I hope you will forgive this familiar form of address from someone I don’t think you’ve ever met. In an earlier era, I was, though, a permanent secretary.
Most importantly, congratulations on your appointment as cabinet secretary and head of the civil service; I don’t think anyone can have taken up the role in such demanding circumstances for a very long time, if ever. But enjoy the moment: there will be many tougher days than this.
It seems presumptuous in the extreme to offer you any advice; but I do so because I worry about the civil service as an institution and about the pressures which you are clearly going to face.
Shortly before I took up the role of permanent secretary in the Department for Work and Pensions – and when I was genuinely uncertain as to whether I had the ability to do the job – I went to see a much more experienced permanent secretary, who I had got to know and greatly respected, to ask him if he had any advice for someone newly into the role. His advice consisted of just two words: “be brave”. He went on to explain that there would be times – as indeed proved later to be the case – when the permanent secretary alone in the department could stand up against abuse of power or unacceptable behaviour. Those days, he said, would make or break your time in office.
In theory, of course, these should be easy decisions. In practice, as of course you already know, they never are. In such circumstances there are always pressures to find a fudge or a compromise, to let “just this one” go, and often hints or veiled threats as to the personal consequences, or the consequences for your department more widely, if you make difficulty or rock the boat. In the role of cabinet secretary it is even tougher. Saying “no” to a prime minister, or to a prime minister’s all-powerful political adviser, must be one of the hardest challenges any civil servant will ever face. Perhaps take a moment at some point in the next few days to ask some of your predecessors about their own experience.
Saying ‘no’ to a prime minister or an all-powerful political adviser must be one of the hardest challenges any civil servant will ever face
That will be even more so where a prime minister wants a permanent secretary fired or side-lined. In such circumstances you will need, of course, to listen and weigh the arguments. If a permanent secretary is patently failing, or is obstructing the legitimate political aims of their secretary of state, then it may well be right that they go, though even then there is much to be said for ensuring that there is at least a modicum of civility in the process. They will probably have devoted most of their working life to the institution, after all.
But if their crime is to have stood up against bullying or unacceptable behaviour by ministers or their advisers, to have advised against grossly irresponsible expenditure, or simply to have refused to carry the can for the blatant failures of their ministers then almost the only person in the country who can say “no, prime minister” is you. On that day the entire civil service will want you to be brave.
Is there anything here that you don’t already know? I rather doubt it. But it may just be useful on your first day in office for a former permanent secretary to say it explicitly. There will undoubtedly be some in the political ranks of the government who will be thinking that now you are in post they will be able to get things done that your predecessor, or their own permanent secretary, had or has been resisting. So the challenges may come to you very quickly. How you respond to them is likely to define your entire time in office.
Good luck, Simon. You’re certainly going to need it.
With my very best wishes,
Sir Leigh Lewis was permanent secretary at the Department for Work and Pensions from 2005 to 2010