Skip to main content

The CSQ Interview: Sir Mark Sedwill, Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Interviews
Sir Mark Sedwill, Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service, speaking during the interview
Sir Mark Sedwill, Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service, speaking during the interview

Over a year since your appointment, what are your principal reflections on your role and how the different aspects of it intersect?

It has certainly been an extraordinary last 12 months. I have one role that combines being Head of the Civil Service and National Security Adviser, as well as Cabinet Secretary. I have found that the issues I deal with engage at least two of those at any one time.

To give an example, one thing we needed to do when Boris Johnson became Prime Minister was to supercharge the work on no-deal planning, which was essential because of the commitment to leave, one way or the other. That required a great deal of work in Cabinet, with ministers and others, to make sure they really understood the issues, and could focus on the big decisions they needed to take.

At the same time, we had the duty of communicating with the Civil Service. First, to engage the energy and enthusiasm of those people working directly on the preparatory work – quite a large group of people in itself. And then to say to the wider Civil Service – the huge majority, who deal daily with issues in social care, immigration and all the other frontline services – to be aware that, while many of their colleagues were working flat out on EU Exit, we relied on them to keep going with their own vital work.

What has most impressed you about the Civil Service response to your focus on teamwork, impact and trust, and the challenges we have faced in the last year?

I think those messages have landed pretty well. I was trying to find a way of describing those priorities that was meaningful and felt relevant, whether I was talking to a Permanent Secretary in Whitehall, or to a civil servant on the front line in any and every part of the country.

In many ways the most impressive thing I’ve seen is that public trust in the Civil Service continues to rise and is now at record levels – particularly impressive when the Civil Service has sometimes been drawn into the political debate.

That’s probably the most pleasing aspect, and is, I believe, down to two things.

One is, when we’ve been dealing with the issues in the headlines, we’ve absolutely maintained those core values of honesty, integrity, impartiality and objectivity. Second – and perhaps even more importantly – the fact that, every day, civil servants get on with the job of running frontline public services and looking after their fellow citizens. And they do it brilliantly – often in a way summed up by a word that doesn’t appear in the formal values but which is absolutely critical to how public servants operate, with ‘compassion’.

For most of the civil servants dealing with the public, compassion is at least as important as those central values. I think that’s the thing that I’ve seen most. And, of course, it has an impact – one that’s most effectively delivered when people are operating effectively as part of a team.

There has been media reporting around Civil Service impartiality. How does that make you feel?

It’s frustrating, but we can’t be completely immune from the wider public and political debate. One of the things I said in a message across the Civil Service was that Brexit is a polarising issue. That is a fact. It’s not like other political issues. It wasn’t that people agreed or disagreed about, say, the role of the state in the economy, where people have lots of different views. It was a binary proposition. And, as I said at the time, civil servants, as citizens, weren’t immune from that.

Inevitably, every institution was being drawn into the debate. It would have been virtually impossible for the Civil Service – particularly in Whitehall – when the country’s going through something that significant, and the political temperature is that high, not to find ourselves drawn in – even if we didn’t step into the debate ourselves.

However, I do believe the wider Civil Service was largely immune from it. Whitehall is probably only 10% of the Civil Service organisation.

It is frustrating to hear civil servants’ impartiality being questioned, because I simply don’t think it’s true. I genuinely don’t know – and don’t need to know – how civil servants voted in the referendum. Some of our most talented people, at all grades, of all ages, from all parts of the country, absolutely threw themselves into the Brexit project, supporting the Government and delivering its policy, whether it was in DExEU, in the teams in the Cabinet Office, or now in the teams in No.10. So, in the end you think, well, that’s what’s real and important.

What do you see as the big challenges for the Civil Service over the next period?

