Sir Jeremy Heywood – Chinese Whispers – Is This Anyway to Run a Country?

November 30 2013: Jeremy Heywood leads a fresh offensive against Maude – so, what chance civil service reform?

With all that’s been happening this week, from policy flip-flops to floppy mustaches, you may not have noticed that war has broken out. So I’ll give you a rapid-fire briefing. The arena is Whitehall. The aggressors are senior civil servants. And the targets are certain Coalition ministers. I know what you’re probably thinking: “Yawn! Wake me up when there isn’t war along Whitehall.” But I’ve always thought that the idea of constant, vicious fighting between ministers and bureaucrats is overplayed, for reasons that I described in a post earlier this year. It’s rarely that bad… but this, this week, this is pretty bad.

So, what’s happened? It started on Monday with a story in The Independent about a chat between Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, and David Cameron. Apparently, Heywood was acting to, “save the career” of the DWP’s permanent secretary, Robert Devereux, who – it is claimed – has been the victim of a “concerted political briefing campaign” over the start-up failures of the Universal Credit. The article contained a richly ironic line about how Heywood believes that, “such conversations needed to take place in private and not through the newspapers”. He thinks, as well, that, “responsibility also lay with Iain Duncan Smith”.

That may not sound too terrible: just Heywood defending one of his own, mostly. But then the situation was escalated by an item in Sue Cameron’s latest column for the Daily Telegraph. It began: “Is Sir Humphrey about to claim a scalp or two?” And continued with a passage that deserves the full italic treatment:

“Apparently our top civil servant, Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, has already given the PM brutally frank advice about the role of Mr Maude and Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, in briefing against Robert Devereux, the most senior official overseeing Universal Credit. Sir Jeremy believes Mad Frankie and IDS are the problem, rather than Mr Devereux. No doubt both ministers will admire Sir Jeremy’s candour. Roll on the reshuffle!”

Which makes Heywood’s conversation with the Prime Minister sound altogether more bloodthirsty. It’s not just IDS; Francis Maude meets with his disapproval too. Did he push for them to be sacked? Does he want them to be sacked? but that would be awfully dodgy ground for an unelected Cabinet Secretary to be treading upon.

And before you think it’s all Heywood, a former Cabinet Secretary has also joined the fray. Today, Lord Butler is being interviewed on the BBC’s Week in Westminster – and, judging by the quotes that have been released in advance, he also harbor’s grievances about, “sniping” against senior civil servants. Perhaps his most biting line is, “I’m sorry to say, I really think that Mr Maude and some of his colleagues don’t understand leadership.”

I should say, at this point, that I have absolutely no enthusiasm for the backbiting and finger-pointing that goes on in Westminster. Lord Butler is on to something when he says that, “the relationship between ministers and the civil service works best when they work together in a mutually supportive relationship”.

But there’s still something perturbing about these latest complaints, particularly the ones involving Heywood. After all, it’s easy to see how they could run counter to the Coalition’s wider – and much needed – efforts to reform the civil service. If criticism of senior civil servants is regarded as beyond the pale, then what chance that the same civil servants will be made more accountable? If the Cabinet Secretary can go to such lengths to, “save the career” of a colleague, what does it mean for ministers having greater control over who they hire and fire? If Jeremy Heywood wants ministers sacked, who’s really in charge?

For his part, Francis Maude gave a speech to a group of civil servants yesterday – the Top 200 – which, it seems, dealt with some of the criticisms that are flying around. Among its themes, I’m told, was one he has sounded before, that the civil service is crammed full of brilliant people, but – often to their own chagrin – it doesn’t always allow them to capitalise on, or develop, that brilliance. He added that folk don’t want to be patronised by being told that everything is fine when it’s not. In that spirit, let’s just say that things aren’t all fine. A couple of months ago, it was backbenchers who were haranguing the Government over civil service reform. Now it’s back to the old order. The bureaucrats, at least some of them, are angry with their ministers.

July 11 2014: Will Sir Cover-Up knife Francis Maude

There are whispers that Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood is keen that David Cameron moves minister Francis Maude from the Cabinet Office. Maude has been leading the Coalition Government’s spending cuts in Whitehall and is in charge of the drive to make the Civil Service less bureaucratic and obstructive. This has made him an object of considerable resentment among the mandarin class: ‘Sir Humphrey’ regards Maude as an intolerable vandal. The serpentine Heywood wants Maude moved — ‘anywhere… make him the Minister for Siberia!’ is the attitude, according to one Cabinet Office source — in a reshuffle that is expected next week. Mandarins know they would be able to run rings round a new minister. Maude’s glamorous special adviser, Simone Finn, is also regarded as a disruptive threat to top civil servants’ ‘club class’ existence. If he goes, she goes. Cameron is understood in the past to have told Heywood that ‘Francis is going nowhere’, but with the Government in its last year before a General Election, the mandarins’ power has never been greater. Will the PM see off Sir Jeremy’s sly little plan?

