04 February 2015

"Everything I say tonight is through a lens of implementation,” said John Manzoni as he began his keynote address on civil service reform at the Institute for Government. It’s central to how he sees his role as chief executive and a perspective “that is the only value that someone like me can bring to a role like this".

Whoever forms the government in May will have big plans, requiring further reform of the Civil Service. The challenge is daunting – likened by Manzoni to flying a plane while reconfiguring how it works. He set out four priorities.

First, getting good people into Whitehall, keeping them there, and training them. This doesn’t just mean attracting people from outside – though he said there is more to do on that – but also improving the offer the Civil Service makes to talented young people who want to build a career in what Manzoni described as “the best sweet shop in the country in terms of opportunities”. The Civil Service still attracts the “brightest and best”, he said, but needs to do more to invest in development.

John Manzoni speaking at the Institute for Government

John Manzoni speaking at the Institute for Government

Central to achieving this, Manzoni said, is his second priority: developing functional leadership. This means having people responsible for building capability in vital functions – including finance, projects, commercial, communications and legal. “We could leave this to departments, but it’s far more powerful to do it centrally … reaching across department boundaries,” said Manzoni. Recalcitrant departments should take note of his warning: “we should maintain existing control mechanisms with a view to evolving them to a more standards based approach”.

The third priority he set out was performance management. “For a system which delivers so much,” Manzoni reflected, “we don’t yet have a well-developed performance management culture”. The Civil Service needed “mechanisms which performance manage outcomes and which at the same time reinforce and clarify accountability” – though he didn’t mention previous attempts at doing this through public service agreements or departmental business plans. Manzoni referred to the first set of published permanent secretary objectives – the long lists of which “tells us something isn’t right”. The Institute for Government agrees that this needs improvement. While the role of a permanent secretary is complex, this year’s much improved objectives show that it is possible to avoid the long lists so evident in previous efforts.

The fourth priority Manzoni identified was leadership. Supporting and harnessing confident “big leaders” in the Civil Service is essential to his vision: “without them I certainly cannot achieve what I have set out”. He showed frustration at government being “remarkably unjoined up” when “the future will demand a greater degree of collaboration” – both between departments, and between the centre and departments. Manzoni was though optimistic about the willingness of civil servants to work together: “if you set the context right, guess what, intelligent people reach the same conclusions and they move in the same direction”. But intelligent departmental officials also have diverging incentives. In our view, the next spending review will be a critical test of their ability to collaborate – something made harder by the way the Treasury runs reviews.

At the heart of Manzoni’s four priorities – people, functions, performance and leadership – was an emphasis on having the right mix of people in place, getting the right advice to senior leaders. Why does any of this matter? He has experienced the human cost of getting the mix wrong – something which injected both grit and passion into the conversation. Recalling the Texas City refinery explosion in 2005, Manzoni, then responsible for that part of BP’s business, judged that “BP made a mistake because we put too many generalists into the system” who did not communicate the warnings from specialists on the ground to the “top of the shop”. The lesson Manzoni learned was to “never underestimate the experience and expertise that comes from living and breathing a particular system over a lifetime” – which is why he is passionate about building civil service career paths in delivery. “It’s the blend of generalists and experts” who can deliver what the government wants, he said.

This led to sharp criticism for the civil service preference for generalists. “Government does really hard things, and we ask very bright generalists to do them, and the blunt truth is that doesn’t always work very well.” There are numerous examples he could have chosen to illustrate his point. “The mistake never to make,” Manzoni repeated several times, “is to assume that just because you can conceptualise something on a piece of paper, you actually understand the risks and trade-offs.” Instead, investing in delivery specialists needs to be taken seriously even if “they can’t speak fancy language, and they can’t write erudite papers, and they can’t recite the history of the damn thing” because “they know what’s happening”. In terms of favouring generalists, “I believe we’ve gone too far,” he said. That may be true, but the real test will be to watch who gets promoted to see if real change is coming.

This left an unanswered question though: what about policy? Lord Sainsbury reflected from the floor that his experience as a minister was that there were problems with the quality of policy put to ministers. Manzoni didn’t quite accept this, preferring to focus instead on his delivery theme. “I am a simple guy,” he shrugged, “start with delivery and we’ll get to the rest”. In fairness, policy is not one of the functions he is responsible for, resting instead with the Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service, Sir Jeremy Heywood, and the policy profession head, Chris Wormald. But while Manzoni sees his role as “setting the context” and “harnessing” the functional leads to deliver the government’s agenda, stripping policy out of the equation seems a curious omission.

The other unanswered question was what kind of political drive is required for the change Manzoni wants to see? While paying tribute to Francis Maude as the “shock the system needs”, he also said “the Civil Service should not need Francis Maude to reform itself, we need to do it to ourselves”. The next phase of reform should be “designed and delivered by us” and far from wanting political support, Manzoni asserted that “we should not and do not need anybody else to tell us what to do”.

On one level he has a point. The collective leadership of the Civil Service – especially the Cabinet Secretary and the Permanent Secretary to the Treasury – must take responsibility for the reform agenda. Yet the history of civil service reform suggests that to go it alone without political support may prove unwise. If the connection between political priorities and reform is not made, the likely tendency of the rest of the system – not least the Treasury – is to ignore reform and fall back on the established way of doing things.

While the Civil Service might benefit from having more of Manzoni’s “big leaders”, it’s rare to find one in Whitehall who doesn’t have a supportive minister backing them – something Manzoni did not mention explicitly. As the Institute’s study of previous reforms has found, while strong association with any particular politician (like Francis Maude, perhaps?) is risky, a certain level of political support is essential. Manzoni did touch on this in another point in his speech, noting that to achieve planned efficiencies of £10bn would require “brave decisions politically and administratively”.

There is no question John Manzoni is deeply committed to the four priorities he has set himself. But the crucial question is whether the civil service leadership, the Treasury, and the politicians are “up for it” in the same way Manzoni believes permanent secretaries are. “The first lesson I learned in Whitehall”, he reflected, “is that I can’t do it by myself”.