Civil service reform leadership: double trouble?

5 August 2012

Another key appointment has been made at the top of the Civil Service: Richard Heaton will become Permanent Secretary of the Cabinet Office and retain his current role as First Parliamentary Counsel. Where does this leave the Civil Service Reform Plan? Can another part-time leadership role work?

Part-time leadership of the Civil Service is clearly the plat du jour in Whitehall. Muttering from retired grandees condemned the splitting of the Cabinet Secretary role that created the dual leadership of Sir Jeremy Heywood and Sir Bob Kerslake. Witnesses at the Public Affairs Select Committee [PASC] hearing argued that Sir Bob could not and should not combine the Head of the Civil Service with his other role, permanent secretary of the DCLG.

The Institute for Government believed that splitting the job of Cabinet Secretary in two was a plausible decision. One of Lord O’Donnell’s smartest moves soon after he was appointed the previous Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service was to recognise that he had three roles – and no hope of doing them all well. So he appointed Jeremy Heywood as cabinet secretary in all but name responsible for policy, and concentrated his own energies successfully on being an effective Head of the Civil Service. This left the arguably unmanageable Cabinet Office to carry on doing what it tends to do regardless of the best efforts of its leaders.

The dual leadership of the Civil Service has plenty going for it. Sir Jeremy’s ability to handle the battling courts of the centre and support the Prime Minister and Cabinet is peerless – but he has little experience of managing change or departments. Sir Bob has a great track record of managing transformation whilst working in tough political settings. Our recent assessment of the prospects for Civil Service reform rated their dual leadership as amber/green – a positive rating at such an early stage.

‘Two jobs Bob’ has already shown great energy in his role as Head of Civil Service – he does not look like a part time Head. But this commitment must reduce the capacity he has to lead the major change well underway in DCLG. Recently Sir Bob made it clear he had no desire to add a third job to his portfolio – that of Cabinet Office Permanent Secretary. This was a smart and necessary position to take. But if the reform plan gathers the momentum it needs – it might be necessary to revisit whether he can continue to provide meaningful leadership to DCLG as well. Such a review has already been recommended by PASC.

Richard Heaton’s second job is in some ways harder than that of Cabinet Secretary or Head of the Civil Service. The job has little formal power or leverage. The Cabinet Office is unlike any other department. It has the characteristics of competing courts that look to their own sources of power and influence – from Cabinet Secretary, to Prime Minister, to Minister for the Cabinet Office – all of whom can trump the head of the Cabinet Office. No permanent secretary of the Cabinet Office, or holder of the previous equivalent roles, has had the authority to manage those other sources of power. Instead they must rely on their personal credibility, networks and persuasiveness to make things happen.

Heaton, whilst a career government lawyer, is a veteran of major transformation programmes in the Department for Work and Pensions. So he should be used to the grinding reality of what it takes to turn around performance and capability. This is just as well. The Cabinet Office has been through a tough 12 months – and if anecdotal evidence is to be believed, confidence and capability are at a low ebb in some of the key areas.

There are three issues more material to his success than whether he does the job part time or full time: will the existing accountabilities of units, director generals and directors be divided amongst the Cabinet Secretary, Head of Civil Service and Heaton in a way that makes sense; can he rapidly target where he most needs to improve the capability and performance of the Cabinet Office functions he is responsible for; and can he develop a way of operating that works in the unusual setting of the Cabinet Office?

Accepting that the job can be done part time might well have increased the field of quality candidates, but it obviously requires a strong management team around the new head. Two crucial roles in that team are the Director General of Efficiency and Reform Group, and the Director General of Civil Service Reform – neither has yet been filled.

The troubled search to fill the key Director General Civil Service Reform post has dragged on in fits and starts since Gill Rider left the predecessor role in spring 2011. This reflects the range of contradictory views about what the job should be, and what background the post holder is thought to need to succeed. Understandably this seems to have put off some of the more seasoned leaders of change around Whitehall. It is an extremely difficult job. The longer the search continues, the more questions will be raised about the reform plans prospects, and there could be a damaging gap in the central support and resource the reform programme needs.

It is an important few months for the delicate credibility and momentum of the reform plan. As we observed in our rating of it:

“…savvy civil servants will watch closely to see who is leading and supporting the programme – from officials to politicians. They will spot quickly any divergence, loss of momentum and make their own judgment of whether its a programme worth putting their energy into. They need to see action quickly. They will look to see if the bold reforms ideas are being pursued with ambition and the right resources. The positive start will quickly dissipate if there isn’t enough drive, resource or political engagement behind the key actions in the plan.”

By Christmas we will be able to assess whether the reform plan has the ambition, resources, momentum and support that it needs to succeed. Or we will start to see it being dragged down by the same problems that have derailed previous reforms.

The speed and quality of the key appointments to the two Director General posts will be an interesting test of the prospects for the success of the reform plan.

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  1. [...] Thomas, of the Institute for Government thinktank, said that Heaton “should be used to the grinding reality of what it takes to turn around [...]

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