Where Dominic Cummings is right, and more: seven things we learned in Mark Sedwill’s CSW exit interview

Sir Mark Sedwill will soon leave the civil service’s top jobs – cabinet secretary, head of the civil service and national security adviser. He has reflected on his time at the top of government with CSW, and here is some of what we found out
Aaron Chown/PA


He never wanted Whitehall’s top job

Sedwill became cabinet secretary in October 2018, when his predecessor Sir Jeremy Heywood's illness forced him to stand down. But he said when he took over, he was already doing the job he thought he was a perfect fit for – national security adviser.

When then-PM Theresa May asked him to step up, he said: “I was unable to persuade her to not ask me to do it.”

Did he try? “I'm not going to get too far into that. But I've never made any secret of the fact that I took on the job because I was asked to, out of a sense of duty.” 

He was always going to leave when his roles were split

Sedwill said he always planned to stand down as national security adviser when the role was split from his other responsibilities as cabinet secretary and head of the civil service.

“It wasn't ever designed to be a permanent model and certainly not one that I would have expected to apply to my successor,” he said, adding that as the government's moved onto the next phase of its coronavirus response, “it was the right time to make the change”.

“It wouldn't really have made sense for me to go back to being the national security adviser and be up in the attic with a new cabinet secretary here.”

David Frost’s appointment will change the nature of the national security adviser role

He said that his replacement by David Frost, a political appointee, will change the shape of the national security adviser role to fit the government’s priorities.

“This job has changed over the years... In my time, it had more of a blended international-domestic focus – of course, Brexit was the big issue of the time. At some point in the future, it might be right to have a national security adviser again with more of a domestic focus.

“I think the job should reflect the priorities of the government and the prime minister of the day and the prime minister has decided, in choosing David Frost, the shape of the job he wants, the focus and the experience he wants bringing to it.”

He defends his exit payment

Sedwill said his exit payment of almost £250,000 is “standard” for someone leaving government from his position of seniority.

“That is a calculation made by the experts for someone in my position for voluntary early retirement by agreement – that's essentially what I took.”

It is not, he stressed, a redundancy payment. “There's a distinction between the two. I know it’s a significant amount of money… But if I've been made redundant, actually it would have been more than that under the terms of the Civil Service Compensation Scheme. Significantly more than that.”

He agrees with some of Dominic Cummings’ civil service criticism

Asked about the spad’s long-standing criticisms of the civil service, Sedwill said that “although I wouldn't express it the same way as Dominic Cummings, I also think the desire... to bring in more expertise into the civil service is a good thing”. 

“Look, I don't think of them as criticisms. The civil service, like every other big institution, needs to modernise and reform; it always does,” he told CSW.

“The nature of the political debate is that things are expressed more vividly than a civil servant, including a cabinet secretary, is going to express them. Take a step back and although I express things in less vivid language than a politician or a special adviser, for the vast majority of civil servants, these shifts to different ways of working would have a profound effect on their jobs [...]

“So I think people shouldn't get too consumed with language, they should actually look at the substance and ask themselves, what are the real changes that are going change their jobs, their relationship with the citizen?”

He thinks anonymous political briefings against officials is “counterproductive”

“I think we should challenge the legitimacy of people who can't answer back being briefed against... it is unreasonable that people who, by convention, don't answer back and don't respond to every criticism, are subject to this kind of – usually anonymous – attack and snipe,” the cab sec said.

He said he will continue to remind politicians that such behaviour is “counterproductive”. 

But he said the PM had “paid very warm tribute to individuals, including to me... [and] spoken of his appreciation for the amazing job the civil and the wider public service has done on Covid, and so on.” 

He thinks government’s Covid response was “magnificent”

“I'm really proud of it. And I'm proud of it not just as the head of the service, but as a citizen," he said.

He said the future public mjust ask “whether the right decisions were taken at the right time... Are there things we could have done better? Could we have had more preparations in place? Are there different decisions we could have taken?

“But what I can tell you is that everyone involved, ministers and officials... took the decisions for the right reasons, and they took them on the basis of the best evidence and expert advice – scientific advice and other advice – that they had at the time.”

Read the interview in full here

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