policymaking, Manzoni’s efforts had begun to pay off

Individual perm secs are far too powerful, more like CEOs of their own departments, with ministers acting as – more or less executive – chairs for Manzoni ever to act as CEO himself. He recognised this and focused on strengthening the corporate functions of government, those activities that apply across all departments: project management, communications, commercial advice, digital operations, people and human resources, property management, finance and so on.

Although upgrading the functions may not set the pulse racing compared to high level policymaking, Manzoni’s efforts had begun to pay off. For example, having a more powerful commercial team to lead and coordinate activity demonstrably improved the government’s response to the Carillion collapse in 2018.

Priorities for the new chief operating officer

Now that the machinery exists, it should be Chisholm’s priority to make it work. The extent to which these functions contribute to – and are seen to contribute to – resolving the big government challenges will be crucial for his success. That is not just total mobilisation around the coronavirus response, but also supporting huge cross-government priorities like the path to net zero, the next phase of EU exit (whenever it comes) and “levelling up” the UK economy.

When the coronavirus emergency has passed, or the response evolves into business as usual, it will also be Chisholm working with Michael Gove and, presumably, Dominic Cummings, on wider civil service reform. Gove gave little away in welcoming Chisholm’s appointment, noting simply that part of his role will be to “drive forward a reform programme for the civil service, building on the government’s existing efficiency programme”.

Whatever follows will be shaped by the performance of the civil service during the current emergency, but we can expect the perennial themes of skills, rapid staff turnover, geographical location of civil servants, accountability and permanence of appointment to rise up the agenda once again. 

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