Sir John Manzoni steps down as UK civil service chief exec but will stay on in advisory role

By on 14/04/2020 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Sir John Manzoni speaking at Global Government Forum's Innovation event in 2019

The chief executive of the UK civil service and Cabinet Office permanent secretary, Sir John Manzoni, worked his last day in the role on Thursday – handing over to Alex Chisholm, who will take the title of civil service chief operating officer. But Manzoni will stay on as an adviser to provide support where needed, probably in an unpaid role, a Cabinet Office insider told Global Government Forum.

In an internal email sent to his civil service colleagues, Manzoni reflected on his six years at the organisation. Leading the civil service through the tail-end of the coalition government, Scotland’s independence referendum and Brexit, Manzoni said, had been “a fantastic experience, working with brilliant people, but I admit I’ve had to work harder and be more focused than ever before”.

Manzoni was brought in to embed a suite of reforms introduced by former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, centralising powers in fields such as digital and procurement and strengthening the civil service professions. In his farewell message, he said the civil service had “successfully transformed the nature and the role of the centre; creating cross-cutting functional structures that have formed an indelible bond between policy and delivery”. He also said that changes to how civil servants are recruited, trained and assessed are ensuring “the right diversity of skills and experience to complement the policy expertise inherent to our organisation”.

“Together, these changes will have a profound and lasting impact on the civil service,” he said.

He said that civil servants “still do 30% too much, and perhaps that is the nature of government”, but commented that he believes he’s leaving behind a structure and a workforce “that will allow the civil service to better advise ministers” on how to address this issue.

Never-ending process of improvement

The improvement of government services is a never-ending process, he wrote, and there is “plenty still to do… so long as there is technological change, citizens’ expectations will continue to increase and we must find faster, easier, cheaper ways of meeting them”. So organisations must continue to transform, “especially if we are to realise our diversity and inclusion ambitions – particularly in the senior echelons”.

However, he concluded, the “calibre, dedication and professionalism of civil servants, like your colleagues across the wider public sector, is unparalleled”.

“Every day you do extraordinary things to improve the lives and livelihoods of millions of your fellow citizens. And at times of crisis you step up, without fanfare, for no greater reason than that it is the right thing to do. Never has that been truer than now. So, while the change must be constant, I hope that we will always preserve and promote what is unique about this incredible organisation and its people.”

He wished his successor Alex Chisholm every success in his new roles and with the next phase of reform and modernisation. Chisholm, who is the former permanent secretary at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), replaced Manzoni as Cabinet Office permanent secretary on Tuesday. However, he will not also take on Manzoni’s title of chief executive of the civil service – instead having the role of chief operating officer.

Manzoni had been planning to leave the civil service for some time. His contract ended in October 2019, but he agreed to stay on to oversee the transition to a new government following the December general election. A Cabinet Office spokesperson confirmed in January that he would be stepping down this year.  

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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