Robbins replaces Kerswell as head of civil service reform

Oliver Robbins, formerly the deputy national security adviser, has been appointed ‘director general for civil service’ in the Cabinet Office.

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By Joshua.Chambers

06 Feb 2014

Robbins (pictured), who moved into his new job last month, takes over from Katherine Kerswell as the senior responsible officer for the Civil Service Reform Plan. Kerswell will remain in the Cabinet Office in a different role.

Reporting to head of the civil service Sir Bob Kerslake, Robbins will also have responsibility for leading work to introduce stronger functional leadership across the civil service by centralising the leadership of key professions such as HR and finance.

A government insider described Robbins as “one of the superstars of Whitehall, seen as very, very close to [cabinet secretary] Jeremy Heywood.”

“The fact that [Robbins] has decided to do that job is a vote of confidence in functional leadership; a sign of the importance Heywood has placed on functional leadership.”

Kerswell, who was originally appointed as director general of civil service reform on a short-term contract, remains in the Cabinet Office and will continue to work on key reform priorities in the Efficiency and Reform Group.

A Whitehall source told CSW that Kerswell has impressed Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude with “her tenacity and honesty,” but that a career civil servant would find it easier to push through reforms. It was “going to be a bit of a sticky wicket to drive a reform agenda if she wasn’t a Whitehall insider,” he said.

Clare Sumner, formerly the director of civil service reform and deputy to Kerswell, has left the civil service to work for the BBC.

The government insider said that the “landscape” of civil service reform is changing, with most permanent secretaries buying into the agenda. “The argument has been won on civil service reform internally,” he said. “Nobody thinks that the current reform plan has all the answers, but pretty much everyone thinks that it needs to happen.”

Robbins joined the civil service as a fast streamer in 1996, working for ten years in the Treasury before moving to Number 10 as the principal private secretary for Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown.

In July 2010 he was appointed deputy national security adviser, and last year he was involved with government’s attempts to intercept files containing documents leaked by former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.

Robbins recently testified at a hearing about the government’s seizure of electronic files from the partner of a Guardian journalist who used Snowden’s leaked files. The stolen documents had caused “real and serious” damage to the UK’s national security, he said, adding that there’s “great concern” about potential further harm.

The Guardian has also reported that Robbins was among the senior government officials who called its editor Alan Rusbridger to request that the paper hand over discs containing the leaked documents.

Additional reporting by Suzannah Brecknell

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