How do you keep a civil service performing at its best in a world of chaotic change? What do you do when unpredictable events like Brexit or the Salisbury poisoning intrude on your carefully-laid plans? What makes a great public servant, and how do you encourage radical thinking in your organisation?
Sir Jeremy Heywood has been head of the civil service in the UK since 2014, a title he added to his pre-existing post as cabinet secretary. He spoke to Apolitical about these questions, and the challenges and opportunities facing government.
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What are the next big changes for the UK civil service?
We have this big project called Brexit which you may have heard of. But even before Brexit came along, there were massive pre-existing pressures: rising public expectations about the quality of services; greater and greater demands for more openness and accountability; obviously huge technological changes, and everyone’s talking about machine learning and AI.
Is there going to be something completely new over and above technology, demography, rising public expectations? Probably not. But that pre-existing set of challenges, or the acceleration of them, already poses a huge challenge to any bureaucracy.
Is the organisation going to have to change to meet those challenges?
I would like to think that the structure we’ve got is pretty adaptive to the world we’re in. I mean obviously you have to change your skill set. But the current basic structure of a civil service, where people are non-political and chosen on merit, the values that we’ve had for many many decades now, I don’t think those things are going to change very much, if at all. I hope not because I think the model basically works.
Do you think automation will change the size of the civil service?
I think we’ll continue the trend that we’ve been on for many years, which is using technology to make ourselves smaller, more efficient. We’re, broadly speaking, at the smallest we’ve been since the Second World War. A lot of clerical work that was done by tens and tens of thousands of people a few years ago has been replaced.
But of course we still employ 400,000 people. So there’ll still be many many thousands of jobs in the civil service for many years to come, whatever happens with AI or machine learning.
How big a worry is AI? Is it a major priority?
We’ve got three priorities, which we’ve had for several years now, because I very strongly believe in maintaining a consistency of strategy. Those are: to make ourselves a much more commercial civil service, a more digital civil service, a more diverse civil service that reflects the society we serve.
These are areas where we are relatively not as good as we should be, or weren’t when we set off on this journey in 2014, but I think we are improving. And as part of that, we’ll look for opportunities to deploy the most recent, up-to-date technologies.
Why are commercial skills so important?
We spend tens of billions of pounds a year on behalf of taxpayers, buying goods and services, and it’s vital that the taxpayer isn’t fleeced. It’s essential that civil servants have the experience to manage those contracts tightly, to try and reward good practice, and try to get good value for money for the taxpayer.
How do you think that’s going, in light of the collapse of the outsourcing company Carillion and the re-nationalisation of the East Coast railway line?
I don’t think those were problems caused by government. In both those cases, you saw a very hard-headed, very strong commercial response by the government. On Carillion, our task was to do contingency planning, to make sure that no public sector service suffered. There were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of contracts across the public sector and we did some really excellent work to work out how we were going to handle them. This was a private sector problem, not a government problem. Our issue was dealing with it.
Similarly on the railways, that was a private sector contract and our task is to make sure that the travelling public don’t suffer. And that’s what we will do — and make sure that the taxpayer gets good value for money from the successor arrangements.
Do you think civil servants can be outgunned by their private sector partners?
I think in the past we may have been outgunned on negotiating some deals. There have always been really great pockets of expertise in the civil service. When I first joined the Treasury in the 1980s, when we were doing the privatisation program, we had some brilliant people who were every bit the equal of our advisors in the City. In many respects the UK civil service led the world on privatisation and UK civil servants were then highly prized around the world for their commercial expertise in that area.
We then went on to private finance which, although it gets criticised in many parts of the British media, actually did a hugely good job in generating lots of new investment. Again, the British led the way on that. So we’ve always had very good experts in parts of the civil service, but it hasn’t been consistent, so we’ve seen mistakes made. Our task is to make sure that the best is spread right across the civil service, and we’re not outgunned.
What stops big changes to the civil service actually taking place?
It’s partly management bandwidth. I’ve seen civil service reform programs come and go over my 30-odd-year career and the biggest problem is usually that you have 15 priorities or you have 30 priorities. After six months of enthusiasm, it all gradually fades away. So we’ve got these three priorities. I think the most important thing is consistency of leadership and focus.
The other great problem in the civil service is events. Things like Brexit come along, or the Salisbury poisoning, things that distract management attention, ministerial attention, permanent secretary attention away from the pre-existing plans. That’s another case for simplification.
How much do you think about making the teams and departments within the civil service more innovative? Is that a priority?
Absolutely. The most senior permanent secretaries meet round this table once a month, and a big theme is encouraging people to challenge conventional wisdom, the right to challenge, making it safe to challenge, avoiding groupthink, innovation, these are definitely part of the cultural change we want to see brought about.
We often hear that the risk aversion and hierarchical nature of government bodies can stifle innovation. Do you see that?
Yes, I think there is a natural risk aversion in bureaucracies. Because part of the purpose of being a bureaucracy — and in contrast to many people I think bureaucracy is not a dirty word, I’m proud of being a bureaucrat — but bureaucrats are there to bring order to decision making and to make sure that people don’t make decisions without full evidence, without considering all the implications. Sometimes that can be misinterpreted as a desire to slow things down.
But part of my job as a leader is to send a signal that you won’t get shot down for producing a radical idea which is a bit surprising and unusual, not what anyone was expecting. Brexit is a very good example of this. We’ve had to do a lot of outside-the-box thinking, and the prime minister, personally, is constantly saying to the civil service, I want some fresh ideas, I don’t want to be stuck with that pre-existing model.
Do you think it’s largely a question of setting the tone, or are there other things you’re doing to try to make that happen?
I think setting the tone is very very important. It’s who gets promoted, who doesn’t get promoted, the role models in the organisation — there’s a whole gamut of ways of signalling that innovation is to be rewarded. The most important thing of all is that when people do try to be creative, when they get it wrong, you don’t come down on them too hard. If it’s an honest mistake and they’ve learnt from it, then that should be almost celebrated, that shouldn’t be disparaged.
Perhaps the best example, behavioural insights, was widely sniffed at in 2010 as a sort of faddish idea. But gradually, by people like myself and my predecessor Gus O’Donnell signalling to people that this is something to be taken seriously, then the accumulation of case studies showing that the techniques could work, and then bringing those to the attention of everyone else, the credibility has built to the point where it’s almost mainstream. And that’s been done by a relatively small team. We get a huge amount of amplification out of that small number of people.
How do you compare the UK’s to other civil services?
A couple of years go, we found that there were very few reliable benchmarking programs that were relevant to us. We were not that impressed, frankly, so we did quite a lot of work ourselves to develop a new indicator, INCISE. It’s now independent of us, and on that, we come out reasonably well, in the top four or five I think.
But I am very, very committed to us spending time trying to learn from other systems, trying to learn from benchmark indicators like that to see what we can do better.
Do you think of that benchmarking in terms of the civil service’s skills or in terms of policy areas, like health, say?
I think we see it mainly as a skills question, because a lot of policies in the British system are determined by ministers, elected politicians who have put out manifestos and been voted in on particular policies, so if the policies aren’t regarded as strong, that’s not really always the civil service’s fault. Whereas I definitely feel accountable for making sure the civil service has the right commercial skills, the right digital skills, the right diversity, the avoidance of groupthink, those sorts of cultural questions.
(Picture Credit: Cabinet Office)