UK civil service chief exec calls for officials to focus on the ‘how’, not the ‘what’

By on 01/02/2018 | Updated on 06/08/2019
John Manzoni speaking at the London School of Economics (Image courtesy: Cabinet Office).

With civil servants under fire in the policy maelstrom of Brexit, John Manzoni wants officials to step away and concentrate on building delivery skills. Liz Heron hears his take on civil service reform

John Manzoni was in playful mood as he settled into a Q& A session at the London School of Economics, after a 30-minute sprint through one of the most wide-ranging reform programmes to the UK civil service in decades.

Asked by Tony Travers, director of the LSE’s Institute of Public Affairs, how ministers are responding to the changes, the chief executive of the civil service elicited a peal of laughter as he quipped that the first answer “at the flippant end, is that they seem to change quite a lot”.

Indeed, the Cabinet Office has had five lead ministers in less than three years, as election setbacks and reshuffles have returned the department to the endless ministerial churn seen under the Labour administration that ended in 2010.

“But underneath that is a more serious point,” said Manzoni. “The civil service is building things that will last a lifetime but, quite frankly, ministers come and go. It is there to serve the ministers but actually… civil servants do need to be looking to a longer time frame than the next five years.”

‘Beaten up’

Manzoni was appointed to the new role of civil service chief executive in October 2014 by then-prime minister David Cameron to lead the government’s drive for efficiency savings and strengthen leadership in the specialist professional ‘functions’, as part of a wider transformation programme. He explained his agenda to Global Government Forum two years ago in an extensive interview.

After delivering a landmark speech on the programme last week, the former oil industry executive said he’s struck by the “stunning” sense of public service among civil servants – but also noted that their primary focus on policy has left the service feeling “a bit beaten up”.

“If what the civil service does is policy and only policy, over time and in subtle ways it changes the dynamic between politicians and the civil service to a way that I think is detrimental to this country in the long term,” he said, adding that policy is always the agenda of the politicians.

Over recent months the civil service has been caught up in internal Conservative Party tussles over the UK’s future relationship with the EU, with officials repeatedly accused by Brexit supporters of being negative about the UK’s economic prospects and international influence once outside the union. Days after Manzoni’s speech, a fresh spat blew up over an economic analysis forecasting significant economic damage from three potential outcomes of EU talks.

Take the long view

Politicians’ ownership of policy “is actually the deep, deep reason that I want to rebuild the civil service in the ‘how’,” Manzoni argued. “If all you do is the ‘what’, it is never ours. What we really need is a civil service which deeply understands through experience how to do what the politicians want us to do.”

Manzoni, who is also permanent secretary to the Cabinet Office, said that he wants the civil service to “remember” that it is permanent and regain “control of our own destiny”.

The confidence that comes with permanence “is not hubris,” he added. “It’s a self-confidence and an experience that allows it to look through the political cycles.”

Over the past three years, Manzoni has led a battery of reforms that span implementing the latest digital technology, moving government offices, promoting “smart” working practices, and launching new skills training programmes and career paths focused on service delivery and acquiring practical experience.

Reforms check-list

“We’ve made significant progress in adopting new technology,” he said. “We’re plugging in digital government from back-office to frontline services. We’re making fundamental changes through innovative services such as Universal Credit and the Personal Tax Account, where the end-to-end process of delivery is being transformed, as well as the interface with the customer.”

Manzoni explained that nearly 100 government services are expected to be available digitally by 2020, while applications of the latest technologies, such as robotic process automation (RPA), are being energetically pursued to improve the delivery of services.

“Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is at the forefront of the RPA revolution,” he said. “It has already automated its system for registering new employers. And we have set up a Centre of Excellence to accelerate the take-up of RPA across government.”

Tony Travers asking the questions at the LSE Q&A with John Manzoni

Data and training

The handling and use of government data was another key focus, exemplified in the recent announcement of a new Geospatial Commission to exploit the government’s huge reserves of data on geography and location – currently held by more than 70 separate bodies.

“It will establish a set of common standards to make the data easier to find, access and link up with other data sets – fuelling new insights and innovations,” said Manzoni. “Making this information more easily available and usable is potentially worth more than £10bn [US$14bn] per annum – boosting the UK economy and generating new jobs.”

New training initiatives that are underway to make the most of the opportunities – raising skills levels across the civil service – include The Digital Academy, which trains up to 3,000 civil servants a year in data, technology and digital skills; and a Data Science Campus, in Newport, which will eventually produce up to 500 qualified data analysts.

Delivering delivery skills

“The second area of major change we are undertaking is in the shape of the workforce,” said Manzoni. “The civil service is brilliant at policy – the best in the world, according to the first International Civil Service Effectiveness Index.

