11 October 2011

With the announcement of Sir Gus O’Donnell’s resignation as Cabinet Secretary, the role is now to be split from that of Head of the Civil Service for the first time in nearly 30 years. Dr Catherine Haddon examines the issues such a change might raise.

The news that Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service, Sir Gus O’Donnell, is to retire by the end of the year, is not unexpected. He has served for more than 6 years, close to the average since 1979. What is more fascinating is that he leaves in his wake not just one successor, but three.

The new Cabinet Secretary will be Jeremy Heywood, who has been Permanent Secretary to Number 10 since January 2008. The Cabinet Office will be headed by a Permanent Secretary, making a reduction in the number of permanent secretaries there – a significant cost saving. This effectively elevates its departmental role, but in a way that reflects its changed role since the election (with its central reforming role through the Efficiency and Reform Group in particular). Ian Watmore will take on this post, in essence consolidating his current role.

The role of Head of the Home Civil Service will therefore revert to being separate from the post of Cabinet Secretary, something that has not occurred since 1983. This will be held by a serving Permanent Secretary at one of the departments. This is significant. It means that these parts of the role may be in danger of being downgraded, like a Head of Profession – some feel that it has too often been a ceremonial role, and that the problems of departmentalism are exacerbated by the lack of a strong post in this area.

Though it appears entirely a division of responsibilities based on the status quo, the balance in some ways reflects that which exists in New Zealand, where there is a Cabinet Secretary who serves within a Department of Prime Minster and Cabinet (DPMC). This post covers the Cabinet and its committees, and the main constitutional advice. It sits somewhat detached, but is managed by, the Chief Executive to DPMC (their Permanent Secretary) who also is the most senior policy adviser. Their Civil Service is headed by the State Services Commissioner, who also holds stronger management and appointment functions.

However, in New Zealand the balance is also maintained by the processes and structures that accompany it. And not all would agree with it, seeing the danger of a Chief Executive to DPMC being kept out of the meeting of the Cabinet, or a State Services Commissioner without day-to-day access to the politicians. And in the UK, the appointment and management processes are also much more ambiguous, so even when it is cleared up as to who would hold those functions, it will still have to be seen as to how they will play out in practice.

This comes to the crux of the issue – how the different roles, powers and personalities will work against and with each other. Some feel that the combined roles since 1983 have worked precisely because of the balance they bring. In theory the two can therefore be mutually reinforcing: the power over Permanent Secretary appointments is reinforced by a relationship with the PM and Cabinet; and the relationship with the PM and Cabinet is in turn facilitated by corporate powers and responsibilities. Many felt this was the reason why Sir Ian Bancroft, a separate Head of the Civil Service 1978-81, was not effective; he was too distant from the PM. Questions about corporate leadership abound in this new set-up.

What is fascinating about this balance is how far it reflects the status quo. It is a solution ad hominem. Heywood has in many ways been the most senior policy adviser to the PM for some years, and has had a successful transition to a new Government. This balance continues and consolidates that role. For Watmore, it would seem to shore up his responsibilities, and may also reflect the growing role of the ERG and its expansion into other areas of the Cabinet Office. So they are effectively putting separate titles on the different functions that Sir Gus held, and which Watmore and Heywood in particular have developed.

There is question whether this is the right time to make the Head of the Civil Service a part time role, when you need the most focus ever to deal with the scale and pace of change that the Civil Service is facing. And there are certainly lessons from history and abroad about how not to manage these different roles. Historically the Cabinet Office has been home to many different bits of machinery: from the Secretariats that serve the Cabinet and its committees; to the all-source assessment intelligence functions, and now National Security Council. It has also been the base for many varied central units, from Central Policy Review Staff in the 1970s, through Efficiency Unit in the 1980s, to the Efficiency and Reform Group today.

What is not clear is who will take over each part – do the secretariats fall to the Cabinet Secretary, as would be expected – but are then separated from the rest of the Cabinet Office? To whom will the National Security Adviser and National Security Secretariat report? And what does this mean for the reporting functions of Permanent Secretaries? Who will be in charge of appointments, and who will report to whom? These are the real questions raised by today’s news.

The Cabinet Secretary role has frequently been a balance of different hats. Now they are on separate heads. But if they manage to work together, the three roles could be a powerful force for change.