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“What does Jeremy Think?”: The value of public service

8 June 2021

News and media


Image of London for Jeremy Haywood article

Sir Jeremy Heywood was the greatest British public servant of his generation – confidant and troubleshooter for both Conservative and Labour Prime Ministers, and a key figure in dealing with major crises such as the Global Financial Crisis and Brexit. His command of detail, ability to analyse situations and knowledge of the public sector were legendary. Before his untimely death from cancer in 2018, he worked with his wife Suzanne on a biography ‘What Does Jeremy Think?’ which is both a portrait of her late husband and a meditation on the unsung heroes keeping the ship of state afloat. Nick Rowley, former advisor to UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, shares his thoughts on the book and the role of the public service.

By Nick Rowley

Describe most work and professional activity and people have an immediate sense of what it involves: actor, carpenter, physiotherapist, singer, flight attendant. Yet to describe someone as a ‘public servant’ (or the more pejorative ‘bureaucrat’) illuminates little.

It describes people involved in activities as diverse as planning and delivering health care for their fellow human beings, engineers assessing the costs involved in building new rail infrastructure, or economists working on the national accounts. The list goes on. The descriptor requires elaboration, and yet the cartoon image of the ageing bureaucrat, in the grey cardigan, mug in hand, waiting for the kettle to boil, in the badly lit staff kitchen, dominates.

For more than 20 years Sir Jeremy Heywood was Britain’s most senior public servant. Other than for the keenest observer of public policy and administration, there is no reason for an Australian or New Zealand reader to have heard of him. But for anyone interested in the vital task of advising on and implementing effective public policy, his was a powerful career worth understanding and appreciating.

My time in the Downing Street Policy Directorate coincided with the years (2003-7) when Heywood stepped away from Whitehall and worked for Morgan Stanley. Of course, for that four-year period working in the city, Heywood enjoyed a greater salary and considerably shorter hours. But for him, and many others, to be an effective public servant is more than a job. It is a vocation: carrying out an essential public function to inform and influence government decision-making through professional, frank and apolitical advice.

Many of the senior and early career public servants I worked with in Whitehall already looked to Jeremy as a mentor and worked directly with him when he returned to work with Prime Minister Gordon Brown. When Heywood died in November 2018 many of them were in shock, finding it hard to believe that their most senior colleague was gone and with it the vital link between politics, ‘frank and fearless’ policy advice, political decisions and implementation.

Trusted and indispensable

Jeremy Heywood was more than trusted. His grasp of detail, depth of knowledge and understanding of the ‘hidden wiring’ of government meant he became indispensable to Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and in the two fraught Brexit dominated years prior to his early death from cancer, Theresa May.

Suzanne Heywood, a former public servant herself had long planned a biography of her husband. Thinking this would be years away following his retirement, his diagnosis and illness sadly sped the process with the two of them working on the book together over his final year. This makes for a very particular form of intimate ‘semi-auto’ biography. Written by a couple married for more than 20 years with both knowing Jeremy’s illness was likely to be terminal. Much like Tony Judt’s now classic Ill Fares the Land, the book was written in extremis with the limited number of ever more painful days giving the writing a clarity and force.

Given that the book was first written in partnership, with Suzanne Heywood only subsequently undertaking more than 200 interviews with politicians, policy academics, advocates and officials, it has a thoroughness and objectivity missing in so many (often self-serving) political autobiographies. Not quite the dry 360-degree performance review, but a rounded perspective on a career viewed and assessed by those who worked most closely with the subject.

Just five days before he died, frail and unable to walk, Jeremy Heywood was knighted in a London hospital ward as Sir Jeremy Heywood of Whitehall. It was the government buildings and departments of Whitehall – some used as far back as the Tudor period – that was his natural environment. The possibilities of British government and public policy were his life’s work.

In What Does Jeremy Think? we have a detailed, extended epitaph: a gift to all those interested in more than a history of events as seen from the inside. Each chapter and episode provides a window on the capacity, skills and understanding required to apply political intent in ways that achieve public value.

