Speech: Cabinet Secretary Lecture: Wednesday 13 October 2021

Cabinet Office

October 14
11:06 2021

Im delighted to be here with you all this evening and Im grateful to Newcastle University for hosting this lecture in partnership with the Strand Group.

You might be wondering why Ive come to Newcastle to give a lecture about the effectiveness of central government! Im here because the conduct of central government shouldnt be a rarefied matter for those of us that spend too much time in the SW1 postcode - it is a matter that affects everyone, everywhere. In my view, the debate is only enhanced with the injection of views from beyond the hallowed halls of Westminster.

Earlier today I had the pleasure of meeting students and academics in the history department - taking me right back to my own days as a PhD student. Its been a few years since I delivered a lecture to such a scholarly audience, so treat me kindly!

On a visit to Sheffield last week, I was asked an excellent question.

What keeps you awake at night?

Of course there is always something that keeps sleep at bay - particularly during a pandemic and our current economic circumstances. But in this role, I find myself asking the same question again and again:

How are we going to avoid the Curse of the Missed Opportunity?

Now if that doesnt sound too alarming, it is because you didnt have Peter Hennessy as your PhD supervisor.

Peter, the legendary Whitehall historian and great friend and mentor has drummed into me and a good few others here today, all that he discovered in 50 years of observing the Civil Service.

Peter argues that The Missed Opportunity is the quintessential government mistake the mistake we make when we fail to hold on to the lessons we learn as we go along.

Politicians and officials, Westminster and Whitehall, have recognised that the pandemic is an inflection point in our history.

So How do we avoid the curse this time?. We should take heart from the successes of our response: those areas where ministers and civil servants even the nation can take pride in a job well done.

Of course; the rapid development and rollout of vaccines; the furlough scheme which has supported 11 million livelihoods; the swift expansion of Universal Credit; the Everyone In campaign that saw homeless people given shelter.

Successes pulled off by diverse teams, working together with common purpose.

These achievements, and the part we played in them, reveal the best that the Civil Service can be. Skilled, innovative, ambitious. More confident, more spirited. Less risk averse - less hostage to process.

Working in partnership across organisations and in lockstep with the private sector. Weve shown we can be the best in the service of our country.

Alongside this, we also need to acknowledge our weaknesses none of which will come as a surprise to those who know the Civil Service.

Cumbersome processes and siloed working, slowing us down and hindering best practice. Confusion at times about who was responsible for what.

Failing to work consistently well across national and local government, and missing the value of expertise on the ground. Weaknesses in how we gather, handle and present data. And our longstanding lack of specialist scientific and technical knowledge.

We need to fix these weaknesses and I know we can to help spearhead a recovery from COVID and truly deliver levelling up.

For the sake of our great country and the communities we serve we want to move ahead stronger.

To the people of the United Kingdom who have lost loved ones and had their lives upended we owe the very best of us and I truly believe this is what civil servants up and down the country want to give.

Since the modern Civil Service was established, through national triumphs and crises, there have been no areas of public life where we have not been asked to serve.

That is our privilege our honour and our responsibility. Peter identifies the era immediately after the Second World War as Whitehalls greatest Missed Opportunity.

The Government had corralled the nations best talents for the war effort: scientists, engineers, mechanics, linguists, cryptographers yes, even historians whomever was necessary.

After victory, we could have applied their specialist skills, their expertise and knowledge, to rebuild the country.

Instead, they were encouraged to disperse. There was never a formal examination into how the state as a whole had performed in the war.

Which meant no one realised just how much government had been boosted by this rapid infusion of external expertise.

To avoid the curse of the Missed Opportunity now, we must hold on to the lessons we have learned good and bad.

You see, any debate about government, the Civil Service and their effectiveness should never be binary.

It is absolutely possible to be a passionate defender of the role of the Civil Service, to recognise the remarkable commitment to our country displayed by my colleagues.

To applaud those many things done well and, at the same time, be determined to address our weaknesses.

My colleagues want to be respected personally and see their contribution valued; so many of the greatest advocates for reform are actually civil servants.

Some of the loudest voices for change are coming from within. We know what frustrates us; what holds us back. We know what makes it harder for us to do our jobs.

We know what we have to do. We must make sure that in the next five years we learn the lessons of the pandemic and we seize the opportunities to bank our wins and fix our weaknesses.

So that together, we can get on with the job that the country expects of us.

Ive seen in the past 18 months how ready my colleagues are to rip up the old ways of doing things and try something fresh.

It has been exhilarating and exhausting. But our eyes must remain open to what we can achieve.

Ministers and civil servants are steadfast in their resolve to renew and rewire government.

Earlier this year, we set out our vision in a Declaration on Reform, which reflected the views of civil servants and ministers - and took in the critiques of external commentators.

The Prime Minister and I signed it off on behalf of ministers and permanent secretaries, following a joint meeting of Cabinet.

Let me be clear: we are only in the foothills of these reforms and there is much more to do.

Tonight, if youll allow, I am going to explore our direction of travel a little more. But first, I hope you will permit me still a historian at heart to indulge my passion for the past.

A century-old tradition dictates that I always sit to the Prime Ministers right at Cabinet, as his most senior adviser from the Civil Service.

The man who began this tradition, as the first ever Cabinet Secretary, was called Maurice Hankey.

Although separated by a hundred and four years, both of us took on the job in the midst of crisis.

Lieutenant Colonel Hankey was not a politician or a bureaucrat. He was not a diplomat, or even a civil servant.

He was a Royal Marine with a background in naval intelligence and an instinctive understanding of how to grasp and resolve the knottiest organisational challenge.

And his legacy to the nation is our enduring system of Cabinet Government.

Hankeys initial intervention was under Asquiths administration when government mechanisms were in disarray.

Without an agenda or a Secretary, Cabinet meetings, discussions and decisions went largely unrecorded.

And so follow-up action was haphazard. It was no way to wage a war, let alone win one.

As the nation reeled from the appalling losses on the Somme, Allied leaders convened in Paris, in November 1916.

Hankey accompanied the then War Secretary, Lloyd George, on the trip, which proved to be a turning point in British governance.

Lloyd George describes a walk through the streets of Paris, during which Hankey keen, I think, to seize the opportunity suggested that a small but powerful War Committee be set up for the day-to-day conduct of the war.

Lloyd George by then losing faith in Asquiths leadership saw merit in the plan, which he hoped would help compensate for an unfocused Cabinet.

Within weeks of course, Lloyd George was Prime Minister and enacting Hankeys plan was among his first acts.

While it didnt resolve everything, the partnership of Lloyd George and Hankey is recognised for energising the higher command of government.

It brought focus, rigour and accountability. I hesitate to use that distinctly 21st century epithet disruptor of Maurice Hankey. But his very background and experience allowed him to think and act differently.

He was the sculptor who looks at a block of stone and sees it not as it is, but as it could be. Lloyd George described Hankey as no less than the Organiser of Victory.

Now as I turn up on a Tuesday morning for weekly Cabinet, I sometimes find myself thinking how very familiar Hankey would still find the rituals that fall to me.

Preparing the agenda; the circulation of papers; the Prime Ministers brief; the handwritten notes and the official minutes.

The human side: the chat in the margins of the meetings, making sure the right people are sitting in the right places; assessing the value of the contributions made.

Right down to where I sit - a position which has come to symbolise the unique interlocking and trusting relationship between politicians and officials that is at the heart of ou

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