Cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood has denied that the centralising era of civil service reform is over, telling CSW that many of the changes launched under ex-Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude are now entering "phase two".
Maude's time as the minister responsible for the civil service saw a raft of initiatives implemented from the centre of government, with the Cabinet Office imposing new rules on procurement, digital projects, the appraisal of staff, and recruitment.
It also saw a heavy focus on building so-called "functional leadership", ensuring that skills in areas including HR, communications, legal services and finance were strengthened right across the civil service.
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In recent months, however, several key Maude-era initiatives appear to have been pared back by the new government.
Extended Ministerial Offices, which allowed ministers to bypass normal civil service recruitment rules and bring in external advisers, were scrapped just before Christmas, while the Cabinet Office is set to grant more discretion to departments to design their own employee appraisal systems after an outcry from trade unions over the performance management regime introduced in 2012.
"It’s very much the vision he had of creating a more digital, less hierarchical, more commercial civil service" – Sir Jeremy Heywood on Francis Maude's civil service reform plans
Meanwhile, fresh leadership changes at the Government Digital Service – which saw its executive director Stephen Foreshew-Cain replaced by senior Department for Work and Pensions official Kevin Cunnington last summer – were viewed by some as a sign of retrenchment on the reform agenda, with Maude himself warning that any downgrade in the role of GDS would mark a "black day" for digital reform.
But, speaking to Civil Service World in an exclusive interview, Heywood rejected the suggestion that these changes marked an end to the Cabinet Office's leadership role in driving through civil service reforms.
"Absolutely not, no," he said. "John Manzoni, the [civil service] chief executive, leads a very, very full and vigorous programme of functional leadership. And I think what you’re seeing here is a sort of maturing, a sort of phase two of the reform programme.
"To start, the system had to be sort of given a jolt. And that had to come from the centre. That’s what was done. But I think anybody who knows anything about transforming large organisations knows that, in the end, you need to have ownership of each of the individual line businesses, in this case departments, if you’re going to make that reform self-sustaining."
Heywood said the civil service reform agenda was still "strongly supported by ministers" and said the focus of the programme now was on "bedding in" changes in departments themselves.
"I haven’t talked to Francis recently but I think if I sat down with Francis, and I hope to do so, I’ll be able to convince him that this is absolutely taking forward his work," Heywood said.
"It’s very much the vision he had of creating a more digital, less hierarchical, more commercial civil service. He gave us the impetus to do a lot of this stuff and we’ve taken up the baton since.
"But I think all of these programmes go through different phases and the phase we’re going through at the moment is one in which we’re embedding leadership at a departmental level."
Improving Whitehall's diversity "step-by-step"
Elsewhere in his CSW interview, Heywood was questioned on Whitehall's ongoing efforts to improve the diversity of its leadership, another area of reform which the cabinet secretary has named as a personal priority since taking up post in 2012.
While the latest official statistics show that more than 11% of the overall civil service workforce is from a black or minority ethnic background – broadly in line with the wider UK population – the picture at the top of the organisation is less positive.
BME officials make up just seven percent of the senior civil service, the figures show, and there are currently no black or minority ethnic permanent secretaries.
Heywood said it was "a fair criticism that we haven’t got anywhere near enough senior BME staff at the top of the civil service".
"We’re not setting targets that can’t be met" – Sir Jeremy Heywood on BME diversity
But he said addressing that addressing the organisation's longstanding shortage of BME leaders would require sustained rather than "tokenistic things" or "setting targets tha can't be met".
"We are applying ourselves, step-by-step, to building a strong pipeline of very talented BME civil servants, from Fast Stream and apprenticeship onwards, so that we can build a sustainable cadre of very talented officials who can win those jobs, on merit, over the next year, five years, 10 years. It’s not going to be an easy, quick win."
The cabinet secretary added: "Over the last period we had something like 6% of senior civil service posts being filled by BME staff. So, we’re beginning to get the flow into the senior civil service at a higher level than the current stock.
"And that’s of course the starting point for this. So our real focus is on trying to get our most talented, band A, civil servants from a BME background into a place where they can compete for the jobs in the senior civil service.
"And you know, all permanent secretaries get involved in mentoring schemes, I personally mentor some people in that category. And I think we making steady progress, but it will take a long time."
Read Sir Jeremy Heywood's full CSW interview for more on Brexit, civil service pay, and life in Theresa May's Number 10