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A CEO for the Civil Service

What could it mean?

Sir Jeremy Heywood made clear to Parliament last week that the Prime Minister has decided that he wants a "chief executive of the civil service". So what might be meant by this?

The role of chief executive is fairly common in the public and private sectors. The exact duties vary between organisations, but there are some standard elements: • being the most senior manager of the organisation • setting and executing the organisation's strategy • being ultimately responsible for performance • acting as the organisation's chief internal and external communicator. How might each of these elements apply in the Civil Service? Most senior manager There is no constitutional or organisational reason why the new Chief Executive of the Civil Service (CEO-CS) should not be the most senior manager of the Civil Service. In the other Westminster systems of Canada and Australia, the head of the prime minister’s department is the most senior manager of the whole Civil Service. In the UK, as recently as 2011, the cabinet secretary was clearly recognisable as the most senior manager. However since 2011, as Sir Jeremy made clear last week, the Prime Minister has decided that the leadership of the Civil Service should be split between 'cabinet secretary' responsibilities and 'management of the civil service' responsibilities. In the iteration announced last week, the CEO-CS will report to the Sir Jeremy in his new role as both Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service. Interestingly, Sir Jeremy suggested that the CEO-CS, not Sir Jeremy himself, would be responsible for managing the Civil Service. If so, it appears the CEO-CS will be the manager of the Civil Service, but not 'most senior'. Organisational strategy The constitutional position of the Civil Service means that, when setting and executing strategy, a chief executive post cannot look exactly like other such roles in the public or private sectors. The presence of ministers in charge of departments within Whitehall, who decide on the policy of the Government, obviously limits the breadth of a chief executive's role. There is though a fairly clear divide that could define the strategic role of a civil service chief executive. The latest set of Permanent Secretary objectives set out clearly the roles of the civil service leadership. Following this, the CEO-CS’s role could cover how the Civil Service: • supports proper decision making by ministers • implements effectively the Government’s priorities • ensures the on-going capability of the Whitehall machine. The final consideration on the chief executive's strategic role is its breadth. In all organisations, some strategy applies across the whole organisation and is driven from the corporate centre, while other aspects of strategy apply and are driven from within its sub-divisions. The chief executive is responsible for both. In Whitehall terms, the question is whether the role will be limited to responsibility for organisational strategy driven from the Cabinet Office, or whether it will include the more substantive responsibility for organisational strategy within departments as well. Performance Chief executives have overall responsibility for the performance of their organisation. Performance has reform aspects – how well is the organisation changing in light of its organisational strategy. But performance also has day-to-day aspects. For the Civil Service, this includes delivering services, maintaining relations with arms-length bodies and, increasingly, overseeing public sector markets – the on-going functions of the state. A chief executive role would normally have responsibility for both aspects of performance. For the civil service, a CEO-CS with a focus on the day-to-day aspects would be helpful, given these are often less of a priority in the political sphere. The key powers of the chief executive in driving performance relate to people. They typically have the power to hire and fire, set objectives and monitor both individual and organisational performance. It is difficult to envisage a chief executive taking responsibility for performance without these powers. Interestingly, Sir Jeremy suggested that the appraisal of permanent secretaries and senior talent management might remain with him, rather than the CEO-CS. This would leave the CEO-CS with limited influence, even if they were responsible for important roles in the Cabinet Office, such as the Director General for Civil Service Reform and the Chief Operating Officer. Another element is that the CEO-CS will have responsibility for the 'functional leadership' of the Civil Service. Normally the chief executive would have a team supporting them – a CFO, a Group HR Director, etc. The civil service has been developing analogues of these supporting roles. To date these have been confined to the leadership of their individual functions, rather than coming together to take a strategic view on the running of the whole of the Civil Service. The creation of the CEO-CS post might change this. Communications Internally, the chief executive is responsible for communicating the overall strategy of the organisation. This goes well beyond formal communications, and usually encompasses what they communicate through their behaviour – who do they speak to, what do they speak about, and how their actions match their words. Externally, the chief executive is the ultimate communicator of the organisation. It is a vital role in managing the most important relationships of the organisation, whether they are with shareholders, politicians or regulators. In some situations, such as in times of crisis, this will also include the press and the public. In both these communication roles, the CEO-CS job will inevitably be split with ministers. For internal purposes, civil servants tend to take on the key role in communication of organisational priorities. But what minsters say and do has big consequences as well. Externally, ministers are accountable to Parliament. Civil servants support them in this role, and outside some clearly defined circumstances, are limited to what communicating what ministers want to say. It is unlikely that the situation would be any different for a CEO-CS. Is what you want what you get? There are a lot of questions here. Some options might produce a recognisable chief executive role within the context of the Civil Service. But all the signs are, from what has been said, including by Sir Jeremy himself, that the post will be different, more circumscribed and limited. It looks like being a chief executive of the Civil Service in name only - at least by comparison with what the title would mean in the private sector and elsewhere in the public sector. There are still many uncertainties about what the post will involve and what the implications are for Sir Jeremy's role. The next step in clarification will be the publication of the job specification and advertisement shortly.
Prime minister
Institute for Government

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