John Manzoni to depart as civil service chief

Confirmation of departure comes ahead of likely post-Brexit Whitehall shakeup



Sir John Manzoni, the chief executive of the civil service, is to leave his role later this year, it has been announced.

The Cabinet Office confirmed today that Manzoni will leave government in 2020 , “as has been planned for some time”.

Manzoni has been chief executive of the civil service since October 2014, and added the post of Cabinet Office permanent secretary in August 2015. His five-year tenure was due to end last year, but was extended last autumn to provide continuity for the following months, according to the Cabinet Office.


Manzoni has been implemented a series of reforms, most notably developing the functional model across government. This has been intended to develop the skills available in government across key areas: finance, analysis, legal, digital, commercial, property, communications, project delivery and human resources.

The model became the priority of Manzoni’s role civil service chief exec, leading him to remark in 2015: “According to Civil Service World, “you can’t go long talking to Manzoni without the words ‘functions’ or ‘delivery’ escaping his lips”. Well, it’s true!”

He added: “These areas of focus are because they are central to delivery, but we don’t today have the experience we need. We have significant other expertise - such as economists, analysts, statisticians – who are all central to the good operation of the civil service and are generally organised into professions within government. But the functions I have described above are not developed to the extent we need, and hence the focus on building them.”

According to the Institute for Government, the drive has been successful. “We found that significant progress had been made to attract and deploy high-calibre staff,” it said in a 2019 report. However, the report also noted that further changes were needed to make the changes succeed, adding they were “more important now than ever” as “Brexit requires the civil service to deliver its ‘biggest and most complex challenge’ in peacetime history”.

Preparing government for Brexit has been one of Manzoni’s main tasks in recent years. In December 2018 he told MPs that the civil service still faced a shortage of technical, commercial and project management skills needed to implement Brexit.

Manzoni’s departure comes amid rumours of a planned wide-ranging revamp of the machinery of government, which reports suggest could include a shake-up of departments and a series of changes being proposed by Dominic Cummings, the prime minister's most senior adviser.

It has already been announced that the Department for Exiting the European Union will close on 31 January. Other possible changes include re-establishing a climate change department and merging the Department for International Trade with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Further Whitehall changes are likely to follow, with Cummings saying government HR rules "need a bonfire”.

Reform reflections

Reflecting on his time in government at a reception to celebrate Civil Service World’s 15th anniversary in December, Manzoni said that departmental restructuring could not transform the civil service overnight. “Genuine reform is certainly not what we call a MOG,” he said.

Instead, he said, ministers and officials should plan for longer-term and more incremental transformation. “If you're going to make lasting change… it's unlikely to be [through] revolution inside the civil service. It's a bit more evolutionary, I think, because it's a very proud institution that’s grounded in values and in public service.”

Manzoni has endeavoured to implement this evolutionary change through his functional agenda, to address what he said was a dearth of sorely-needed technical, commercial and property skills, among others, he said. He told attendees that in the decade and a half before he joined government, it “had atrophied most of the execution and delivery skills” it needed.

“There were some pretty profound changes I felt we needed to make and it doesn't really matter what vehicle you ride them in on. I chose the functional model, I chose to put a ‘matrix’ through the civil service,” he said.

As well as equipping civil servants to negotiate commercial deals more savvily or use the government’s property portfolio more effectively, Manzoni said he intended to correct an imbalance where “we were basically oriented around the policy discussion”.

He observed that “in the civil service, we spend a lot of time looking up” – an approach unfamiliar to the long-time oil exec. He wanted to change what he called a “moths around the lightbulb” culture where officials were fighting for time in front of ministers.

“Ultimately, the minister doesn't know as much as the commercial person about the commerce, but the minister is always the boss if you’re talking about policy,” he said. “So [bringing in other expertise] allows a very different conversation to emerge over time between the civil service and the politicians.”

Manzoni said he hoped that rebalancing those relationships with ministers would have profound consequences for the success of major projects, pointing to the example of the over-budget and behind-schedule Universal Credit programme. “It’s a brilliant programme, but it certainly wasn't going to be done in the timeframe that politicians thought it could be done by the civil service.”

He stressed that just 15% of major government projects are delivered on time and on budget – but said this could change if civil servants were able to set reasonable expectations early on.

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