17 March 2011

The recently released 'external contact' chart from the Cabinet Office provides a fascinating insight into the different roles played by Cabinet secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell and No.10 Permanent Secretary, Jeremy Heywood.

BBC4's The Secret World of Whitehall last night gave a fascinating glimpse into the secretive world of the incumbent Cabinet Secretary Gus O'Donnell and the interactions between the Cabinet Office and No 10.

We have analysed the external contacts in the last quarter of 2010 for Sir Gus and No 10's Permanent Secretary Jeremy Heywood (PDF, 148KB). They show a fascinating difference in what they do.

How Sir Gus spends his time

We divided the external meetings reported by Sir Gus and Jeremy into four categories:

  • specific policy
  • general discussion
  • representational
  • purely social.

What emerges is that people don’t come to talk to the Cabinet Secretary about policy specifics – but that much of the role is taken up with representational activities both inside and outside the civil service.

How Gus O Donnell spends his time

But if you want to talk policy specifics

...you come to see Jeremy Heywood. Jeremy spends no time at all on representational roles,  does no external speaking and does barely any official socialising.  But he is in frequent discussion on both general policy issues and on policy specifics.

How Jeremy Heywood spends his time

And what they come to talk to him about

The list also provides a fascinating insight into what issues are on  No.10’s mind. It is not easy to get behind the black door.  But those getting to see Jeremy came to discuss growth (skills, venture capital and the high tech hub), energy, financial markets, the Big Society and education.

Playing to their strengths?

Both Jeremy and Gus are economists – and one of the most powerful ideas in economics is the benefit of specialisation around comparative advantage.

What is emerging is a clear differentiation of  the roles of Cabinet Secretary with its strong leadership role in and for the civil service and the relatively new role Permanent Secretary at No.10 with its dominant focus on policy specifics.


Would like to know how "specific policy" was defined ... and to make clear it is distinct from policy detail/specifics

Few if any senior civil servants get involved in policy specifics these days, especially as they relate to execution or delivery

Hi - thanks for comment. If oyu look at the CO data there are discussions eg on "general business issues" which I have classified as general discussions; others are down as eg "nuclear new build" which I have classified as specific policy.

These are, of course, Gus and Jeremy's own classifications.. But look at the link and you can see the differences.

Or there could be another economic concept at play - revealed preference.

This reminds me of Henry Mintzberg's research on What Do Managers Do? This broke down the work of CEOs. In a later study he did the same for public sector managers... Pity there probably isn't enough in this data to use the same analytic categories, it would have made an interesting comparison.

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