Our challenges, in a sense, are the same ones the Government faces. We now have a government with a strong majority to deliver Brexit. So our priorities and challenges are about helping the Government deliver on its agenda more broadly, through the Brexit inflection point. But there’s also the considerable economic reorientation as we change our trading relationship with the EU and build new trading relationships with other big countries and markets. It’s a significant economic challenge for the whole country, and we have to help businesses and citizens navigate their way through it.

Then, we have the commitments on climate action: Net Zero carbon by 2050, but also climate adaptation. Huge programmes will be required to manage that adaptation, including in infrastructure. It will demand intense engagement with industry and the public, many of whom are already really engaged by the climate change issue and believe in the necessity for action.

We’ve also got the fourth, technological, industrial revolution and all the changes that’s going to bring. We’ve got dual channel shift within the Civil Service itself and other public services: the digital agenda, delivering more and more services to the bulk of the people in the country through digital means.

And – I mentioned compassion earlier – we need to ensure that we wrap around our services in a more holistic way – particularly the acute services that people in the most challenging circumstances, and those with complex needs, require.

So, we’ve got to make sure our services and our operating model moves in two directions – these two channel shifts at once. That’s a huge transformation programme. It will be part of the Spending Review and we’ll need exceptional change leadership. We will also need people whose EQ – their emotional intelligence – is at least as good as their IQ, to deal with those citizens who need our support and are often least equipped to navigate the complexities of state provision.

And, of course, we need people who can deal with the wider global issues that come along. Just consider the last few decades: the fall of the Berlin Wall, 9/11, the Arab Spring – events that essentially defined their decades but weren’t anticipated. Part of what the public service must be able to do is adapt to whatever the next big event is – it could be economic, it could be political, it could happen overseas, but we have to be ready.

Sir Mark Sedwill, Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service, speaking during the interview

How do you think we can be better, organisationally and in the way we work, to meet those challenges?

I’ve talked to the Prime Minister at length about civil and wider public service reform – because it isn’t just about the Civil Service, it’s broader. And I’ve discussed the dual channel shift with both him and his advisers. Alongside that are other questions: what is the employment model; what kind of people are we going to need, not now but in 2030? Because we’ve got to be recruiting now, and attracting, retaining and motivating. How do we shift more of the leadership and the Civil Service away from London, and use the public service as a whole as part of the engine driving the levelling-up agenda around the country.

There was an interesting piece in one of the Sunday newspapers recently from Andy Street and Andy Burnham, the metropolitan mayors of the West Midlands and Greater Manchester, from different parties, essentially talking about the infrastructure programme. The Civil Service needs to be involved in the regeneration of some of the big metropolitan areas. Moving people into hubs is part of that.

We need to be part of a whole range of changes, and the challenge for the Civil Service is to make sure it’s fit to play its role in the 2020s and beyond. And we should be leading that effort ourselves, generating our own ideas, to be sure, but also looking internationally at the best practice and asking, what can we learn?

We came top of the International Civil Service Effectiveness Index in 2019, which is very gratifying. But we came top in only one of the index’s dozen core indicators. And though we’re in the upper quartile of some, in other areas we aren’t. So we need to be asking ourselves what we can learn from Finland or Singapore or Canada or elsewhere, about digital delivery or some of the other areas where others do it better.

How do you see the Strategic Framework and the 'fusion' approach fitting into that long-term agenda of challenge and change?

This is as much about government as the Civil Service per se, but we must be a big part of that agenda.

Essentially, the Strategic Framework is taking some of the lessons we’ve learnt in National Security, and from countries who do these things really well. New Zealand has pursued reforms of this kind for several years. They established a National Performance Framework, which doesn’t just, for example, take data on unemployment, inflation or economic growth, but looks across other areas of government activity and asks: how well are we doing across the board?

