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Meet the new UK government digital boss - who isn't quite what the Prime Minister ordered

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan October 2, 2014
The Prime Minister wanted a big business outsider to take charge of digital government transformation, but it's an internal jobs swap that's happened instead.

The man who’ll assume ultimate responsibility for the digital transformation of government in the UK has been named as a former BP executive criticised for his role in the Texas oil refinery explosion which killed 15 people in 2005.

John Manzoni

John Manzoni has been appointed as the first Chief Executive of the UK civil service and will be responsible for making savings across Whitehall in areas such as IT, procurement and contracts.

He is due to start his new role as civil service chief on 13 October, reporting not only to the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, but also to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, and the Cabinet Office minister, Francis Maude.

The role of Chief Executive had been expected to go to a complete outsider with Prime Minister David Cameron specifying an ideal candidate as someone coming in from the private sector.

But reaction from industry was muted at best and few relished the idea of taking a pay cut. Manzoni is clearly ready to do so. In his last full year at BP, in 2006, he boasted a total package of just under £1.4 million. As chief executive of the civil service, he will be paid £190,000.

Observers had predicted that the government was rushing into making an appointment on too tight a deadline with Peter Riddell, director at the Institute for Government think tank warning:

The appointment is being rushed. There is only a fortnight between the closing date for applications and final interviews, and the proposed start is only six weeks later - a far more compressed timetable than would be normal for a senior corporate leader in the private sector.

The result appears to be what is effectively an internal reshuffle rather than the desired external appointment. Manzoni is a known quantity in government circles, having spent the past 6 months in charge of the Major Projects Authority. So while he’s got a lot of private sector experience, including 24 years at BP, he’s also ‘house trained’ in Whitehall.

In coming into government Manzoni followed in the footsteps of his former BP boss Lord Browne, who is now the government’s lead non-executive director in central government. Browne was CEO at BP at the time of the Texas City incident.  Manzoni was blamed by an internal report for failing to heed “serious warning signals” prior to the Texas explosion.  He later moved to Talisman Energy, a company heavily involved in fracking in the US.

Cabinet Office Minister Maude said:

John is an excellent choice as the first Chief Executive of the Civil Service. Last year alone our Whitehall reforms helped save taxpayers £14.3 billion compared to a 2009 to 2010 baseline. But there’s much more to do to accelerate the pace of reform and embed a new, more efficient approach to government. Hardworking people expect us to spend their money carefully and this appointment will help us do just that.

Manzoni says of his new role:

I’m under no illusions about the complexity of the role. I’ve spent a lifetime in big, complex global organisations. In particular, I’ve seen organisations go through transformations into functional structures – which is underneath a lot of this [civil service] reform plan. A lot of the statements that are being made in the civil service context are the same conversations that I’ve been having in a private sector context in these large organisations – so I’ve spent my life doing some of the things that are crying out to be done here.

Digital deeds

One of Manzoni’s tasks will be to expand the Government Digital Service - which didn’t have a great week this week when a new website to allow people to renew their car tax disk online crashed to a halt on its first day.

For his part, Maude is talking in terms of bumping up GDS’s budget:

There is a number of big contracts coming to an end over the next years. And there will be a big transitions programme which will undoubtedly require more resources from the centre. Not I suspect, forever, but definitely for a period.

Manzoni’s appointment was announced on the same day as a report into progress on reforming the civil service was published.

The Civil Service Reform: progress report picks up on Manzoni’s digital challenge:

We will continue with our programme of work transforming the 25 exemplar services. But there is further to go – in the same way that we have transformed the citizen’s interaction with government information through GOV.UK, we will now transform many more interactions with the state. Therefore we will focus on our future digital and technology strategy to ensure that government keeps pace with digital transformation. Our plans will include further improvements to our digital service delivery to the public, setting ambitious goals for increasing the proportion of transactions with the public which are completed online, and on ensuring that civil servants have access to technology which is fit for a modern workplace.

The report cites progress being made, stating that the civil service has already:

  • reduced costs per transaction by 10% in real terms
  • increased digital take up by 9%
  • the scale of take up means that even small cost reductions per transaction results in large savings for the taxpayer
  • In the last financial year (2013 to 2014) a total of £210 million in savings were reported.

Sir Humphrey will be digitally transformed

But there’s a lot more to do, it adds:

Digital by default means building digital services that are so good people choose to use them, without excluding people who lack digital skills. All new or redesigned digital services will have high-quality, cost-effective support for people who need it. But we also need to ensure that everyone who can be digitally capable has the opportunity to become so. Our Digital Inclusion Strategy sets out 10 actions which we will deliver with partners from public, private and voluntary sectors. We want to make this happen by 2020.

As well as transforming access to information and services for the public, we are changing how government goes about its everyday business. Better use of digital tools and technology will support more joined up government and better policy making. In this spirit, we will also review the impact digital by default can have on our record-keeping.

The shift to digital will not stop with the 25 exemplar services. If we are really to change how people use government services, where possible all government transactional services should be available online and easy to use. Not only will more of the exemplar services go online this year but more and more government transactional services will follow this route. To support this, we need to ensure that the staff managing these services have the right skills; as section 3 highlights, digital is one of the priority capability areas.

My take

Hmmm….well, not quite the ‘big business outsider’ that the Prime Minister was so enthusiastic about a few short months ago. In fact the whole thing smacks of an unseemly haste.

But Manzoni’s work at the MPA indicates a safe pair of hands, although his skills lie most strongly in organizational transformation and contract management. His digital credentials seem relatively untested so far.

This could be a concern. We’ve spent a lot of time squeezing costs out of the bloated public sector IT spend and that’s been well worth the effort. But at some point, you need to stop cutting and look more towards building something new.

With that in mind, I find myself more enthused at the idea that GDS will get more budget than with Manzoni being shifted from one government job to another.

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