Jul 15 2014: With the removal of Sir Bob Kerslake, the reform of the Civil Service has gathered pace

The axing of Sir Bob Kerslake as part-time head of the Civil Service marks both a new departure in the reform of Whitehall and a return to the old Thatcherite model of a single, all-powerful figure who is both the PM’s right-hand mandarin and the ultimate boss of the nation’s bureaucrats. The announcement of the brutal restructuring at the very top of Whitehall has brought great sympathy for the able and well-liked Sir Bob, but also relief that Sir Jeremy Heywood is to combine his current job as Cabinet Secretary with being head of the Civil Service. The experiment of splitting the two jobs and of downgrading the latter by making it part time has failed – as many warned it would. The new arrangements are a recognition of this.

Downing Street has announced the creation of a new chief executive post at the centre of government but he or she will be answerable to Sir Jeremy as head of the Civil Service. The lines of accountability in Whitehall will once again be clear. This will be widely welcomed by the senior civil service though there are bound to be accusations that the already powerful Sir Jeremy is becoming even more influential.

Recruitment of the new chief executive, who will take over responsibility for Civil Service reform from Sir Bob, will be put in train this week though an appointment is not expected to be finalised until the autumn. The job is widely expected to go to an outsider with business experience. Certainly it will be an “open” competition which means anyone can apply but the Board will be chaired by Sir David Normington, the First Civil Service Commissioner, and it will be made on merit – the criterion for all senior Whitehall appointments ever since the abolition 150 years ago of what the Victorians called jobbery and we call cronyism. Making the Whitehall announcement in the middle of a ministerial reshuffle was probably the best way of playing it down. Many members of the public do not know the names of the ministers who are being moved and nor do they much care. Changes at the top of the Civil Service are likely to impinge on the national consciousness even less.

The new set-up offers something for both Whitehall traditionalists and the cabinet office minister Francis Maude. The latter has been going in for more or less open warfare with much of the rest of Whitehall, criticising civil servants in general for allegedly “blocking” his drive for Civil Service reform. He has also been accused of orchestrating briefing in the media against named officials, including Sir Bob. The two have barely been on speaking terms for some time. Plenty of people reckon Sir Bob was treated abominably and never given the room to lead. The angst that Sir Bob has had to endure could put off outsiders. Why put up with all the hassle and uncertainty of working with politicians? Good candidates may take some persuading to put their hats in the ring – particularly given the limits on senior civil service pay. If a suitable candidate is found, expect to see much greater centralisation of Whitehall – something which Mr Maude has battled for long and hard.

July 16 2014: Stop briefing against officials, ministers say, as head of civil service quits

Ministers must stop briefing against civil servants, ministers have said, after the head of the civil service quit blaming unfair briefings against the officials. Number 10 announced at the height of the Cabinet reshuffle earlier this week that Sir Bob Kerslake, who has run the civil service for two years, is leaving this Autumn. Sir Bob has been both Head of the Home Civil Service and permanent secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government since 2012. He will retire from the Civil Service in February next year when he turns 60. In a blog reflecting on his time in Whitehall, published on the Government’s official website after he resigned, Sir Bob attacked damaging personal briefings against civil servants. He said: “Less brilliant have been the ‘noises off’ criticizing civil servants and accusing them of being reluctant to change. “Such criticism is deeply unfair and I hope that I have done my bit to challenge it. You can though, be its biggest advocates, talking with pride to your friends outside about what we deliver on a daily basis.”

Sources close to Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, said he would remind ministers not to engage in briefings against civil servants. One said: “There has been some unfair criticism [of him]. Francis does not think there should be briefing against civil servants or ministers. “We should conduct very candid conversations in private and that is the way to do things.” The job of Cabinet Secretary and head of the civil service was held by one civil servant until 2012 when it was split in two. Under changes announced this week ministers are now hunting in the private sector for a new chief executive in charge of the civil service. The new chief executive will report in to Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet secretary.

