Jeremy Heywood


October 25, 2018 David Halpern

It’s so far back that I can’t even be sure when I first met Jeremy Heywood. Perhaps when trying to sneak a note into the then Prime Minister Tony Blair’s red box that sat on his desk. Or sorting out arrangements for the newly founded (Forward) Strategy Unit. Probably even before that, in the early days of the 1997 administration, stumbling into No10 as a starry-eyed academic for a seminar on the Third Way.

Jeremy has directly served the last four British Prime Ministers. He’s been the man that successive PMs have found that they could not do without.

Perhaps more importantly, though less visibly, he has served the whole UK with extraordinary dedication. For my generation, he has been the embodiment of a public servant – the ultimate policy wonk, with breath-taking depth and breadth of expertise. He’s long been an inspiration, and a friend – to me personally, to the Behavioural Insights Team, and to all of us who have tried to bring innovative and evidence-based approaches to addressing the challenges of our time – and the needs of our citizens.

The Prime Minister and new Cabinet Secretary, Mark Sedwill, have saluted him, and you can also read Jeremy’s own thoughtful letter of recognition and thanks to the civil service. This is a more personal thanks and celebration for all he has done in his time as Cabinet Secretary, not least for his tireless support – and sometimes challenge – over the years. This includes support for applying behaviour science to policy – of course. But it’s also thanks for what he has done, and the support he has given, in so many other areas too: from ‘What Works’ to wellbeing, and from weird and wonderful PM strategy unit ‘think pieces’ in the Blair years, to key policy battles of more recent times on issues ranging from e-cigarettes to market design. (You’ll forgive me if I’m a little coy on all the gory detail).

As Jeremy quietly notes in his resignation letter:

Throughout my career, I have seen it as my responsibility to look for fresh angles, to challenge lazy thinking and to work with colleagues to find solutions rather than simply identifying problems and obstacles that everyone can admire. Some of the toughest issues we have faced as a country in recent decades have required genuinely new or lateral thinking…

Damn right. People who think Jeremy has been a conservative (small c) force in Whitehall and Government have almost certainly never met him. Picking up from his predecessor Gus O’Donnell, Jeremy chaired the BIT commissioning board. He never flinched from pushing us harder: not just to come up with new ideas, but to test them, and where they worked to get them taken to scale.

On his first public speech as Cabinet Secretary, he pushed for taking that empiricism to scale, and we have worked ever since together championing the spread of more empirical and robust approaches to policy. This has included backing the independent What Works centres to generate, translate, and encourage the adoption of more evidence based practice across the public service. Perhaps less obvious to the world outside, it’s also included championing empirical approaches and experimentation within the civil service itself, building on the work of the community of analysts across government, and encouraging more policymakers and professionals to build RCTs into policy and practice, not least through the use of the Trial Advisory Panel.

Jeremy has also been relentless taking on the great challenges that we face in our societies and economies. He doesn’t give up. If he thinks an issue can be addressed – which meant virtually everything – he doesn’t let it go. You can also be sure in any meeting, however many gathered around the large table in his office, the PM’s study, or around the Cabinet table, Jeremy will have read every paper. I have to confess, it’s a mystery I’ve never cracked. He is busier than everyone else, yet he is the one that would have spotted the hole in the argument buried in para 134 on page 47… Equally a mystery is how he is able to answer emails faster than the rest of us, despite having an order of magnitude more of them. And to cap it all, he sends out links to newspaper and journal articles that somehow he’s found time to read.

Of course we have theories. One possibility is that there are actually three or four of him. Another is that Suzanne Cook, his wife, is really reading all those extra pieces. But no, it really is that Jeremy is an incredibly brilliant and unbelievably hard-working public servant.

Apart from the cascade of emails and meetings – about which we occasionally feign an eye roll, but which in reality have oiled the work of UK government for years – I have on a very few occasions received a sharp call too. Once he called up to tell me that the PM had said I should be given a b***cking for a story that had run with a quote from me (I’d been asked to do the briefing by a Special Advisor colleague in No10) but of course he was right– I should have known better. Another rare occasion was an internal exchange about an annoying bit of internal bureaucracy – but his irritation was about why didn’t we fix it, instead of just complaining about it. But the reason these rare corrections stick in mind because Jeremy is someone you listen to and care about. Jeremy looks for the positive, and how to encourage those around him, whatever their grade or the issue at hand.

There are just so many ways in which Jeremy has contributed to public life in Britain, most of which will probably never be known. He prompts, cajoles and inspires all those who work with him – from humble civil servants to our grandest Ministers – to be bolder and better. Despite the immense pressure on him for so many years, Jeremy has always maintained a deep warmth for officials and politicians. He has a quiet authority, and yet humility, of the rarest kind. People have listened to this man for so long not because of his powerful position, but because they know he has listened to, and calmly considered the arguments, before responding in a gracious, thoughtful and respectful way.

Those working on the UK’s proposed new Academy for Public Leadership would do well to try and distil the Heywood approach (in fact, there’s a pretty obvious candidate to give its very first speech…and maybe even lend it a name?)

So Jeremy, I am going to miss you being around Whitehall and No10 so very much – and I certainly won’t be alone in that. I feel incredibly indebted to you for your years of support and challenge personally, for the team here at BIT and the What Works centres, and for what you’ve done for the UK and public service. I wish you and Suzanne – though this sounds too thin after all you’ve done – the very best and some well-deserved time together. I hope we’ll measure up to what you’ve taught and shown us.

Maybe you’ll even still send us a few emails…


Subscribe for updates about BIT’s work

Authors