‘The civil service needs to modernise’ – departing Whitehall chief urges officials to engage with ‘substance’ of Cummings reform plans

Written by Sam Trendall on 11 August 2020 in News
News

Mark Sedwill says equipping government with ‘more expertise… is a good thing’

Credit: Crown Copyright/Open Government Licence v3.0

Departing civil service head Sir Mark Sedwill has acknowledged that Whitehall is in need of reform, and has encouraged officials to look beyond Dominic Cummings’ rhetoric and engage with the “substance” of some of his ideas.

The prime minister’s chief adviser has long been sharply critical the work of civil servants, and of what he characterises as the inefficiencies of government, and its inhospitableness to innovation. The government is now set to embark upon many of his proposed reforms, including a shift towards better use of data, and greater emphasis placed on the recruitment and training of staff with specific expertise.

In an exclusive in-depth interview with PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World, Sedwill – who is next month leaving his role as cabinet secretary and head of the civil service – said that “although I wouldn't express it the same way as Dominic Cummings, I think the desire... to bring in more expertise into the civil service is a good thing”.


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“He uses his own way of describing that," he added. "But it's fundamentally a good thing to bring in people with different experiences, different backgrounds, particularly people with knowledge of data and digital and science and so on.” 

Regarding some of Cummings’ harsher assessments of the work of government, Sedwill insisted that “I don't think of them as criticisms“.

“The civil service, like every other big institution, needs to modernise and reform; it always does,” he said. “The nature of the political debate is that things are expressed more vividly than a civil servant, including a cabinet secretary, is going to express them.”

The departing cabinet secretary told CSW that, while he may “express things in less vivid language than a politician or a special adviser”, he shared the belief that “these shifts to different ways of working” could benefit civil servants.

He added: “So, I think people shouldn't get too consumed with language, they should actually look at the substance and ask themselves, what are the real changes that are going change their jobs, their relationship with the citizen?”
 

Click here to read the full interview with Sedwill, including his thoughts on politicians briefing against officials, his £250,000 exit payment, and where he might go next.

 

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Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology

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