“This is a vital strength. It has served the civil service well for at least a decade. But to meet the challenges ahead, we need something more, and that is deeper experience in delivery – in particular commercial, technical and project execution skills. This is increasingly clear as we tackle the challenge of exiting the EU, for which we must design new UK policies and institutions, and build new systems to execute them.”

Implementing this change involves breaking the mould of the traditional civil service career, which is geared towards nurturing policy experts, he said, arguing for the creation of career paths that allow civil servants to gain promotion and skills in a single role than hopping from job to job.

“In a few years’ time, my vision is that the leadership of the civil service will have a blend of skills and experiences, supplementing the predominant policy or economics background of today with delivery experience gained within the organisation,” he said. “This is perfectly achievable: we can offer fabulous experience to delivery-orientated young people across a vast range of challenging projects.”

All government functions are already building their own career paths, Manzoni explained, while the graduate Fast Stream offers opportunities for new and existing civil servants in 15 different schemes ranging from Digital, Data & Technology to Project Delivery and Commercial.

Leading the way on leadership

A new Civil Service Leadership Academy, launched in October, aims to develop leadership ability in people from a wide range of backgrounds, he said. It will initially provide training to senior civil servants, but later offer programmes open to all grades.

“It is setting out to do this in quite a new way, combining what is known about leadership and learning with practical insight from first-hand experience,” said Manzoni.

“With a ‘leaders teaching leaders’ approach, we will use immersive case studies to learn from real projects and examples of governance, both good and bad, from the very people who were involved in them. And to produce leaders who ‘connect’, the academy will teach the human and emotional lessons – as well as the operational ones – of what’s worked and what hasn’t.

“We need leaders with empathy, who can manage their teams through transformation and encourage continuous improvement; leaders with broader experience, who are effective in a complex, multidisciplinary world, who lead with their hearts and their guts, as well as their heads; who see the big picture.”

The plan is to build a training institution at the heart of the civil service that “embodies and promotes our deeply-held values” and serves as a place where “knowledge is held and experience shared” and that becomes “the benchmark for leadership development”, he added.

About Liz Heron

Liz Heron is a journalist based in London. She worked on daily newspapers for more than 16 years as an education correspondent, section editor and general news reporter. She was Education Editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and has contributed to a wide range of British media including The Independent, The Guardian and the BBC.

One Comment

  1. Jag Patel says:

    The performance and work output of the UK Civil Service, including deeper experience in delivery – in particular commercial, technical and project execution skills – would be much improved if senior Civil Servants gave up their habit of relying on presentation and spin to get across the Government’s message.

    Most informed observers have always known that the political class has evolved innovative methods of communication which estranges its members from the voters they are supposed to represent.

    In a well-functioning democracy, the Government has a moral duty to be open and honest with citizens about its policy positions. However, in an age of media-driven Government, tensions have become acute between the governing elite’s need to get their message across to citizens, and the Civil Service’s obligation to compile factually-based Government pronouncements.

    However, it is nigh on impossible to separate out the true facts from such policy pronouncements because they are framed in language which propagates half-truths and sometimes, downright lies – with the deliberate intention of deceiving. Even more worryingly, press releases which are the primary source of information for the press and media about what Government is doing are crafted in such a way as to, in effect, say ‘look here, not there’ thereby focusing their attention exactly where Government wants them to, away from areas it would rather not defend in public.

    One of the reasons for this modus operandi is that Government is preoccupied with presentation, manipulation of words and the dark art of spinning – instead of working on its programme of reform to deliver public services efficiently, to satisfy the wants, needs and expectations of the electorate.

    The political imperative of needing to put a positive slant on everything the Government does or will do, irrespective of whether it is true or not, is the reason why spin has become the centrepiece of this Government’s communications strategy. And because Government has got a monopoly on inside information (enabling it to maintain extremely tight control), it uses spin to divert attention away from the key issues that really matter to citizens and consequently, succeeds in suppressing alternative views and criticism from those on the outside, including Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.

    Conventional wisdom has it that Ministers shape high-level policy and select from policy options developed by special advisers and mandarins, whilst it is the job of senior Civil Servants to define lower-level policy detail underneath, so that it can be used by the rest of the Civil Service to implement the policy of the Government. However, the eagerness with which senior Civil Servants have complied with their political masters’ desire to see policy announcements framed around presentation and spin, at the expense of substance, would explain why their skills set has been narrowed down to this single, dark art.

    It would also explain why the Civil Service has failed to deliver against promises made by the governing elite, in their election manifestos. This failure has been brought about by the erosion and downgrading of traditional specialist disciplines in the Civil Service like technical, commercial and project management – skills which are absolutely essential to the delivery of public services in today’s world.

    What’s more, this intense focus of attention on presentation alone has resulted in a massive gap opening up between the leadership and lower ranks of the Civil Service, who have to deal with the reality of delivering public services on the ground, on a day-to-day basis, which has in itself led to alienation and disaffection.

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