The new Head of the Civil Service

I don’t normally comment on individuals in this blog. It makes me nervous as it runs the risk of ‘personalising’ issues. That said, the appointment today of Sir Bob Kerslake as Sir Gus O’Donnell’s replacement as Head of the Civil Service from January 2012 is something that is worth commenting about because it reveals some of the thinking behind David Cameron and Nick Clegg.

The first point to note is that the role that Kerslake will inherit from O’Donnell will not be the same. The role of Cabinet Secretary will go to Jeremy Heywood while Kerslake takes on the role of Head of the Home Civil Service in addition to his duties as Permanent Secretary for the Department for Communities and Local Government. The split of the roles has raised eyebrows – to the extent that the Public Administration Select Committee is currently taking evidence on the proposed new set up. Catherine Haddon of the Institute for Government raised some initial issues around this new set up at the time of Sir Gus’s announced retirement.

The first thing to note about Kerslake is that he’s not a career civil servant of the mould of his predecessor. O’Donnell is a career civil servant who served as John Major’s press secretary while I was still at secondary school. Kerslake’s first mainstream civil service role is his current one – Permanent Secretary at DCLG (which he was appointed to not long after the 2010 general election). Before his stint as head of the Homes and Communities Agency (formed from a merger of the Housing Corporation and English Partnerships) he spent a number of years as chief executive for Sheffield City Council.

There is already a strong push for decentralisation and the relinquishing of both powers and functions from central government by the Coalition This can be seen in Localism Bill, the proposals for breaking up large parts of the NHS’s existing infrastructure (PCTs and SHAs) in the current Health and Social Care Bill, and the greater drive to ‘outsource’ service provision to the private sector. Combining this with the eternal drive to improve public services through the preferred business school theory of the decade, going for a new civil service head who has delivery experience in an executive role speaks volumes. Several years ago I was in a conference with O’Donnell where he said to us that he would probably be the last person in his role who had no direct delivery experience.

The next point to note is that while Kerslake will have had regular contact with civil servants and the civil service in his local government days, he is less likely to have been ‘institutionalised’ by the civil service in the way that some of his predecessors might have been. How will this play out? Having experience of delivering frontline public services (a feel for which you can get from Tower Hamlets’ chief executive Kevan Collins’ time on Channel 4’s Undercover Boss) certainly brings its strengths to the Whitehall jungle, but it will be interesting to see how he manages the power politics of Number 10 and Cabinet Office given that he’s not had the day-to-day experience of working there in the way his predecessors had. Will this give Jeremy Heywood an upper hand? If it does, Peter Oborne won’t be happy.

Finally, there is the combination of the role of Head of the Civil Service with an existing permanent secretary role. It could be argued that O’Donnell had two jobs, but then the advantage of that set up was that everyone in Whitehall knew who was top dog. We didn’t call him ‘GOD’ for nothing. Will Heywood become de facto Head of the Civil Service due to being at the Prime Minister’s and Deputy Prime Minister’s side on a daily basis? In terms of his role at the Department for Communities and Local Government, this was one of the departments that took a huge hit in the Comprehensive Spending Review – the impact across Whitehall of which has been analysed by the Institute for Government. Given that departments are shrinking and functions are vanishing, does this mean that there is less for a permanent secretary to do these days? (In which case does it therefore make sense to merge some roles as with this one?) This then aligns with calls from Bernard Jenkins MP as Chairman of the Public Administration Select Committee to reduce the number of ministers within government. This was contained in the Committee’s report Smaller Government: What do ministers do? It’s also worth noting the Committee’s inquiries under the same ‘Smaller Government’ theme that covered Shrinking the Quango State and Bigger Society. (Am I the only person who thinks  “Big Society” sounds like the name of a faux rap group put together by some music industry executives for the mainstream market? “Hai! We iz Big Society & we iz rock ‘ard!!”)

In a nutshell, I can see why Cameron went for Kerslake ahead of others. In the mind of the political advisers, Kerslake won’t have been part of the Blair/Brown political machine – in effect he’s got a ‘clean slate.’ As someone who is in effect from outside of the civil service, he’ll be be able to give that ‘external perspective’ that is perhaps more difficult compared to an alternative appointee with a long and potted career history in Whitehall. He’s also got a history of working with Nick Clegg – one of Sheffield’s MPs who will have worked with each other on constituency issues during Kerslake’s time running Sheffield City Council. Could one argue that this appointment was just as much Clegg’s appointment as it was Cameron’s?

In terms of what to keep an eye out for, I’d say the following:

  • How will Kerslake cope with being a Head of the Civil Service who is not based in Cabinet Office?
  • How will Kerslake deal with the challenge of combining the two roles – permanent secretary (and accounting officer) for a department of state as well as head of the civil service?
  • How will the relationship between Kerslake, Heywood and Permanent Secretary for the Treasury Sir Nicholas MacPherson play out? (I’m thinking primarily about functions rather than personalities).
  • How will Kerslake’s relative lack of policy-making experience combined with a very strong service delivery background impact on other departments? (To what extent will the former be a barrier and to what extent will other departments (and the services that they are responsible for delivering) benefit from his insights on the back of the latter?)
And finally, what will the civil service look like once the reforms have been made and once the cuts and recruitment freezes are over? We live in interesting times. 

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