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Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet secretary, does not like making news. He prefers to remain behind the scenes. In March, Heywood caused a public stir at an Institute for Government meeting when he suggested that government might outsource some policy thinking to external bodies. He quickly said that this was just an idea, and would not affect core policymaking, but it was “a perfectly legitimate challenge.” Heywood’s modest kite-flying hinted at a wider, largely hidden debate that is now underway in Whitehall, and that asks: what is the purpose of the civil service now?

Whitehall has faced upheavals and cuts before,…

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