On this day of by-elections, spare a thought for the unelected denizens of Whitehall. They gained a new overlord last week. You’d be forgiven for having missed the news amid the froth and fuss of conference season, but John Manzoni was appointed chief executive officer of the Civil Service. He ascends to the role after 40 years of dedicated service in various departments, starting as shoe-shine boy to the Deputy Secretary for Munitions, and eventually occupying all the finest oak-panelled rooms in government. Along the way, he’s wasted countless £billions of your money, broken several computer systems, and…

Actually, hang on a second, that’s not right. Manzoni is the new chief exec of the Civil Service, but he’s not your typical high-ranking mandarin. For starters, he’s only worked within government for the past eight months. Before that, there was a blue-chip career for blue-chip companies. He spent 24 years with BP before becoming the President and CEO of the Canadian company Talisman Energy Inc. He holds a pair of normal degrees and a pair of master’s degrees. There will be few people in Whitehall who can out-qualify him on paper.

Manzoni’s atypical background suits what is an atypical role: he is the first CEO in Whitehall’s history. The appointment comes after a spot of restructuring at the top of the Civil Service. Nerds may remember that this Government originally separated out the roles of Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service. Then they remerged them, in the person of Jeremy Heywood, when Bob Kerslake stood down from the latter position earlier this year. Manzoni, for his part, will be neither Heywood nor Kerslake. He isn’t tasked with implementing the Government’s whole policy agenda, as Heywood is. He isn’t really in charge of civil servants as Kerslake was. He’s effectively there to deliver one thing: a leaner, meaner, keener Civil Service.

If that makes Manzoni sound a bit like the mandarin to Francis Maude’s minister, well, that description isn’t too far off the mark. Many of Maude’s concerns will be Manzoni’s. The digitisation of government, improving Whitehall’s commercial prowess, making sure that big government projects don’t collapse – these are all part of the CEO’s remit. He will even have a desk in the main Cabinet Office building, I’m told, as well as one in the Treasury building.

As far as I can tell, folk around the Cabinet Office and No.10 are confident that Manzoni will get these jobs done. Even though there were relatively few candidates for the position, in what was a relatively hurried application process, they seem certain that they’ve got the right man. What distinguished this particular 54-year-old was his blend of private and public sector experience. Three decades spent working for mega-corporations have sharpened his commercial instincts. Whilst eight months spent working in government, as head of the Major Projects Authority, have prepared him for the whimsies of politics. He has already “passed the tissue rejection test,” as governmental types like to put it.

But you don’t need to hear all this from me. The Government’s admiration for Manzoni is clear in the “progress report” that they published alongside his appointment. From 2016 on, according to a new directive, potential Permanent Secretaries will have to “have completed an appropriate business school leadership programme in advance of taking up an appointment.” It’s almost as though Manzoni is the new model civil servant. Experience of Whitehall is a good thing, but so too is a bit of hard-headed business nous.

How will the Civil Service take to this? That really is the question. So far, Manzoni appears to have impressed civil servants with his breezy charm and enthusiasm. “He’s just an inspiring kind of guy,” says one. Another describes him as “refreshing”. But they have known him in his previous role. It could be very different now that he has to knead and pummel the entire bureaucracy into a new shape. One abiding concern, for instance, is how he will operate alongside Jeremy Heywood. Power has accumulated with the Cabinet Secretary to the point that asking “what would Jeremy want?” is almost a constitutional necessity. Could it ever become “what would John want?”

It doesn’t help that, as the Institute for Government’s Peter Riddell points out, there’s some uncertainty and doubt about Manzoni’s role. He is not a CEO in the traditional sense. The Permanent Secretaries, who will have to report into him, are not his to manage. The Cabinet Secretary and the Prime Minister, whom he will have to report in to himself, are not his to override. He will have employers but not so many employees. The tangled hierarchies of Whitehall could be baffling to someone so used to the private sector.

But this isn’t to say that Manzoni lacks powers. His role comes with plenty of them, especially now that it has solidified from an idea to an actuality. There are the formal ones that were part of the job description; including, perhaps most crucially, a degree of oversight over the finances of government. But there are also some more informal ones, such as his ability to sit in on Cabinet meetings. Even if he just whiles away those meetings, drawing doodles in his standard-issue notebook, his presence is symbolically significant. It says: this chap is un grand fromage. He ought to be listened to.

In this respect, and others, the role is just what Manzoni and people such as David Cameron make of it. If the former sets about it with vigour, and the latter gives it prominence, then who knows? This new CEO could become the guardian and guarantor of reform. He should certainly be an example of how things could be done differently. In the past, the management of Whitehall has generally been done on a department-by-department basis, with the Foreign Office and its problems seen as distinct from the DWP and its problems. But having someone in charge of the broader functions of government – great, big, cross-cutting themes such as digitisation and efficiency – could mean a more unified approach.

And if the Civil Service starts constantly reforming itself, then future governments will be spared future frustration. It was telling that, in a recent speech to the IfG, Labour’s Michael Dugher supported the idea of a CEO. In fact, he went further, and called for the position to be strengthened. There is continuity of intent, even if the governing party changes.

Is it any wonder? Every one of the three main parties has now had recent experience of government, so they all know Whitehall’s foibles and how it needs to improve. They also know that 2015 will be the year in which the cause of deficit reduction rubs up against their own election-time giveaways. The Civil Service will no doubt be asked to find new savings to fund these political promises. More, as always, will have to be done for less.

Better put Mr Manzoni on speed dial.

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