The Wellbeing Index introduced under the Cameron government is an example of that approach, but we need to look more broadly.The Strategic Framework is really saying, we have a series of economic goals, set by government. Then we have goals around the wellbeing of the individual citizen. These relate to the inclusiveness of communities, the safety of individuals, whether they can go about their daily lives in the way that they want and get the education they need, is crime being tackled in their areas, and so on. You have a whole series of issues around security and safety, and around sustainability and the environment, and then a set of issues around the country’s role and influence in the world. And what we’re saying is, we need to judge how we’re doing as a government and as a country, not on purely economic criteria but against those broader measures.

That’s one part of the change that’s needed. The second part is about building the horizontal structures that are as strong as the traditional vertical structures of government departments. It’s been attempted before, by trying to turn the vertical into the horizontal, and that hasn’t worked. It’s one of the areas where we need collaborative effort across government. Climate action is probably the biggest single example, but there are others. If you want to cut crime, you need a whole range of social policy actors, as well as the criminal justice system, to do that. If you want to tackle homelessness, then you’re dealing with the healthcare system as much as you’re dealing with housing and street crime, and so on.

There are many big issues that involve several departments. We need to plan across the system, focus on outcomes, get ministers and government to set the direction, align the funding and resources, and then put in place the structures to deliver the policy.

This doesn’t apply universally. Some things are better done by individual departments. But some things need to be done in a cross-cutting way. That’s what that part of a fusion approach is about – doing that in a purposeful way, bringing programme and campaign disciplines, all of our capabilities, to bear.

It’s then about system leadership to deliver, and that’s about ensuring that we are engaging the wider public service, as well as the private and third sectors.

I have noticed that, if you get a group of public servants together from different organisations, and create the conditions for them to work as a team, across boundaries, where their expertise is respected, on a common problem – let’s say, the rehabilitation of offenders – they just love doing it. I saw this borne out recently, when the Public Service Leadership Group, convened by Cabinet Office, brought together senior civil servants from different disciplines, local authority officials, and representatives of other public sector bodies from across the country, at Wormwood Scrubs, specifically to address this issue.

Because most public servants are natural team players, it’s not actually about encouraging them, it’s about removing barriers and giving them permission. That’s what resetting the relationship between Whitehall, the wider Civil Service and the wider public service is all about.

Does how we prepared for Brexit have anything to teach us?

Yes, I think it does. If we look at the Brexit operations committee, for example, that group drew upon experience we’ve had elsewhere – in national security, crisis management, the COBR system, and so on. So, we draw on those and say, we know we do those things really well when reacting to something, and it breaks down the barriers and everyone gets on with it. Acknowledging that, how do we translate that culture, and the underlying systems and structures, into this big project that is Brexit readiness?

That bringing together of experts, ministers and others, in a purposeful way, at a high pace, with actions decided, drawing on operational experience from the areas I mentioned, has been really instructive. It’s not appropriate for very long-term, strategic issues, where you’re making massive decisions about business cases on infrastructure, say. But it is appropriate to dealing with something as allencompassing – and requiring as many different agencies to engage at pace – as Brexit readiness did last year.

Sir Mark Sedwill, Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service, speaking during the interview

Can we continue to rely on the public service ethos to attract and retain civil servants; and what can we do to reduce staff movement within and out of the service, which has attracted criticism?

I think the criticism has some point. You can see turnover if, for example, the offices of different departments in the same city pay different rates. And though you see more turnover in Whitehall, again, we mustn’t confuse Whitehall, which accounts for only about 10% of the entire workforce, with the Civil Service as a whole. And it’s also true that in certain specialisms, people don’t tend to move. But that doesn’t mean the criticism’s not valid. It comes as much from civil servants themselves as from anyone outside.

I think there are structural factors. Pay is clearly one of them. A decade of pay restraint has made it harder and has incentivised some behaviours that are sensible for the individual but not in the interests of the organisation as a whole. If the only way of getting a pay increase at your grade is to move departments, or the only way to get promoted is to move jobs, then people will move. There is something about those embedded incentives we need to address.

