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Written by Philip Rycroft

Changing of the guard: what the next cabinet secretary needs to know

Philip Ryecroft, former Permanent Secretary of State, former head of the cabinet's UK Governance Group, and Distinguished Honorary Research Affiliate at the Bennett Institute, suggests Mark Sedwill’s successor will be tasked, ultimately, with sustaining the institutions of our democracy

The civil service faces its most challenging 12 months in a generation. The fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has upended the economy, but public services too will take months to get back on an even keel. Meanwhile, in a unique experiment, the UK will be busy extricating itself from the single market and customs union under the terms of a deal which is some way from being concluded or, perhaps, with no deal at all.

An interesting time to drop the pilot.

Mark Sedwill took up the job of cabinet secretary at a moment of excruciating political tension, just before Theresa May’s cabinet met for what was probably the most important meeting of her premiership, at Chequers in July 2018. Within days, the new cabinet secretary was dealing with two high-profile resignations and a sea of trouble for the PM’s plan for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.

It’s hardly been plain sailing since. Through the turbid politics of Brexit, the planning for a series of no-deal deadlines, a change of prime minister, an election and the worst public health crisis in nearly 100 years, he’s packed a lot in. A shame, then, that his extraordinary experience will only be available to the government for a few more months.

Events are unlikely to slow down for his successor; whoever clinches the job will likewise have to jump into the deep end of the pool. Not the least of things on the to-do list will be to take forward the template for reform of the civil service set out by Michael Gove, with exquisite timing, just two days before the announcement that Sedwill was to stand down.

For all the radicalism of that reform vision, Gove did not go so far as to recommend the politicisation of the civil service. Perhaps that will calm some of the excited chatter about the need for the new  cabinet secretary to be a Brexit true believer. That would be a fundamental shift in the rules of the game, changing the role from one of impartial adviser to the prime minister to become an advocate for his political priorities, much as would be the case if Nicola Sturgeon insisted that the permanent secretary of the Scottish government should be a card-carrying nationalist. It remains to be seen, however, whether the appointment of David Frost as National Security Adviser is a one-off exception or a straw in a wind that will indeed blow stronger towards a politicised civil service.

Gove’s reform agenda is far-reaching, nonetheless. A civil service that is more numerate, more diverse and more dispersed, less risk averse and less prolix in its advice, would surely be better able to respond to the exigencies of the times and better support the government of the day to deliver that most important of missions, to tackle inequality.

But in all the enhanced skills that Gove wishes on the civil service, there is one strangely missing that goes to the heart of the job of cabinet secretary. Peel away at the civil service onion and at its centre is the advice given by the cabinet secretary to the prime minister and the cabinet on the proper functioning of government.

That understanding of governance is, to my mind, what ought to define the professionalism of the policy-making civil servant. That this is a core skill set has been obscured over the years by the “generalist” tag that has stuck to civil servants whose main job it is to make policy, but also by the slow progress to turn policy-making into a proper profession, with its own professional standards and rigorous learning and experience hurdles for entry and promotion.

This matters, profoundly. The government could, in extremis, buy most of the skills it requires to conduct the business of government, from Bayesian probability theorists to HR professionals and procurement experts. But there is no ready market out there for skilled policy professionals who understand the workings of government; no business has the need or incentive to invest at scale in such skills.

This understanding of governance is a heavy responsibility for the civil service, or ought to be, not least for the cabinet secretary. With no written constitution, it falls to the civil service to be the first line of restraint on an overmighty executive. That’s about ensuring respect for the Ministerial Code and adherence to the Cabinet Manual. It’s about calling out political behaviour that breaks the bounds of convention. Ultimately, it’s about the sustaining of the fabric of our democracy.

We live in fractured times. The governance of England is a mess, with the failure of successive governments to turn promises of English localism into actual devolution of proper resource and responsibility. Partly as a result, disaffection with the political process in England runs deep. Opinion in Northern Ireland drifts towards unification. Scotland is on the edge.

Meanwhile, the tide of counter-revolution that brought us Brexit laps at the institutions of state, at the Supreme Court and the independence of the BBC, at the Human Rights Act and the UK’s adherence to the European Court of Human Rights. In the scramble for a return to the prelapsarian state of untrammelled parliamentary sovereignty, there are even whispers that devolution to the constituent parts of the UK has gone too far, that Westminster should reassert its right to intervene in otherwise devolved matters.

As one of the guardians of our constitution, all this will weigh heavily on the incoming cabinet secretary. Speaking truth to power and upholding our democratic infrastructure are the essence of the role. If she (happily, the odds of the appointment of a woman look higher than they have ever been) or he succeed in that, they will prove to be a worthy successor to Sedwill, Jeremy Heywood and all who have come before.

This blog was first published by Prospect on 2 July 2020

  • About the author

    Philip Rycroft, Distinguished Honorary Researcher at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy and POLIS

    Philip Rycroft worked in DExEU from March 2017 to March 2019, from October 2017 as its Permanent Secretary. He was responsible for leading the department in all its work on the Government’s preparations for Brexit. From June 2015 to March 2019 he was head of the ...   Learn more

    Philip Rycroft