July 15 2014: Anger over ‘political’ departure of civil service head Sir Bob Kerslake Whitehall mandarins ‘undermined’ by sudden announcement after whispering campaign and amid reshuffle

Senior civil servants have expressed anger at the way the government has handled the departure of the head of the civil service after two and a half years in the job. Sir Bob Kerslake is to resign in the autumn, to be replaced by Sir Jeremy Heywood, who will remain as cabinet secretary, according to an announcement on Tuesday, coinciding with the government reshuffle. The decision marks the end of a two-year experiment in which the civil service leadership was split. But the way the announcement was made – following a year-long whispering campaign against Kerslake inspired by ministerial aides – has undermined Whitehall’s mandarins, it was claimed. Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA, the senior civil servants’ union, said that Kerslake’s abrupt departure following a year of unsourced criticisms had damaged the relationship between his members and ministers. “The speculation around Sir Bob’s position – and the off-the-record briefings that have accompanied it – will have done little to reassure civil servants of politicians’ and ministers’ understanding of the qualities of leadership, which MPs themselves are often so quick to accuse public servants of lacking,” he said. “If the new role of chief executive is to succeed and genuinely deliver the pace of reform that the government says it wants, then it will need the support of ministers in departments as well as at the Cabinet Office.”

Penman’s comments have been echoed by Bernard Jenkin, the Tory chair of the public administration select committee, who said the briefings against Kerslake were “totally unacceptable”.
Jenkin said: “The committee warned that splitting the roles was unlikely to be a durable arrangement, and Sir Bob has had to face some exceptional challenges. The backstairs briefings against him were totally unacceptable. He has maintained a reputation for integrity and professionalism throughout,” he said.

David Cameron announced on Tuesday that a new chief executive role would be created to lead the government’s reform agenda, paving the way for a major reshaping of the civil service in the runup to the general election. Downing Street said that the recruitment process would begin shortly, with an announcement likely by the autumn. A chief executive of the civil service will be sought, a new post that ministers hope will produce clearer lines of accountability.

Kerslake, 59, will also stand down as permanent secretary of the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) in February. Known as “Whispering Bob”, Kerslake started his career in the Greater London Council and later worked for Hounslow council. He became the most senior civil servant at the DCLG in 2010 and head of the civil service in 2012. His departure follows a whispering campaign about his performance. Those close to ministers said he had failed to make progress on reform. Reports last year claimed that he was due to be sacked then, after his job was offered to other people by senior ministers. On Tuesday afternoon, there was speculation that the government was rushed into making the announcement of Kerslake’s departure following a report on Monday’s Newsnight programme which claimed that Kerslake had been sacked. Some expressed surprise that a broad overhaul of the civil service was announced in the middle of a reshuffle, because it implied that Kerslake’s departure was a political decision. In a blog posted on Tuesday morning, Kerslake confirmed his departure, praised his colleagues and took a swipe at critics of the civil service in what appeared to be a criticism of ministers, including Francis Maude. “The vast majority of civil servants work outside Whitehall, and one of the very best bits of my job has been travelling around the country visiting civil servants where they work. “Less brilliant have been the ‘noises off’ criticising civil servants and accusing them of being reluctant to change. Such criticism is deeply unfair and I hope that I have done my bit to challenge it,” he wrote. Heywood has been one of the most highly regarded civil servants for nearly two decades, serving both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. A No 10 spokesman said Kerslake had made a series of reforms to the civil service of which he could be proud.

Added comment:

August 6 2013: Douglas Carswell has plenty to say about civil servants and the power of the mandarins. With regard to EU matters he refers to the mandarins “who really run this country” and who “have run it into the ground”

April 18 2012: Douglas Carswell raised concerns during prime minister’s questions that the government was being blocked in efforts to reform public services by an over-powerful civil service…..Carswell told HuffPost that he feared ministers had become hostage to a civil service that had its own agenda and wanted to stymie reform. “We have a political unit [in Downing Street] stuffed full of civil servants, and we find too often minsters are in fact departmental spokesman, and the departments run them.

February 8 2014: John Charlesworth said, my daughter with a masters degree entirely funded out of taxed income is unable to find a job. She suffers both coeliac and the related disease of diabetes, she has been told that she is running out of credit and will have to attend a food bank to help her live I then learn that this criminal IDS has spent £225,000 on each of the 3000 claimants already on Universal Credit. Don’t forget folks we are in it together and it’s called s,,t. When is this man going to be jailed. Don’t hold your breath.

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