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Article Article January 24th, 2018

UK civil service chief John Manzoni defends government stance on Carillion

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As chief executive of the UK's civil service and permanent secretary for the Cabinet Office, John Manzoni exerts huge influence over the machinery of government. 

As part of his role, he focuses, amongst other things, on getting a better deal for taxpayers from commercial decisions and supplier management, as well as the digital transformation of public services and the way government works. He is also responsible for managing major projects better to deliver on time and on budget, and greater use of shared services across departments.

He spoke at the London School of Economics about civil service transformation. Here are some highlights of what he had to say:

On citizen expectations

Citizens expect government to be joined up around what they, the customers, want.

What they don't want, when they engage with us, is to get on a bureaucratic merry-go-round, where the only options are going round in circles or bailing out.

We must make full use of technology and data to modernise the design and delivery of services, and to inform more robust policies that meet people's real needs.

On Brexit

To me, Brexit is an accelerator, a spur; not a distraction. We are already making fundamental - and necessary  -changes to how we work, right across the organisation. The only way to handle Brexit as well, is to deepen and accelerate those changes. In other words, as Britain exits the EU, we have a moment to forge ahead. A moment when ambition, necessity and opportunity have converged.

On using data

Government has always had great stores of information. Now we need to focus on better use of this data to continuously improve the services we provide, and spend less time developing those that ultimately don't work. We need to target those who need our services more specifically, and to tailor those services more accurately, instead of asking citizens for the same information multiple times.

There's a great deal to do, and there are genuine sensitivities to the free flow of data across our boundaries. Citizens will rightly demand that we use their data responsibly, safely, and only for the public good, never for profit. And that we store it securely and don't expose them to risk.

On workforce reform

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.

To achieve this transformation means breaking the mould of the traditional civil service career and casting a new one. Because experience matters; and it requires staying in one job long enough to gain that experience, rather than moving from job to job at the rate some of our current structures encourage.

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.

We are delving deep into the existing structures to change them - changing career paths; what we value; how we remunerate; how and why people progress. The aim is to create a new cadre of civil service leadership, blending the strengths we already have - and must preserve and protect - with what we need to add - which is about experience-based delivery capability.

On the commercial function

Government needs the right capabilities to manage every aspect of commercial arrangements with third parties, who account for around half of central Government's service delivery capability. We spend around £45 billion each year on commercial contracts.

The collapse of Carillion last week shone a hard light on the importance of building strong functions. And the way we reacted showed what such functions, operating as flexible cross-government professional networks, can achieve.

Obviously, the last thing we want to see is a major supplier going into liquidation. In the fullness of time, inquiries will look at how it happened and the lessons we should take from it.

We were watching - as we do with all suppliers - and the response of officials to the profits warning in July 2017 was immediate. Commercial teams across government were alerted, professional advisers retained, and a special project team set up.

We remained in regular contact with the company throughout this period, and were closely tracking the company's efforts to restructure.

Our first priority was to maintain key public services. This was only possible by utilising the cross-government capability we have built up in the commercial function. If this had happened two years ago, we would not have had the expertise or cross-government structure to manage it.

The government has a balance to find: it must be careful, on the one hand, not to award contracts if we feel the company cannot fulfil its obligations; but, on the other, it must not precipitate problems by signalling to the market that the company is unfit to continue to tender for government business.

The whole basis of building - in this case - commercial capability inside government via the commercial function is to enable us to have intelligent dialogue and to structure intelligent relationships with the private sector. Without it, we are left relying on transactional, price-based relationships which can be sub-optimal for both parties in the long run.

We want both to ensure good value for the taxpayer and to have a healthy, profitable, and diverse private sector, competing for government business. Where that balance isn't working well, we need to sit down and discuss it. For that to happen, we need sufficient expertise and skills inside government.

I believe that the right answer is a more sophisticated relationship that puts risk in the place where it can be managed best and provides sufficient margins, commensurate with the risk, to ensure value for the taxpayer and a healthy, competitive market.

On ‘smarter' efficiency and effectiveness

It's pointless having the best people, with excellent skills and relevant experience if we don't put them in environments where they can flourish and make the best use of their talents. So smarter working must start with modern, flexible workplaces, with up-to-date facilities and technology, in the right places and focused on delivery and outcomes.

Changes of this sort are generating new opportunities for civil servants. And they're changing how we think about work-  raising our sights above departmental boundaries, and enabling more collaborative behaviour. Taken together, these are the instruments of greater efficiency and effectiveness - of greater productivity.

On leadership

Policy expertise is not enough. 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.

Leaders whose instincts - developed through experience - are collaborative; who are used to working across boundaries, confident beyond their own professional area, and inspire and empower their teams - building on the commitments in our Leadership Statement.

The full speech is available here on

Picture credit: Wikipedia

Written by:

Nadine Smith Founder & CEO, Nadine Smith Consulting
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