Working to make government more effective


The role of the modern Cabinet Secretary

A conversation with Sir Jeremy Heywood.

Ashley Hibben

On Wednesday 23 September, Sir Jeremy Heywood gave a rare and revealing insight in to his roles as Cabinet Secretary and Head of the UK Civil Service. Ashley Hibben reflects on some of the themes arising from Heywood’s discussion with Institute for Government Director Peter Riddell.

“It [the Cabinet Secretary’s role] doesn’t particularly change as one person succeeds another… but rather depends on the circumstances. It changes according to the tastes and preferences of the Prime Minister.” Sir Jeremy Heywood occupies one of the most influential positions in the British Government, which has grown more complex during his tenure. Appointed as Cabinet Secretary in 2011, Heywood still sees his main role as supporting and advising the Cabinet and the Prime Minister (two distinct roles in Heywood’s eyes) on policy. His role expanded considerably in late summer 2014, when he became Head of the Civil Service. Heywood listed eight functions that he considers essential parts of his role: 1. Secretary to the Cabinet “The one irreducible task of being Cabinet Secretary.” Heywood prepares the Cabinet agenda each week and turns it into a minute, while supporting the workings of 18 Cabinet committees. 2. Advising the Prime Minister on policy, governance and ethics “It is basically everything that is important, that is on the PM’s mind and is Number 10’s concern, where a senior civil service voice is needed.” His advice is required on issues ranging from changes to the machinery of government to cross-cutting policy areas such as immigration. Heywood has also advised on major private sector mergers and acquisitions that raise public policy issues, such as the proposed AstraZeneca/Pfizer merger in 2014. 3. Guardian of propriety and ethics, ministerial and Civil Service conduct, custodian of the Cabinet Manual “There is a lot of casework under this heading.” Heywood deals with complaints about ministers and conducts leak inquiries. 4. Driving implementation of Government priorities, commitments and projects Heywood has to ensure that the Civil Service delivers key manifesto commitments and policies, using Single Departmental Plans and Implementation Taskforces to drive implementation. 5. Leading a Civil Service of 440,000 people “For many people this would be one of the biggest things they did; it is just number five on my list.” Heywood’s job is to convene the Permanent Secretaries and coordinate change in the Civil Service. 6. Recruit and manage the 27 permanent secretaries and three directors-general “When people thought I was planning for the next Government [in April 2015], I was writing reviews for permanent secretaries.” Heywood delivers feedback and appraisals for each of the above. 7. Encouraging innovation and continuous learning Heywood’s goal is to make the British Civil Service “the most innovative thinkers about public policy anywhere in the world,” using new ideas such as behavioural insights. “It is optional, but helps us deliver with less resource.” 8. Representing the Civil Service externally “This is a much bigger part of the job than I realised, but it is an important part.” Heywood thinks it is essential to promote and defend the Civil Service to the public. This includes owning a Twitter feed that “According to a number of my journalist friends is the most boring… in Britain,” and appearing in front of Parliamentary select committees. Heywood also gave an insight into “what my private office [thought] I’m doing with my time” under the Coalition at the end of 2014, after he had become Head of the Civil Service. His continued preoccupation is with advising the Prime Minister and the Government of the day on policy, despite taking on leadership of the Civil Service.  
  “Number 10 and the Cabinet Office are now much more interested in driving the implementation of policy than had hitherto been the case.” Although the Civil Service is undergoing significant reform, implementing the Government’s 517 priorities will still be Heywood’s highest concern as Cabinet Secretary. For Heywood “it is the Civil Service’s obligation to implement all of them and serve the elected government of the day.” There are now 11 implementation taskforces that work on delivering cross-departmental priorities, and “the PM feels quite strongly that bringing ministers together from different departments will help us remove the obstacles to the implementation of key priorities.” Heywood works closely with Cabinet Office Minister Oliver Letwin to coordinate this. Heywood’s “optional” focus on making the Civil Service “the best learning organisation in the world” is driven by making sure that ministers “know they’ve got world-class advice” from their civil servants. “We will be smaller, we will be more digital; more expert commercially… and we will be more diverse. It will be a smaller Civil Service, more efficient and more effective.” “The fiscal agenda hasn’t gone away: the need for austerity; pay restraint; and making savings in administration has not gone away, so we’ve got to achieve the above with much less cost.” Heywood highlighted commercial and digital reform as two of his key priorities for this parliament, allowing the Civil Service to “keep all of these balls [policy implementation and resource constraints] in the air at the same time.” Heywood is particularly excited by the potential of digital to enable this, although “as you apply digital techniques, you need less people.” Expanding the ‘government as a platform’ agenda across departments will enable the sharing of functions and more joining up behind the scenes, aiding the implementation agenda. Heywood addressed the recent departure of Mike Bracken from the Government Digital Service (GDS), saying that “talk of an argument [over digital strategy] is overstated.” However, he said: “You can’t run the whole of digital… from the Cabinet Office.” There is a way to go [on diversity], yes on women but even more so I’d say on BMEs and disabilities.” Increasing diversity amongst civil servants is one of Heywood’s key reform priorities for this parliament. Challenged about the fact that there were now fewer senior women than in 2010, Heywood was keen to stress that 42% of senior posts had gone to women in the last six months, indicating a positive trend in that regard. “At the moment, I’m much more worried on BME representation at senior levels, and the harassment and bullying data we get from our people survey from people with disabilities. We really need to understand why we are getting such bad figures on that.” “I simply couldn’t do everything required now in my job, John [Manzoni]’s job, and be Cabinet Office Permanent Secretary. It’s not possible in my view.” Heywood’s priority remains supporting the government of the day as Cabinet Secretary, but he is now also required to spend time managing the direction of the Civil Service. Asked about the enormous breadth of his role, Heywood responded that this was one of the main reasons John Manzoni was recruited as Chief Executive: he “takes a huge burden off my shoulders” by managing the new Civil Service functions such as Commercial, Digital, and Property. Unlike his predecessors, Heywood is also no longer responsible for national security; a National Security Adviser now has direct oversight. It was noted that Sir Gus O’Donnell had held all of the above three roles, but Heywood quipped “Gus did it – but he is 'GOD’!”

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