Sir John Manzoni prepares to step down as civil service chief - how did he fare on digital reforms?

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez January 23, 2020
John Manzoni has headed up the civil service since October 2014. His departure comes ahead of likely widespread Whitehall reforms.


The Cabinet Office has confirmed the civil service chief executive Sir John Manzoni is planning to step down from his role at some point this year. 

Manzoni’s departure comes ahead of likely widespread Whitehall reforms, being spearheaded by the Prime Minister and his chief adviser Dominic Cummings. 

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: 

As has been planned for some time, Sir John Manzoni will step down from his post at some point this year.

The spokesperson added that Manzoni's tenure was due to end in October last year but was extended to provide continuity over the subsequent period.

Manzoni was appointed chief executive of the civil service in October 2014 and was later also given the position of Cabinet Office permanent secretary, in August 2015. 

The civil service is estimated to have approximately 419,000 employees, making it one of the largest workforces in the UK. 

Manzoni has had four key priorities in his role over the past few years, which include: 

  • Increasing the numbers of people in Whitehall with delivery skills and to offer clear career pathways. 

  • Develop functional leadership across government

  • Building the civil service’s planning and performance management capability 

  • Evolving the model of leadership in the civil service, developing a pipeline of “credible, confident and experienced leaders”

It is broadly accepted that Manzoni has been successful in a number of these, including developing functional leadership and the delivery of skills - particularly in areas such as digital, data and technology. There are far more people working in these functions across Whitehall than there were five years ago. 

Our past criticism

That being said, we at diginomica/government have been particularly critical of Manzoni during his tenure. On two separate occasions, in particular, we have pointed the finger directly at the civil service chief for blocking, or attempting to dismantle, significant reforms of how government operates.

Back in August 2015, the spotlight was on Manzoni for his role in not supporting then leader of the Government Digital Service, Mike Bracken, and his ambitions for adopting a Government-as-a-Platform approach to service delivery across Whitehall.  

The leadership of GDS at the time, which were seen to be making significant progress in pursuing a digital agenda across the civil service, were effectively seen to be forced out due to a lack of confidence by Manzoni in their work. 

A year on from that incident, we then accused Manzoni of a digital purge across Whitehall, which saw Bracken’s replacement - Stephen Foreshew-Cain - quickly replaced (without any warning) by DWP’s director general for business transformation, Kevin Cunnington.

A number of other digital chiefs at the Home Office, DWP and HMRC were also evicted by their permanent secretaries or left their posts at the same time. 

Since then GDS has continued to do some good work - particularly around skilling up the civil service (Manzoni’s raison d'être) - but has lost the force and drive it had in its early days. 

I’m also aware of Manzoni continually undermining Cunnington during his time as Director General of GDS, which makes you wonder why he brought him into the role in the first place...

Manzoni reportedly favours evolution, rather than revolution, when it comes to civil service reform. The question is, why? 

Reform coming

As noted above, Manzoni’s departure comes as Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings has not-so-subtly hinted at a shake-up of the machinery of government and the civil service. 

We wrote a piece back in July last year, based off of Cummings’ publicly available blogs, on how he views Whitehall and the impact his agenda may have now that he’s in power. 

Simply put, Cummings is obsessed with getting rid of bureaucracy and embedding effective competition in organisations to drive change. In a recent controversial blog post, Cummings wrote that he wants “assorted weirdos” to take on senior roles within Whitehall, highlighting in particular the need to hire data scientists and software developers. 

The Institute for Government also recently highlighted that the Prime Minister and Cummings will likely be looking to reshuffle and reshape government, changing high profile personnel and the profile of government departments. 

My take

Being the chief of the civil service is never going to be an easy job - and it’s easy to criticise from beyond a keyboard. Manzoni has clearly executed effectively on some of his ambitions. Where I think he’s fallen short is the scope of his ambition and a lack of vision on what is possible. His desire to play politics has also not won him friends with those that were trying to do good with reform. However, with Manzoni out the way and Cummings’ bold plans in the pipeline, I think it’s safe to say that big change is coming. What that change looks like, we still aren’t entirely sure. And whilst reform is desperately needed, it needs to be done in an open and transparent way, so that it can stand up to scrutiny. 

Image credit - Image sourced via GOV.UK

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