What's it really like being cabinet secretary? Six men who've done the job spill the beans

From "trusted adviser" to "shock absorber", the cabinet secretary has a job description like no other. Matt Foster listened in as Sir Jeremy Heywood and his five predecessors reflected on 100 years of the post – and asked what it takes to serve as Britain's top official. Main image credit: Institute for Government

By Matt Foster

01 Dec 2016

Honestly, cabinet secretaries – you wait ages for one, and then six come along at once. Whitehall-watchers were offered a rare treat this week, as every surviving holder of the post gathered under one roof for a wide-ranging discussion on what it means to serve as the UK's top official.

The event, chaired by current incumbent Sir Jeremy Heywood and hosted by the Institute for Government and the British Academy, marked 100 years since the setting up of the Cabinet Office. Heywood – who has been in post since 2012 – was joined by his five predecessors in the job, Lord O’Donnell (2005-2011); Lord Turnbull (2002-05); Lord Wilson (1998-2002); Lord Butler (1988-1998); and Lord Armstrong (1979-87), and the conversation took in the nature of the role, the route to the top job, Brexit – and the fact that all of those speaking happened to be men.

The cabinet secretary's job description is a pretty all-encompassing one, and it ebbs and flows with each government, as Lord Armstrong, who served in the post for the majority of Margaret Thatcher's time in office, explained."The personal relationship which you have – above all with the prime minister – but with the prime minister's colleagues, goes far in determining how you're going to spend your time," he said. 

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But, as Heywood pointed out, the role usually involves "the same mix but in a different proportion" of being "the trusted adviser" to the prime minister, as well as being "the investigator behind the scenes", "advising on machinery of government" and "being the official note-taker" at cabinet meetings.

For many cabinet secretaries, that has also been coupled with the dual role of being head of the civil service, combining the challenges of advising the prime minister and running the cabinet with being the figurehead of an organisation with hundreds of thousands of employees right across the country.

At times, said Heywood's immediate predecessor Lord O'Donnell (pictured above), that's a pretty tough gig.

"With Tony Blair as prime minister there was a big emphasis on modernisation of public services, a big emphasis on getting out there and understanding what the blockages were, how you could improve public service, and in those days how you could spend more money to achieve better outcomes," he said.

"And as it evolved, and we went through the cuts exercise, I remember going through and saying to people, 'how are we going to spend fewer resources on getting better outcomes'?

"So it kind of changed. And the latter is obviously much harder – and it meant that you needed to go and talk to people face-to-face around the country, trying to empathise with a system where you were cutting their exit payments, cutting their pensions, reducing their real pay and all those sorts of things and trying to motivate them to inspire and produce better services for the public."

Some governments have even chosen to hive off the head of the civil service part of the job to another official – indeed, Heywood himself only took on the role in 2014 after the departure of Bob (now Lord) Kerslake, and Armstrong started off serving only as cabinet secretary, with the head of the civil service job done by the then-Treasury perm sec.

But, as Lord Butler (left) – who served as cabinet secretary to Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair – argued, combining the two jobs does make sense, provided "you've got some good lieutenants". "It's perfectly possible to unite the two effectively, and I think it works much better in the interests of both the prime minister and the civil service if these two posts are united," he said.

The power of events – and making it to the top

The panel also highlighted how much the cabinet secretary's in-tray is determined by events, or, as Lord Butler put it: "Stuff happens and takes an awful lot of time".

The six men (more on that "frustrating" diversity stat later...) had been at the heart of government during some of the defining events from the last half-century of British politics – the Falklands conflict; two Gulf wars; Black Wednesday; 9/11; the global financial crisis; and, in Heywood's case, this year's vote to leave the European Union.

But for O'Donnell, who oversaw the transition to a coalition government in 2010, part of the role of the cabinet secretary is to "act as a shock absorber, not an amplifier" of the day-to-day noise of events.

"You have to remember that as cabinet secretary, somebody comes to you every single day [saying] that there is a crisis," he said, adding: "The question I always used to put was 'how many people have died?' Because basically you'll get, 'well, the crisis is that secretary of state A has briefed against secretary of state B' or 'the prime minister and chancellor aren't entirely in agreement'. Well, you know, these are not crises! For me, Black Wednesday, when you're spending a billion dollars an hour, that counts as a crisis."

The six men also reflected on the kind of experience needed to do Whitehall's top job. Lord Wilson (pictured left), Blair's first cabinet secretary, said he had spent two years at the Treasury, which had acted as a "kind of finishing school", before running two spending departments and then landing the big gig.

"If you have a career which gets to the cabinet secretary without being in the Treasury much, you [at least] know what it's like being in the line and dealing with the Treasury, and you know how departments work," he said.

"The big gap was not being in a spending department at any time and that would have been very useful" – O'Donnell

O'Donnell said his time at the Foreign Office, including a posting overseas, had been "extremely useful" preparation for the role. But he said too much Treasury and Downing Street experience could be a bad thing.

"The big gap was not being in a spending department at any time and that would have been very useful," he added. "I would have learned much more on the operational side. So you have to try and make up for that in other ways. Certainly, understanding the Treasury is an important part of it – but seeing it from the other side as well is crucial."

Andrew Cahn, the former head of UK Trade and Investments, was also in the audience, and he pointed out that, of all the cabinet secretaries present, only Heywood – who left the civil service for a stint in the 2000s – had brought some private sector experience to the role.

