New UK Cabinet Office chief revealed

By on 30/03/2020
Alex Chisholm: "We are contending with the challenge of the EU exit and with the response to COVID–19 – and we cannot have two ‘main efforts’."

Alex Chisholm, permanent secretary at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), is to replace Sir John Manzoni as UK Cabinet Office permanent secretary. But in an apparent downgrading of the post, Chisholm will not also take on Manzoni’s title of chief executive of the civil service – instead having the role of chief operating officer of the civil service.

Chisholm has been the most senior civil servant at BEIS since September 2016, having served previously as the joint permanent secretary at the department alongside Martin Donnelly. Prior to his time at BEIS, he was permanent secretary at the former Department of Energy and Climate Change, which was merged with the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills to become BEIS in July 2016. He was chief executive of the Competition & Markets Authority (CMA) between 2013 and 2016.

The chancellor for the Duchy of Lancaster and minister for the Cabinet Office, Michael Gove, called Chisholm “an outstanding public servant who has also had a successful career in business and regulation.”

“In the medium term, much of Alex’s work will necessarily be coronavirus response related,” Gove continued. “But Alex will be responsible for supporting ministers to develop and then drive forward a reform programme for the civil service, building on the government’s existing efficiency programme. He will also supervise all the Cabinet Office’s various work programmes including on preparing for the end of the transition period, strengthening the union, and defending our democracy.”

Commenting on his appointment, Chisholm said: “I am truly thrilled to be asked to lead the Cabinet Office and civil service reform at this time. The present emergency is a powerful reminder of how important the work of government is to the whole country.

“I look forward to working with ministers, colleagues in the Cabinet Office, permanent secretaries across government and public service leaders, to deliver for the government and the public together.”

End of the Manzoni era

Sir John Manzoni has been chief executive of the UK civil service since October 2014, and was made permanent secretary of the Cabinet Office a year later. It is known that Manzoni had been planning to leave the civil service for some time. His contract ended in October 2019, and it was reported in January that he would stand down this year. It has been confirmed that he is to stay on to support the government’s response to coronavirus over the next few months; a date has not been announced for the handover to Chisholm.  

In the announcement of Chisholm’s appointment, Gove and head of the civil service, Sir Mark Sedwill, thanked Manzoni for his service.

Greg Falconer, who spent six years in the civil service before joining innovation foundation Nesta last year, was at the Cabinet Office when Manzoni joined. “His arrival felt revolutionary,” Falconer wrote on Twitter. “Six years and a knighthood later, he departs as part of the furniture. The fact Maude-era reforms are now just ‘the way things are’ is largely down to him.”

Former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude introduced a suite of reforms to centralise powers in fields such as digital and procurement, and to strengthen the civil service professions. When Manzoni joined the civil service, he was responsible for embedding the reforms – bringing a personal focus on developing the professions, strengthening delivery skills, streamlining central processes, and promoting innovation and intelligent risk-taking.

When news of Manzoni’s imminent departure began to circulate, the Financial Times reported that Chisholm and Clare Moriarty, permanent secretary at the Department for Exiting the EU (DEXEU), were tipped as possible successors. Moriarty announced earlier this month that she would be leaving the civil service when DEXEU was abolished at the end of March 2020.

Business, regulation and the civil service

In his early career, Chisholm held positions at the Office of Fair Trading and Department of Trade & Industry between 1990 and 1996, before moving into the private sector, where he held senior positions in numerous media, technology and e-commerce businesses including the Financial Times, Pearson, eCountries, and Ecceleration.  

He has an MA in history from Oxford University’s Merton College, a masters in business administration from INSEAD Business School, and a senior managers in government qualification from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

Global Government Forum has asked the Cabinet Office for a comment on the change in job title from chief executive to chief operating officer, and will update this article as soon as we receive a response.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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