Manzoni puts relocating civil servants at heart of transformation strategy

Chief executive also said workforce restructuring will help reset the relationship between government and private sector, and civil servants and politicians

John Manzoni outlined Whitehall's progress on transforming the way government works. Credit: Cabinet Office

By Tamsin.Rutter

25 Jan 2018

Civil service transformation depends on the plan to close 600 government offices and move thousands of civil servants to 20 regional hubs, chief executive John Manzoni has said.

The Cabinet Office permanent secretary yesterday outlined the key pillars of Whitehall’s transformation programme, which include restructuring the workforce around “core government functions”; adopting new technology and moving services online; a new approach to leadership; and the hubs programme.

During a speech at the London School of Economics, Manzoni also called on civil servants to “take control of their own destiny” and said many of the changes he outlined were needed to reset the relationship between politicians and the civil service.

He said the impetus for change had already been provided by advances in technology, citizen's increasing demands and fiscal pressures, but Brexit had provided an additional reason to transform the way government works.


The government’s proposal for redistributing civil servants around the country is expected in the spring. The revised estates strategy will set out plans to move officials to 20 strategic hubs equipped with the latest technology, flexible working facilities and cheaper running costs than legacy property.

By 2020, 35,000 people will be settled into the first 10 hubs, where teams from different departments will collocate in the same offices to encourage more joined up working.

“It’s pointless having the best people, with excellent skills and relevant experience if we don’t put them in environments where they can flourish and make the best use of their talents,” Manzoni said.

"By 2020, these ten hubs will accommodate around 35,000 civil servants; and, by 2023, our plans will have reduced the number of government buildings from around 800 to just 200," he said. "Changes of this sort are generating new opportunities for civil servants. And they’re changing how we think about work – raising our sights above departmental boundaries, and enabling more collaborative behaviour."

In a wide-ranging speech outlining the steps Whitehall is taking to become “the best civil service in the world”, Manzoni pointed out progress in tech in delivering Universal Credit and “the biggest courts reform programme in the world”, and said the aim was to make 100 government services available digitally by 2020.

He said for civil servants “process automation is something to embrace rather than fear”, as it will “create more time to spend on customer-facing work”, such as in Jobcentres, while the Digital Academy is training 3,000 civil servants a year and the Data Science Campus in Newport will eventually produce up to 500 qualified data analysts for government.

Manzoni also said transformation depends on restructuring the workforce, and that changes to the way civil servants are remunerated will be brought in to encourage them to stay in their posts for longer, while non-policy roles that have traditionally been undervalued or missing from the workforce will continue to be elevated.

In particular, he insisted that changes over the past two years to the civil service’s commercial function had mitigated many of the risks of the collapse of contractor Carillion.

“We were watching – as we do with all suppliers – and the response of officials to the profits warning in July 2017 was immediate,” he said.

As well as resetting the relationship between government and the private sector, Manzoni said stronger skills in areas like project management, delivery and commercial are “critical” to a better working relationship with politicians – who need to be able to believe that the civil service can implement policies as well as draw them up.

“If what the civil service does is policy and only policy, over time and in subtle ways it changes the dynamic between the politicians and the civil service in a way that I think is detrimental to this country in the long term,” he said.

Asked by Tony Travers, director of LSE London, how ministers are responding to these changes to the machinery of government, Manzoni said the “flippant” answer was that ministers “seem to change quite a lot”.

“But underneath that is a more serious point – the civil service is doing things that will last for a lifetime,” he said. “Quite frankly the ministers come and go. It is there to serve the ministers, but actually the things that civil servants do need to be looking to a longer time frame than the next five years.”

In a series of comments addressing the negative light in which the civil service is sometimes portrayed, Manzoni said civil servants have “allowed ourselves to feel beaten up” and he called on them to be more self-confident and to gain “control of their own destiny”.

“There are obviously occasional, frankly unhelpful comments,” he said, referring to environment secretary Michael Gove’s recent outburst.

“I know very few civil servants who leave on a Wednesday afternoon,” Manzoni added.

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