‘Apolitical’ is a much-misunderstood term. What it should refer to is not being partisan or ‘Party political’. In my experience, and as exemplified by Jeremy Heywood’s career, the very best public servants have outstanding political antenna, made even more effective because they are not in the direct employ of their political masters.

During my two years in the Downing Street Policy Directorate, half the staff of around 20 were political appointments and the other half were career public servants. Some of the best political advice and vital ‘quality control’ came from the public servants. They could point to the risks informed by precedent and ask the really hard questions that those more wedded to political purpose were not able to see.

This is what distinguishes the very best public servants from commercial consultants and political advisers. It is a receptive, questioning yet supportive public servant who can influence government decision-making. They can build and maintain relationships with decision makers based on mutual respect and trust. And although they seek to further the interests of the current government, they are as rigorous as they are non-partisan.

Tony Blair’s advice? Study Jeremy Heywood

As a colleague, Heywood was loved not feared. He valued contestability, diversity, rigorous evidence and ideas. He disliked unnecessary hierarchy and those more interested in status than content.

Exceptional though he clearly was, Heywood temperamentally and intellectually understood that collective wisdom would always trump individual brilliance. Someone working in government, in academia, business or civil society would know far more than he ever could. His job was to find them, learn, synthesise and inform policy decisions that could then be effectively implemented.

He passionately believed in open government. Open in the sense that the days where any institution, not least the public service, could believe itself the fount of all wisdom were gone. To be effective, knowledge drawn from other sources was vital to good policy advice.

His encouragement of early career public servants is legendary. When the Prime Minister or Cabinet needed to be briefed, Heywood would always involve the person actually doing the work. Generous, yes, but also more effective. Having the 20 or 30-something ‘three-brained’ official (rather than her boss’s boss) there in the room saved time communicating ‘down the hierarchy’ and was respectful of their policy work and advice.

A famous e-mail tactic was to simply forward a message to the relevant official with the acronym ‘W-A-W-O-T?” Where are we on this this? Sharp, to the point, but respectful of the person tasked with the job and seeking advice rather than crudely giving instruction.

And Heywood worked incredibly hard. Shooting out e-mails from his desk, convening meetings and leaving when he knew his presence was no longer needed. Having his BlackBerry and then his iPhone as a constant companion. In his final months, as was the case with US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Heywood would arrange for his chemo- and radiotherapy to be administered on a Friday. This allowed him to feel the effects over the weekend, rest and be ready for work early on Monday.

Whether it was coordinating Gordon Brown’s nationalisation of much of the UK banking system or attempting to negotiate the painful divorce of the UK’s forty-year marriage to the European Union, Heywood’s commitment to his job was complete. His ability to command the detail was immense, and his own inter-personal skills, emotional intelligence and empathy meant he could often see political and policy opportunities that no one else could.

Not only an authentic and loving way of revealing her husband’s character and professional brilliance What Does Jeremy Think? is a source for anyone who wants to understand how, when, why and by whom certain decisions were taken, and what the decision-making process within government looks like.

The back cover of the book has extracts from the speeches made at his memorial in Westminster Abbey by the four Prime Ministers that Jeremy Heywood worked with. They are effusive, generous and glowing. None of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Nick Clegg or Theresa May had to attend, but they all did, and they all spoke powerfully. I am with the words of my former boss Tony Blair: “If you’re a young person thinking of a career in public service, study Jeremy Heywood”.

A number of my former colleagues were also there. At the conclusion of proceedings, the audience made up largely of public servants, spontaneously started singing William Blake’s Jerusalem. Surely, to build a ‘new Jerusalem’ or a better society here – or anywhere else – requires more than slick political communication and ‘issue management’. It needs some of the best minds working in the public service, driven by the same professionalism and values exemplified by the career of Jeremy Heywood.

The insights in the pages of What Does Jeremy Think? speak volumes about the value of an independent professionalised public service here in Australia.

And, by parting the curtain, Suzanne Heywood has powerfully revealed just how intense, rewarding and vital the work of a trusted senior public servant can be.

What Does Jeremy Think? by Suzanne Heywood was published in Australia on 5 May, 2021 by Harper Collins

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