A Chief Executive for Whitehall must not answer to Sir Humphrey

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Overshadowed in the ephemeral excitement of the reshuffle, a change at least as significant. It’s been announced today that Sir Bob Kerslake is to step down as Head of the Civil Service, to be replaced by a Chief Executive “at the centre of government”. The new CEO will “lead the next phase of work on Civil Service transformation and the Government’s efficiency and reform agenda”.

This isn’t exactly as the mandarins had planned things. Kerslake had been a dead man walking for some time, but there was a long battle to keep him in post, and a counter-offensive to remove Francis Maude. They’d tried that before, at the previous reshuffle, but once again Maude stayed put. This, and the announcement that a Chief Executive post will be created, is a sign of the Prime Minister’s intent on Whitehall reform, and it represents a huge opportunity.

No-one really runs Whitehall. Government departments are fiefdoms, there is no corporate centre, financial information is poor, and there’s an absence of commercial experience at the most senior levels. The Institute for Government has warned of problems in leadership capacity. Creating a Chief Executive post, and with it the opportunity to bring in a senior business figure with experience of transforming a large and complex organisation, could at last catalyse an overdue transformation of Whitehall’s dysfunctional machinery.

There’s a caveat. The split between Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service in 2012, with the latter role becoming part-time, was an arrangement engineered entirely to suit Sir Jeremy Heywood, and it didn’t work. But neither will a similarly crafted deal that the Chief Executive will report to him and also be Permanent Secretary at the Cabinet Office. A CEO of Whitehall should sit alongside the Cabinet Secretary, not be subservient to him. For so long as operational roles are seen as less important than policy roles in Whitehall, the effectiveness of government will be compromised.

Doubtless governments need to look the part to get re-elected, but they must also deliver. Long after interest in today’s new political appointments has evaporated, the effectiveness of the government machine will matter. There ought to be as much attention to the appointment of the new Chief Executive of HMG as to a new Secretary of State who no-one could previously name. Above all, Whitehall’s new CEO needs to be a stellar figure – and one who answers to the Prime Minister, not to Sir Humphrey.

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