Working to make government more effective


Appointing Simon Case as No. 10 permanent secretary should make a difference to the government’s coronavirus response

The appointment of Simon Case as permanent secretary in Number 10 should provide coherence to the government’s immediate Covid-19 response

The role of permanent secretary in Number 10 has been resurrected. The appointment of Simon Case should provide coherence to the government’s immediate Covid-19 response, but it will require more than just a title to make sure the job works, says Catherine Haddon

The appointment of Simon Case as permanent secretary in No.10 is an attempt to strengthen the government’s handling of Covid-19. It will also be read by many as an acknowledgement that there is room for improvement in the way No.10, and the Cabinet Office, have handled the response to the crisis. But the role will only work if the prime minister knows what he wants Case to achieve, and if he makes sure that the appointment does not cause greater confusion about who is in charge of what.   

The permanent secretary rank is about status more than hierarchy

Number 10, a small office relative to most of Whitehall, is not like other departments. The first and, until Case’s appointment, only No 10 permanent secretary was Jeremy Heywood, with the role designed to get Heywood back into the centre of government – and entice him there with an elevated rank.

A No.10 permanent secretary is not like other permanent secretary roles. In most other departments, the permanent secretary is the senior official and runs the department. The current PM has a chief-of-staff, a principal private secretary and a host of other senior advisers, including one Dominic Cummings, who all may have views on what No.10 should be doing and how best to support the prime minister. Case’s appointment doesn’t mean he has the automatic authority to ‘run’ No10 – his appointment may be more about providing him with a title with authority than placing him at the top of the hierarchy. 

But it can also be read as recognition of the need to bring greater discipline to No.10. Johnson would not be the first prime minister to take time to get the structure of his No.10 in order, and the organisation of his No.10, and the personalities of some of his advisers, have dominated much of the coverage of his premiership. Case’s role may help bring order and structure to a small team that will have been overworked, and possibly overwhelmed, by the scale of the necessary response to the coronavirus crisis.

Case’s immediate focus is the Covid response

The immediate purpose of Case’s appointment, a temporary post, seems to be focusing on the government's Covid response. He won’t supplant other senior officials and advisers, such as the cabinet secretary, other permanent secretaries or the prime minister’s senior advisers, but he can improve coordination by the centre and ensure the prime minister is across Whitehall’s work. Placing Case in No.10 gives him the authority to increase No.10’s grip across government, and will help, as Heywood did, to link No10 to the Cabinet Office. This may be designed to ease the tensions surrounding the role of Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary – for instance, the appointment may dampen calls from some Conservative MPs for Sedwill to shed the national security adviser role and focus solely on the Covid-19 response.  

Heywood was valued by prime ministers and the civil service because he was able to fix things. He was renowned as a details man when it came to giving advice – his task was often about finding policy solutions to difficult political puzzles. Case’s role will, presumably, also involve solving problems across Whitehall, particularly those involving cross-departmental efforts. No.10 can’t deliver such policies itself. Its role is to help focus other departments on getting things done, and Case will need to understand what problems exist across government. His experience – he was previously principal private secretary to both David Cameron and Theresa May – will be directed towards deploying the prime minister's authority where needed.   

Success will depend on personalities as much as titles

As with Jeremy Heywood, the success of Simon Case’s appointment will depend a great deal on whether the balance of personalities in No10 is right – both for officials and political appointees. These informal aspects, more than formal structures and titles, are crucial for a successful centre. Case will need the support of the existing No.10 staff and other officials – including the cabinet secretary and fellow permanent secretaries. He has the advantage of having worked closely with both Mark Sedwill and many other senior officials under both May and Cameron.

Most importantly, however, Case will need the ongoing support and endorsement of Boris Johnson. Jeremy Heywood made the job work because his role, and his strengths, were clear throughout Whitehall. Crucially, however, he had the confidence and trust of the prime minister. Case’s rank shows that he has Johnson’s backing. How the new No.10 permanent secretary fits into existing structures is still to be seen. If it is not clear, or if there are disagreements about Case’s new role, then the new permanent secretary will just become part of the problem.



Related content