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Government machine 'will be defined by digital', says new chief

03/02/15

Civil service chief executive officer John Manzoni reveals priorities for reform

70 Whitehall by Paul Clarke ©The future civil service "will be defined by more digital services" the service's first chief executive officer said yesterday. John Manzoni, the former BP executive and head of the Major Projects Authority, said the vision should be to make renewing a passport or applying for an apprenticeship "as easy as booking a holiday online or ordering online shopping".

Manzoni was speaking at the Institute for Government in London in one of his first public appearances since his appointment to his new role last October to head Francis Maude's civil service reform programme. He emphasised the need to create stronger senior leaders - especially with skills in implementing change - saying that existing structures and procedures were an obstacle. "There's no doubt that the system as a whole is designed to slow things down," he said.

Like many new arrivals in Whitehall from the private sector, he said he had been surprised at how "unjoined-up" he found government to be.

Manzoni stressed that reform was "a big ask" saying there is "about 30% more activity in the civil service than it can easily handle with current resources. Implementing change, for example in cutting from 23 the number of payment systems in use, was akin to redesigning an aircraft in mid-aid.

However he said he was confident that the civil service would rise to the challenge. Among his evidence for willingness to change was the gov.uk website and gov.uk verify identity authentication system. This is "a completely new concept and the first of its kind in the world," he said.Manzoni also cited the 25 exemplar digital by default projects, in particular individual electoral registration.

Manzoni listed his agenda priorities as developing:

  • "Big leaders" with delivery skills. "We need to create new professions and careers". Achieving the confidence to lead "takes years of experience, not just intellectual ability," he said. "We haven't got the structures in place yet to create these people."
  • Shared functions. Manzoni pointed out that despite numerous past initiatives, Whitehall still lagged far behind large businesses in sharing services. "We need to reach across government departments: why do we have 23 payment systems?"
  • Performance management. "We don't yet have a wholly developed performance management culture; we need to build the capability and expertise to manage ...we need people delivering big things." Pointing to a study indicating that permanent secretaries had more than 100 major priorities, he said: "Nobody can deliver 100 big things."
  • Leadership and confidence. "We have to make judgements about what is and what is not possible, that takes experience and from that experience comes confidence. In the civil service we've allowed ourselves to be put on the back foot."
  • As an example of the need for the right kind of leadership Manzoni recalled his time in charge of BP's refining operations at the time of the Texas City refinery explosion, which killed 15 people in 2005. He said that, while expert managers at the plant knew there was something wrong, "they couldn't talk fancy" to the generalists in charge of the company. "We put too many generalists in the system," he said. "The mistake never to make is just because you can conceptualise on a piece of paper that you can understand the risks and the trade offs."

Pictured: 70 Whitehall by Paul Clarke © | paulclarke.com

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