Image credit: @creafarrar

What future permanent secretaries should look like

Our leaders must be diverse in how they look, and how they think

At yesterday’s One Team Gov event, I was lucky enough to run a session on this. Here’s a short summary.

For context, here are the post-war Cabinet Secretaries — the primus inter pares among Perm Secs. (Come on. This is a topic that demands some Latin).

This group is 100% male, white and aged 50 and over when they reached the position (in fairness to Sir Jeremy, I believe he took the job the day after his 50th birthday). I can’t comment on their sexuality or social class. But I can’t think of a single company or organisation led for so long by such a thin layer of characteristics, physical or mental. However good these people were at their job — and some were very good indeed — this is not healthy.

In light of that, what did we expect future Permanent Secretaries to be?

Empathetic: They are genuinely curious about the human beings around them, and skilled readers of psychology. They meet staff without needing pre-briefs. They meet people who they deliver services to.

Humble: They are conscious of their own limitations and vulnerabilities. They speak truth to power, and remain honest about uncertainty.

Open: They see transparency as a source of resilience, not risk. They talk loudly and publicly about mistakes they’ve made. They’re available and approachable.

Representative of the society they serve and the organisation they run: They might be renters. They may once have been truly, on-the-bones-of-their-arse, skint. They may never have been on a skiing holiday. They may be gay, non-white, and not university educated. They will have spent some time working in a front-line public service, delivering to real people. They will have worked outside the Civil Service for a time, maybe in another country. They will understand digital, not because it’s trendy, but because the society they serve is increasingly digital. They’ll understand policy for the same reason.


This is not to say, by the way, that we thought these characteristics should come at the expense of the many qualities a good Permanent Secretary possesses today. We still need knowledgable leaders who are also skilled relationship builders, resilient characters and comfortable with complex ambiguity. But there must be greater recognition that Internet-era leadership demands more than that, and some shift in emphasis.

On a scale of 1–10 in how close the Civil Service is to having a top leadership team with those characteristics, the group’s view was somewhere between 1 and 2. To borrow a phrase from Tom Loosemore, when it comes to getting leadership right in the Civil Service, we aren’t being bold enough. Not nearly bold enough. Not even close.

The Civil Service does not make it easy for people with these characteristics to reach the top. The grade structure doesn’t help. The rewards system doesn’t help. Quite often, ministers themselves don’t help.

There were two great, practical ideas put forward by the group to get the Civil Service a little closer to where we thought it should be.

The first is Perm Sec apprentices. The government is encouraging apprenticeships for all sorts of roles, designed to blend youth with experience. Why not have them for our most senior leaders, build a talent pool, and expose more people to the realities of the top jobs in a safer, structured way?

The second is Perm Sec job shares. Some people with all the attributes to be an excellent Civil Service leader baulk at even considering the top job because they are unwilling to sacrifice their whole lives for it. Normalising job shares at the very highest level would send a clear message that this is no longer expected. Donning a hair-shirt should not be a pre-condition for leading a government department.

We thought job shares would also encourage more women to apply for the most senior roles — but for what it’s worth, it would make the gig a lot more appealing to the likes of me too.

And there’s more good news. Oxford admits 100 undergraduate Classicists a year. That’s a tiny number compared to the available pool of talented leaders out there who are empathetic, open, humble and representative.

Let’s find them.

The session. Photo credit: @JanetHughes

(Credit must go to all those who attended, including: James Arthur Cattell, Janet Hughes, @kitterati, Michael Clark, Kylie Havelock, Tracey Williams Allred, Paul Kett, Emily Andrews, Gurpreet Sehmi, Mark Dalgarno, @jackcols, and others who I will add when I get the attendee list…)