Brexit, AI governance, and public service leadership: 2021 in review

By on 29/12/2021 | Updated on 28/01/2022

The top features and podcasts from GGF over the last 12 months

As we mentioned in yesterday’s round up of 2021’s top news stories, it has been yet another year dominated by the coronavirus. But that has been far from the only issue on the minds of civil servants.

It has also been a year when the UK and the European Union agreed a trade deal following Britain’s exit from the bloc – although the terms of the agreement are again being negotiated.

And much as Brexit seems set to be something of a permanent presence in UK politics in the years ahead, many of the most popular articles in 2021 covered issues that have always been prominent across public services, but which have been given extra urgency by the COVID-19 pandemic. Here is a round up of some of those top articles.

How the UK accidentally left the Single Market, and other Brexit stories

This article took a look at a series of interviews with key figures involved in Brexit, published by research body UK in a Changing Europe. The interview with former chancellor Philip Hammond reveals that Theresa May’s October 2016 speech at the Conservative Party conference that effectively ruled out membership of the single market or customs union – happened without proper consultation with the Treasury.

According to Hammond, May simply didn’t understand the significance of her comments, and when he heard her speak he was “completely and utterly horrified”. It seemed to him to be “almost a coup – a definition of Brexit without any proper Cabinet consultation at all”.

Hammond revealed that May was shocked by financial markets’ reaction to her announcements. Sterling’s dramatic tumble “scared the bejesus” out of May’s team, he recalls; the PM’s focus had been on controlling immigration, and her team hadn’t recognised the economic implications of her red lines.

“If the Treasury had seen the speech, the Treasury would have told them that this is liable to cause destabilisation in markets, because at that stage the markets had not priced in a hard Brexit,” Hammond recalls. “They had all assumed that the trade relationship would continue much as before.”

It was just one of a number of stories looking at Brexit over 2021 as the issue waxed and waned.

As Matt Ross explored, personality was often the driving factor in decisions taken in the UK’s exit from the bloc. Three bad behaviours defined the negotiations, he wrote: shutting others out, boxing the UK in, and hubris over Northern Ireland.

“One of the striking things about these transcripts is the degree to which people at the top of the Conservative Party felt forced by political pressures into making particular choices. And it is notable how few of those decisions worked out as hoped,” he wrote. “The Brexit story is thick with miscalculations on all sides, as smart people operating in immense complexity made poor decisions. In the words of Denzil Davidson, whose decade as a special adviser culminated in three years advising May on Europe, ‘when you make mistakes, you often see what the factors are at the time, but you give the wrong weighting to the factors’.”

AI regulation is coming. Here’s how governments can get it right

One of the year’s more under-the-radar trends was governments beginning to think about what regulation is needed in the field of artificial intelligence. In an exclusive article for Global Government Forum, Harry Farmer from the Ada Lovelace Institute sets out what they need to get right to harness the enormous potential of AI.

“In April, the European Commission released a draft proposal for the regulation of AI. In August, the Cyberspace Administration of China passed a set of draft regulations for algorithmic systems, while in the United States the White House Office of Science and Technology policy has called for the creation of an ‘AI Bill of Rights.’ In the United Kingdom, the government has committed to publishing a white paper setting out its intentions for the regulation of AI,” writes Farmer.

“For countries and economic blocs still considering their regulatory responses to AI, the message of 2021 should be clear: the main questions of AI regulation are no longer ones of ‘if’, but ones of ‘how’.”

Find out more here.

Plus, take a look in detail at one country’s plans: A closer look at Singapore’s AI governance framework: insights for other governments.

The sights and sounds of leadership

Sharing of best practice is also the focus of GGF’s Leading Questions podcast, where civil service leaders share what they learned from their time at the top, provided vital insight thought the year. The series has seven episodes packed full with insight from those who have worked at the top of government.

Leadership was also among the areas explored by Una O’Brien, the former permanent secretary at the UK’s health department, in her article explaining how to strengthen personal and team resilience.

“Leaders and teams who’ve managed the best [in the pandemic] have reached out for help from others and used innovative methods to work around their daily challenges,” she highlighted. “They have also shown empathy for one another and allowed time for non-work interests and volunteering. They had rotas to manage the long hours worked by staff, held breaks in meetings, made sure people took some annual leave, and encouraged unstructured discussions to help make sense of the wider realities and keep a guiding sense of purpose.”

Also looking at the impact of COVID, Michael Wernick, former clerk of the Privy Council, sketched out a change agenda – both in public policy, and in the hard wiring of government from the pandemic response.

“The iron law seems to be that it takes shocks and crises to generate attention, focus, resources and the political will to tackle serious reforms,” wrote Wernick. “There was a ‘first wave’ of innovation in the immediate response to the pandemic and my sense is that a window to apply lessons and tackle a wide range of reforms has opened in Canada, at least for a while. The 2020s may become a decade of ‘perestroika’ [restructuring] for the broader public sector.” South of Canada, the impact of the US presidential election on federal leadership was also examined throughout the year, starting with a look in January at what Biden’s presidency means for federal staff.

About Richard Johnstone

Richard Johnstone is the executive editor of Global Government Forum, where he helps to produce editorial analysis and insight for the title’s audience of public servants around the world. Before joining GGF, he spent nearly five years at UK-based title Civil Service World, latterly as acting editor, and has worked in public policy journalism throughout his career.

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