Personally, as we make the channel shift, I would like to see more processes handled by automation, AI and intelligent software. This means that, overall, we will probably need fewer people. And our turnover means that we can manage that in a smooth way; that we will be able to pay those people who we retain more. It means training them more. It means ensuring, in particular, that where we value EQ as much as IQ, we’re really equipping those people to do the job well.

There’s also something about whether we genuinely facilitate interchange with the third sector and private sector, or, in effect, say we do but put structural barriers in the way. In my own case, returning after a couple of years away at NATO, I recall feeling that more value could have been applied to the experience I’d gained.

Whether people go out to the private sector or the third sector, we need to get those things right.

We’re not likely to compete on pay, particularly in London, with the leading private sector organisations. But other parts of the Civil Service package are absolutely at the top of the employment offer table – on diversity, on flexible working, on pensions, and job security. People can join the Civil Service and know that, for example, the maternity and paternity leave offers are near or at the very best of any employer in the country.

It’s a competitive package. But the fundamental motivation for civil servants is going to be the public service ethos, and doing something that is both worthwhile and really interesting. That’s got to be the core of our offer, always, while also being a great all‑round employer.

Do you find it difficult to balance your personal and professional life?

People never believe this, but, no, I really don’t.

To be clear, going back to where we started this interview, I’ve only got one role. It has different facets, but that’s true of any big job. And the role of Cabinet Secretary has changed over the years, according to circumstances. Many of my predecessors did all of the things I’m doing – because they didn’t have National Security Advisers for most of that time – and were also, for example, Permanent Secretary for the Cabinet Office, running a single big institution.

You just have to manage the job in the way that works best for you. I tend to work long days and a short week. And I don’t live in London, so I can get away and be with my family. I think that’s so important. We live in a rural area. It’s a very different world to metropolitan London, and it gives me a different perspective on some of the issues I’m dealing with. I believe that’s part of where I add some value and helps me maintain a balance.

William Hague had a great line on leadership. He said it’s about three things: have big ideas and communicate them; pick a great team and trust them; and stay calm.

The third one I found particularly interesting: staying calm, and projecting that, helps the people around you stay calm. Even neuroscience tells you they perform better as a result. And sometimes the job is to steady things and keep your head.

Sometimes, the job is to steady things and keep your head.

Sharing and comments

Share this page


  1. Comment by Jiveen MacGillivray posted on

    Question for Mark: In respect of the ethos to attract and retain civil servants and the question "...what can we do to reduce staff movement within... " with increasing automation (a good thing) presumably moving 'within' the civil service could be a measure of how EQ is valued (in support of our ethos). Might we start to ask how might existing civil servants be encouraged into new roles within the civil service?

  2. Comment by Ian Moore posted on

    Noting the comments on pay and the general reward package, what happens to those of us with a strong public service ethos, mortgages and bills to pay and family demands that anchor us to London & the South East?

    Just because the CS can never match the financial offer of the private sector in this part of the world (and acknowledging the strength of the wider CS employment offer), there can be no excuses for not recognising the huge financial expense of living here. Similarly there can also be no excuse for CS salaries to continue to actually fall behind the rate of inflation as they have done since 2009 and there can be no excuse for paying Inner London Weighting at a rate that barely recognises the commuting cost let alone the cost of renting/owning property in and around London.

    • Replies to Ian Moore>

      Comment by S posted on

      Surely this is more than reasonably offset by the huge promotion advantage and variety of civil service jobs available to those in London. Many talented civil servants are equally as anchored by family and mortgages to remote parts of the country, where there is comparatively little prospect of career advancement.

  3. Comment by Nick Burriss posted on

    Everyone who is working at, or close, to the limit of their capacity has a 'big job' regardless of its title and faces similar challenges in balancing their personal and professional life. Sir Mark has struck his balance and shared with us how he maintains it. The same methodology may not work, or even be possible, for some of us but if you get the balance right everyone's a winner. If an example needed setting, it has been set; it's definitely worth trying to follow it.