There is “no great enthusiasm” for reducing the number of Whitehall departments, Jeremy Heywood has said, as the government looks for fresh savings ahead of the Spending Review.
With the Treasury asking departments to plan for further cuts of up to 40% over the next four years, there has been speculation that the number of ministries could be slashed.
But the Cabinet secretary told an audience at the Institute for Government think tank on Tuesday that while the civil service would “definitely shed more staff” during the course of the parliament, there would likely still be the “same number of ministerial brass plates and ministerial cars”.
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“The civil service doesn’t like uncertainty, it’s a machine that is designed around certainty”
“We’re already at the smallest we’ve been since the Second World War, below 400,000 [staff] on a full-time-equivalent basis,” Heywood said.
“We’ll get smaller, partly because of digital. As we acquire digital techniques we need fewer people, as the private sector has found and as we’ve already found in the civil service.
“It will be smaller, more digital, more expert in commercial — if I have anything to do with it anyway — and we’ll be more diverse. But I think it will still be the same civil service, the same values, and I think we’ll probably be split up into the same number of departments. There’s no great enthusiasm for reducing the number of departments.”
During its time in office, the Coalition shied away from making major changes to the structure of Whitehall, with its most significant tweak being a rebrand of the Department for Education. So far, the new Conservative government has opted for the same approach.
But last week, energy secretary Amber Rudd batted away a suggestion that ministers were considering rolling her own department into Business, Innovation and Skills. Tory backbencher Peter Bone claimed talk of such a merger was being put about by “Number 10”, and the exchange followed a number of reports — including in The Spectator — that mergers or abolitions may be on the cards as part of the Spending Review.
During his conversation with the IfG’s director Peter Riddell, Heywood said he believed there was scope for ministries to work more closely together on areas of policy that cut across traditional Whitehall boundaries.
“But it takes time to put in place all these things," he said. "So I hope we’ll see more joining but I don’t think we’ll see a complete collapse in departmental boundaries when it comes to policy formation, I don’t think that’s going to happen."
‘A huge burden taken off’
As well as touching on the future shape of the civil service in his IfG talk — a rare public appearance for a Cabinet secretary — Heywood reflected on the changes to his role since being appointed in 2012.
Traditionally, the Cabinet secretary serves as head of the civil service. But when Heywood took over from his predecessor Gus O’Donnell, the job was split and the head of civil service role was given to the then-permanent secretary at the Department for Communities and Government, Bob Kerslake.
Last year, however, those responsibilities were returned to the Cabinet secretary, while a new position of civil service chief executive was created and given to former BP exec John Manzoni.
Heywood said the appointment of Manzoni as civil service chief had brought clarity to the centre of Whitehall.
“I manage the permanent secretaries. He line manages the functions — so the head of digital, head of commercial, head of property and so on. So a huge burden is taken off my shoulders.
“Having another very senior person sharing the representational burden as well is very important. He’s also become Cabinet Office permanent secretary. So we’ve evolved the model again…
“I simply couldn’t do everything I’m doing now plus John’s job, plus the Cabinet Office permanent secretary’s job. It’s not possible in my view. I mean Gus did it — but he’s GOD!”
More stories from Heywood's IfG talk:
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Jeremy Heywood on Freedom Of Information: Public doesn't stand for secrecy