Mark Sedwill's replacement will be a reformer – whether they like it or not
Boris Johnson (centre), Rishi Sunak (second right), departing cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill (second left), Therese Coffey (right) and Matt Hancock (left) around the Cabinet Table in February 2020 | PA Images
Replacing the most powerful civil servant in the country during a global pandemic was always going to prove controversial. But with Dominic Cummings determined to shake up Whitehall, what world awaits the new cabinet secretary?
The Velvet Underground are often talked about as “the most influential band that nobody has heard of” and it isn’t too much of an exaggeration to say that outgoing cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill is in a similar vein. Despite the low profile of Sedwill and his predecessors in the position, the cabinet secretary is pivotal to the success of public administration, with an influence that extends through every Government department, and a direct impact on the scale and the implementation of nearly every Government policy.
This aversion to headlines was sidestepped last month, however, when news of Sedwill’s impending departure was announced seemingly out of the blue. Although the announcement was hardly without basis – Sedwill’s cool relationship with Boris Johnson was common knowledge in Whitehall and contrasted unfavourably with the cosy rapport enjoyed by Theresa May and Sedwill’s predecessor Jeremy Heywood – it was nonetheless a surprise. Cabinet secretaries tend to have a far longer shelf life than Sedwill’s 2-year stint in charge and the height of a global pandemic is an odd point to make such a dramatic announcement.
It served to emphasise the importance of the personal relationship between elected politicians and senior civil servants. It is a quirk of the British system that the responsibilities of the cabinet secretary are informal and deliberately ill-defined, meaning their influence can vary considerably depending on their relationship with the incumbent prime minister.
No 10 is serious about its desire to reboot Government departments with a new type of character
Johnson and his chief advisor, Dominic Cummings, are serious about Whitehall reform and have not been shy about their desire to make major changes to the structure and nature of the civil service.
In the seven months since winning the election, the Government has already mothballed an entire department and hasn’t been shy about their plans to change the culture of Whitehall. Dominic Cummings might have garnered a level of ridicule for his push for “misfits and weirdos” to apply for the civil service, but No 10 is serious about its desire to reboot Government departments with a new type of character. In a speech last week Michael Gove was explicit on this topic, saying: “the structures, ambitions and priorities of the Government machine need to change if real reform is to be implemented and to endure”.
Sedwill, appointed before Johnson took over as prime minister, was not widely seen as a man capable of leading a revolution in that style. This made his position very difficult and ultimately untenable.
LISTEN: Andy Frain talks to Civil Service World's Richard Johnstone and Dods Principal Political Consultant Laura Hutchinson about Whitehall and civil service reform
For that reason, gossip has suggested that Sedwill’s replacement will be someone aligned with the Government’s aims – a person who can get behind the Government’s agenda on “levelling up” the country and the UK’s departure from the European Union. That gossip has its limits – few expect an overtly political appointment – but the new cabinet secretary will undoubtedly benefit from knowing the Government’s agenda prior to their appointment. No one could complain that the Government hasn’t been clear in its ambitions for Whitehall, and support of this agenda will be implicit upon taking on the job for the new cabinet secretary.
Speculation is rife about who will replace Sedwill in September and the Government has already started advertising the position. The appointment process has echoed the one for a new Doctor Who more than anything else, with some calling for the job to be held by a woman for the first time, or someone from an ethnic minority background. Although neither possibility should be ruled out, a quick glance at recent senior appointments in Whitehall reveals a persistent tendency for hiring university-educated white men.
The job advert hints at such an appointment – applications are being invited from “current and former permanent secretaries” – but it seems unlikely that the next cabinet secretary will follow the template established by their predecessors. Indeed, if the radical Government rhetoric is matched with decisive action, then the new appointee will oversee some of the most radical changes within the civil service in a generation.
Andy Frain is Dods Senior Political Consultant. Hear more from Andy this abstract of his Dods Monitoring briefing, spelling out in detail what Whitehall reform will look like in the future.
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