Last October, John Manzoni was appointed Chief Executive of the Civil Service in the United Kingdom. Unlike many of his predecessors who built careers in the public sector, Manzoni is the former president and CEO of Canadian oil and gas company Talisman Energy and has spent 24 years as an executive with British Petroleum. On May 27, he will participate in the annual APEX Symposium in virtual conversation from London with co-chair Deputy Minister Marie Lemay. He recently responded to questions about his approach to reform.
You aren’t the typical civil servant (if there is such a thing). Rather than growing up through the ranks, you were plucked out of private enterprise to bring your business experience and acumen to the table. How does the public sector experience compare with your private sector past? Is this a sign of things to come for other civil servants?
I think there are a few key differences. First, the public sector tends to be more ‘evidence based’ whereas the private sector is more prepared to back judgment. This is reflective of a much greater sense of risk aversion in the public sector. And whilst there are lots of good reasons why this should be the case, it makes it more difficult for individuals to take big decisions, which of course has an effect over time on people’s sense of accountability.
I have also found that the top of the public sector is full of incredibly intelligent people, but our system does not give them the opportunity through their career to gain experience in execution and delivery in the way the private sector would, and hence we lack senior people with, for example, deep-rooted commercial and digital skills. We are making good progress in changing this, but there is still a long way to go.
I hope we can have more interchange between the private and public sectors because everyone will benefit. This doesn’t mean that there will be a huge influx of private sector professionals into the civil service, because, ultimately, we want to give our young people the same experiences that they would get outside, from within the civil service.
You’ve often said that the civil service has come a long way in the last few years but that to meet the challenges ahead, execution across government needs to improve. Talk about civil service reform through the lens of implementation and how you see your role generally.
My role is all about execution. The civil service does a lot of things really well. I see this every day, in our ability to grapple with complex issues, formulate policy solutions, and provide sensible and well thought out advice to our ministers. However, the emphasis on creating the skills and experience for successful delivery and implementation has been underplayed in the past, so a big part of my role is to move the pendulum in that direction a bit.
Having someone like me here legitimizes that set of skills – it tells people that they are important and valuable. In this way, I hope that our future leaders will gain a different set of skills to those at the top today. So this is not about overhauling the current system, but rather about evolving it – ensuring that our undoubted prowess in policymaking is backed up by world-class delivery skills.
You set out your four priorities in early February: 1) getting good people into Whitehall, keeping them there and training them; 2) performance management; 3) developing functional leadership; and 4) supporting and harnessing confident “big leaders.” Can you explore these in a bit more detail?
I think the first thing to say is that they are all related. It starts with people, and providing the opportunity for young people to gain the experience, which they need to build great judgment and confidence around execution and delivery – as well as in policy development.
Linked to this is the question of how to motivate, reward and align a large and diverse workforce. This requires active and robust performance management, which reinforces accountability and leadership in delivery. This is something that the private sector spends much more time and energy doing, because it is recognized as an essential aspect of delivery.
Third, we need strong functions at the centre of government in order to make what is a very large, complex and distributed system work well. It will enable us to apply the professional skills where they matter most at the point of delivery, build distributed skills in the system, and collaborate, to a much greater extent, across government to achieve greater efficiencies and effectiveness. Again, this happens far more in the private sector, and although it’s a much more complex environment in the public sector, I am convinced it can work here as well.
My final priority is leadership. I believe if there’s anywhere we need great leadership at this moment, it’s in the public sector, and I want us to give public servants the experiences and confidence to be great leaders. Leadership comes from experience and being in control of your destiny, and I would like the civil service to have more of both. So whilst we must first and foremost serve our ministers, I believe a confident, front-footed civil service will serve the country far better than one which only looks upwards.
APEX describes your Symposium session with the words “Our destiny is ours.” Is it your sense that the civil service is waiting for political direction or struck by inertia? What needs to happen to get (or get back) a feeling of ownership over the civil service’s future?
It is a very difficult balance to achieve, because our number one priority in the civil service is to serve the government of the day and deliver their policy priorities. Having said that, as a leadership, it is also important that we look forward and down – not just up.
The key, therefore, is to find those things which we can control, and grasp them and make them our own. A good example of this is the efficiency agenda, where we know there is a huge opportunity to change the way we do things, so we should own that process of change internally.
The civil service has spent five years reducing in size and living under conditions of austerity at the same time as meeting increasing demand for public services. Whatever happens at the forthcoming election, the demands on us, as well as the fiscal context in which we operate, will remain broadly similar. In order to lead our people through this period, and ensure they don’t feel everything is being ‘done to them’, requires big, confident leadership. That is our task.