But Butler downplayed the importance of outside experience for a cabinet secretary, saying it was better to have worked "in a wide range of government departments, particularly at the front end". Armstrong agreed, saying that a "profound knowledge of Whitehall" was key to doing the cabinet secretary job well. "Robin [Butler] and I both came from the Treasury," he said. "I had had four years in the Home Office so that I had experience of other departments. And in a sense, I think that would have been more important than any outside experience would have been for this particular job."

What's the point of the Cabinet Office?

This being an event to mark the centenary of the Cabinet Office, all six cabinet secretaries meanwhile offered their take on why this sometimes-vilified central government organisation (see former minister David Willetts' searing verdict on the "terrible", "over-manned" ministry) actually matters.

Armstrong (left) said there was a "great reluctance" in the UK to have a dedicated prime minister's department, pointing out that other ministers with their own departments "very much resent the idea" of a PM's department "which would be second-guessing them for things for which they are responsible".

"And to some degree the Cabinet Office has taken over the coordinating responsibility that might otherwise be with the prime minister's department – but it is seen as serving of the government and the cabinet as a whole, and not as the prime minister's instrument," he aqdded.

Lord Turnbull (pictured below), Blair's second cabinet secretary, said the Cabinet Office played three vital roles.

"One is giving direction to the business of the organisation, [setting out] what it does; another is to develop the resources, which could be people or it could be the structures under which people operate; and the third is to set a culture, and an ethical framework, in which it operates. And the Cabinet Office does all three of those – and they should all stay together."

For O'Donnell, the Cabinet Office also helps to ensure the smooth transition from one government to the next, and he highlighted the intense scrutiny of US president-elect Donald Trump's cabinet appointments. "That gap in the US when the officials just aren't there – the Cabinet Office I think does that transition incredibly quickly," he said.

For the Cabinet Office to be really effective, Lord Butler said, it needed to be seen as "neutral as regards policy", not launching big initiatives of its own, but helping to keep the wider government show on the road.

Butler added: "I would say the Cabinet Office does three things: it untangles knots so that we can see the issues clearly when ministers come to decide; it transmits instructions to the rest of Whitehall... and it, at times, is the coordinating executive for government – of which a good example, Jeremy, is what you must be having to do on Brexit."

That prompted a wry smile from the current head of the civil service. "Exactly," Heywood replied. "We don't have any views on that. We just coordinate." 

Boys only? And a Brexit brouhaha

Diversity remains a hot topic in the civil service, and the panel's all-male line-up was duly noted by one audience member. Heywood described it as "very frustrating" that Whitehall had still not seen a female cabinet secretary or head of the civil service. "It will be one of my key objectives in life that when I come to be replaced there will be a shortlist which has at least one [woman], and hopefully a balance, of applicants," he vowed.

But the current cabinet secretary expressed hope that this particular glass ceiling would be smashed before too long, and even predicted it would "no longer be a talking point in ten years". Women now make up 40% of the senior civil service, he said, an "extraordinary number compared to where we were even 20 years ago" and "compared to what other organisations in Britain can boast".

Being cabinet secretary also means taking a lot of political flak – while remaining largely unable to answer back. During the EU referendum campaign, Heywood was accused of putting Leave campaigners at a disadvantage, and then, in the wake of the vote, the civil service drew fire for David Cameron's decision to bar formal contingency planning for Brexit.

Cahn – the former UKTI chief who has previously told CSW that a lack of contingency planning was "a humiliation for this country" – pressed the panel on whether the cabinet secretary had a "constitutional duty" to prepare for outcomes that might be at odds with government policy.

O'Donnell said there was a debate to be had about whether future referendums should offer the civil service more space to plan during the so-called "purdah" period, during which both sides of a debate are barred from using the resources of the government machine.

"Curiously enough the incumbent government doesn't like the idea of not winning," he said. "But we do plan and have done, all of us, for various scenarios, post-election, during election periods." Provided there was "all-party support", O'Donnell said, it should be possible to allow officials to use the purdah period to "do contingency work for all possible outcomes. "Who could argue with that?" he asked.

Lord Butler said Heywood "oughn't to be asked to comment" on the referendum planning question – but he said it would be "really difficult" for a modern cabinet secretary to plan for "a result that the government was not envisaging and hadn't authorised any work to be done on".

"I think if I'd been there before the referendum I would have felt a duty to be thinking about it and perhaps have some very confidential discussions with people I could trust," Buter said. "But I think it's jolly difficult to go beyond that."

"I don't think it's wrong in any shape or form for me to exploit that space and do some confidential thinking" – Heywood on Brexit planning

Heywood himself, who has already been grilled by MPs on Whitehall's Brexit preparations, said it was "perfectly reasonable to have a debate" about what the civil service could and could not in future referendum campaigns.

But he again insisted that senior officials had done everything they could to prepare Whitehall for the possibility of a Brexit vote – and said he had used the "space" around David Cameron's ban on contact with Leave campaigners to do some "confidential thinking" about that outcome.

"During the period in the run-up to an election, there is an explicitly sanctioned conversation allowed between the civil service and the leaders of the opposition and shadow secretaries of state – and that is useful, everybody accepts that's useful," he said.

"We didn't go as far in this referendum period as to say there should be an official Leave spokesperson or spokespeople and that group of people should speak to the civil service and plan. But that still left quite a lot of space between what was explicitly authorised – which was the documents we were told by parliament to produce – and what was clearly off-limits.

"And I don't think it's wrong in any shape or form for me to exploit that space and do some confidential thinking as Robin has suggested. That's what we did. I don't think the prime minister would have been angry about it if he'd discovered that. I didn't discuss it with him because he was out campaigning. That was what he was doing. And I think we struck the right balance on this one."


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