Officials must be free to challenge ‘group think’, says UK civil service chief

By on 15/09/2016 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Sir Jeremy Heywood, cabinet secretary and head of the UK civil service

The Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war has emphasized the importance of civil servants feeling free to “speak truth unto power”, the head of the UK civil service has told a parliamentary committee.

Sir Jeremy Heywood, appointed cabinet secretary in 2012, was fielding questions from members of the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee yesterday, which is following up the huge Chilcot report – published in early July.

He told MPs that in his view the most important thing to come out of Sir John Chilcot’s report – which Heywood described as outstanding, comprehensive and authoritative – was the realisation that government needs to build a more open culture.

“Do you have a culture in which senior officials, ministers and external experts feel it is possible to offer an alternative view to the prevailing wisdom so to avoid group think?” said Heywood, who was principal private secretary to Tony Blair in the run-up to the war between 1999 and 2003.

“A lot of what went wrong in Iraq was a generally held view about what intelligence meant or what WMD were there, which turned out to be wrong.”

A key criticism highlighted by Bernard Jenkin, Conservative MP and select committee chair, was about the late publication of the report, which was commissioned by then-PM Gordon Brown in 2009 and initially expected as early as 2010.

“Everybody agrees, except you apparently, that this took far too long,” said Jenkin, who has previously criticised the lengthy process under which allegations were put to individuals before the report was published.

Heywood said it would have been “desirable to do this much more expeditiously”, but emphasised that the inquiry was a massive undertaking. “It was inevitable that it was going to take much longer than initially advertised,” he said.

On what action might be taken to speed up future inquiries, he could only suggest that a narrower set of terms of reference might help.

He also pointed out that he had not waited for publication of Chilcot’s report before beginning to implement changes to the machinery of government, with the aim of addressing failures such as the lack of joined-up thinking in Whitehall.

The formation of the National Security Council – a cabinet committee established in 2010 by then-prime minister David Cameron – and its many sub-committees has ensured that there’s now a much greater appreciation of cross-departmental challenges, Heywood said.

The Stabilisation Unit – a cross-government unit supporting efforts to tackle instability overseas – and at least 10 other interdepartmental units were introduced to address the problems of departmental ‘silo’-working.

Heywood did, however, admit that he’s “operating against the grain here sometimes”.

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Lord O’Donnell, former Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service, UK: Exclusive Interview

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About Tamsin Rutter

Tamsin Rutter is a journalist based in Brussels, Belgium. She writes on a variety of topics, including public services, cities, local and central government and education. She was formerly the deputy editor of the Guardian's Public Leaders Network and Housing Network.

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