May wants "incremental change" not "radical reform" of Whitehall, says first civil service commissioner Ian Watmore

Exclusive: Ian Watmore tells CSW he is "absolutely convinced" that the current crop of ministers "wants to preserve Northcote-Travelyan" model of an impartial civil service, as he sets out focus on diversity, skills and leadership

By Matt Foster

21 Nov 2016

The new government led by prime minister Theresa May is interested in "incremental change" to the civil service, not "radical reform", first civil service commissioner Ian Watmore has said, in his first interview in the job.

Watmore, a former Cabinet Office permanent secretary who helped set up the cost-cutting Efficiency and Reform Group (ERG) in the last parliament, returned to Whitehall as First Civil Service Commissioner over the summer.

The role sees him tasked with upholding the values of the civil service – honesty, integrity, objectivity and impartiality – and leading the body which ensures recruitment to the organisation is carried out on the basis of fair and open competition.

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Watmore will also personally chair the competitions for Whitehall's most senior jobs, and sit on the cross-government Senior Leadership Commitee chaired by cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood.

Speaking to CSW in an interview to be published in full later this week, Watmore said he wanted the Commission under his leadership to both "protect the traditions" of the civil service laid out in the 1854 Northcote–Trevelyan report and "push for modernisation", setting out three areas which he intends to focus on.

Those include improving the diversity of staff; ensuring there are "more people reaching the higher echelons" of Whitehall with digital, commercial and programme management skills; and helping the civil service to respond "flexibly, nimbly and appropriately" to major public policy challenges, including Brexit.

Watmore's predecessor as First Civil Service Commissioner, Sir David Normington, clashed with ministers a number of times during his tenure over reforms that some viewed as a threat to the Northcote-Travelyan model of an impartial civil service.

"I'm absolutely convinced that the current regime, the Theresa May government, is very strongly behind the civil service" – Ian Watmore

Those included the setting up of Extended Ministerial Offices (EMOs) – allowing ministers to bring in more outside policy expertise – and moves to give the prime minister the final say over permanent secretary appointments.

But, asked whether he saw any threats from the current crop of ministers to the impartiality of the civil service, Watmore said the evidence from his "first few weeks in the job" was that Theresa May's government was "looking for a period of stability".

"I'm absolutely convinced that the current regime, the Theresa May government, is very strongly behind the civil service, wants to preserve Northcote Travelyan, and the Cabinet Office minister, in particular, has emphasised how well he thinks the civil service is adapting to the early challenges of Brexit and how he is keen on incremental change, rather than radical reform," he said.

Watmore added: "All of that says to me that this is an administration that really respects Northcote–Travelyan, wants to do the best for the civil service because it wants the civil service to do the best for the country at a period of extraordinary challenge, and after an era in which the headcount numbers have come down by 20+ percent.

"I think that this government is looking for a period of stability, continuous improvement, building on the great strengths of the civil service, continuing the reforms that have already started, the influx of new skills, and wanting to get the political challenges met."

Diversity push

Elsewhere in his CSW interview, Watmore gave his take on the current state of diversity in the civil service, painting a mixed picture of progress.

The first civil service commissioner said that while female representation at permanent secretary-level had "fallen way back" from a 2011 high-point in which 50% of departmental leaders were women, he believed Whitehall was "acutely aware of that as a problem" and expressed hope that a "strong" pipeline would soon have an impact.

"I think you might find, in the next year or two, more female appointments as perm secs," he said.

"I think the new wave of candidates coming through is stronger after probably a lull of three or four years in which only people like [DCLG perm sec] Melanie Dawes and [Defra perm sec] Claire Moriarty have come through.

"I'm hoping – and there's no evidence until its complete – that we will see more women coming through to perm sec posts, probably in the next two or three years, and then we won't be having this conversation in two or three years' time."

"It's just not acceptable to have an entirely white top table in the system" – Ian Watmore

The latest figures show that the proportion of Senior Civil Service (SCS) posts occupied by women topped 40% for the first time this year.

However, Watmore said he was "particularly" concerned about the ongoing dearth of black and minority ethnic officials at the top of the civil service.

None of the organisation's current permanent secretaries hail from a BAME background, while just 4% of the senior civil service are BAME.

The Commission's most recent annual report found that black and minority ethnic civil servants who put themselves forward for senior jobs were still “significantly less likely” to be interviewed than their white colleagues.

Watmore said there seemed to be "far less top table [BAME] candidates on the horizon", and called for the civil service to "understand why that is".

"We need to bring to more people through whatever ceiling is holding them back and we need to position people in key roles to enable them to occupy really good director general posts and then perm sec posts," he added. "Because it's just not acceptable to have an entirely white top table in the system."

"Modern take on the civil service"

Watmore – who will interview candidates for key Whitehall jobs as part of his role – also set out his view of the attributes needed to be an effective civil service leader in 2016.

The first civil service commissioner told CSW that while the civil service would "always value" leaders with a policy backgroud, modern departmental chiefs needed to possess either "direct personal skills that are relevant" to the problems their organisation is grappling with or know how to delegate and build "a team of skilled people".

"It's a kind of modern take on the civil service," he said. "It's about the values. It's about caring for the public. It's about knowing your subject matter in a 21st century context, and it's about being able to deploy others and work in teams with a full set of skills that you need to solve that whole problem – and not just draft your way out of a problem in a Sir Humphrey way."

Referring to a current crop of civil service leaders who have come from outside the organisation to head up major government departments – HMRC chief executive Jon Thompson, Ministry of Defence permanent secretary Stephen Lovegrove, and civil service chief executive John Manzoni – Watmore said:

"If we can continue to find more examples of the Thompsons and the Lovegroves and the Manzonis of this world – those people who bring those different skills and are able to succeed at the top table — while playing our part as a Commission in helping the civil service and the government overcome its huge challenges — of which the one we can see most obviously today is Brexit — then, that, I think will be a very strong legacy for my successor."


The Civil Service Commission is currently holding its open week, inviting questions from civil servants and the wider public about its work. Click here for more info

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