Civil servants must take ‘long-term stewardship view’, says outgoing UK Cabinet Office chief

By on 19/03/2024 | Updated on 19/03/2024
Alex Chisholm speaking at Global Government Forum's Innovation 2024 conference. Photo: Rob Greig
Alex Chisholm speaking at Global Government Forum's Innovation 2024 conference. Photo: Rob Greig

The chief operating officer (COO) of the UK Civil Service today urged civil servants to retain their focus on long-term goals and structural reforms, even as the new crises emerging in this “restless decade” threaten to blow strategic plans off course. “The risks of myopia are significant,” he said, warning that “quick and easy solutions are unlikely to be genuine or lasting.”

Speaking in London at Global Government Forum’s Innovation 2024 conference, Alex Chisholm – who is to step down from his roles as COO and Cabinet Office permanent secretary in two weeks – argued that civil servants “have to be able to adapt to grasp problems whose half-life, whose solution may be measured in units of years or even decades… Part of our job is to take that long-term stewardship view and to not just get through the day or the end of the week, but to try and look at those more distant and important and vital problems that we have to deal with and to find working solutions for them.”

Addressing a packed plenary session to open the two-day event, Chisholm noted that “politics, partly because of the media cycle, at times reacts and addresses events within the span of a single day or even a single hour. The prime minister in the UK was criticised last week for delaying a response by two hours, as if you’re expected to have a response every minute of every day!”

Read more: Innovation 2024 as it happened – day 1

The restless decade

This media and political pressure for instant reactions, said Chisholm, comes against a background of systemic, disruptive global change. Less than halfway through the decade, he pointed out, the 2020s have brought us a “global pandemic, war in Europe, economic crises and ever more pressing challenges to global security.” These crises then create further disruption and instability, resulting for example in “record-breaking military spending, social unrest, an accelerating global movement of people, and ongoing disruption to global trade.” Meanwhile, as climate change takes hold “the economic impacts are increasing, as will the demographic shifts as climate change pushes migration trends yet further.”

Rapid technological change is bringing yet more disruption, said Chisholm, with surveys showing growing public discomfort over the threat posed to jobs by AI technologies. And many of these disruptive events have demanded high levels of public spending and depressed tax revenues – leaving public finances under pressure around the world. “All these factors are both drivers of change, and necessitate it,” he said. “We literally cannot continue like this. Citizens agree, and it’s a common problem for governments worldwide that trust in the state has fallen significantly.”

With governments under such pressure, Chisholm argued, the temptation is to react to immediate pressures and make short-term decisions – but only sustained investment and continuity in policymaking will generate the right outcomes. “In this restless decade, the risks of myopia are significant,” he said. “So long-term foresight and investment, while certainly desirable, is at present harder to come by, with difficult choices being made about regular spend let alone some of the bets necessary for deep innovation.”

Government resources are too quickly diverted to deal with symptoms, not causes, Chisholm suggested: “Where there are real pressing challenges which require urgent attention, it’s all too easy to spend too much time coping with them, rather than focusing on the need to change underlying approaches.”

Stick to your guns

Ways of investing must change, he added – supporting a more entrepreneurial and experimental approach to project development, for example. “Small-scale investment initially supports experimentation at the seed stage, with further funding reserved to scale initiatives that show real promise,” he said, but there should be consistency in the overall approach to provide “predictability and commitment to a course of action.”

“Quick and easy solutions are unlikely to be genuine or lasting,” he added. “If a problem was easily fixed, it would have been.”

The turbulence of recent years, Chisholm acknowledged, has also damaged relationships with industry. “Business trust in government has fallen, not least because of the reduced certainty and the pressures of the pandemic and other changes that we’ve been making,” he said. “I think that government’s going to need to work harder to rebuild that confidence and clarity which businesses expect.”

However, Chisholm then appeared to challenge widespread perceptions among businesses that the government has created much of this turbulence through, for example, its Brexit policies and repeated changes of prime minister. “Businesses also need to give government a bit of slack sometimes, and realise that governments are actually very good at listening to their citizens – much better than the businesses are – and that a lot of the situations we have to deal with are also exogenous and not things we’ve just made on our own,” he said. “Businesses need to get used to change as being a constant in their dealings with government. Trying to find that ability to adapt to the situation, while pursuing long term valuable goals – that is the nature of that public private partnership.”

Putting humans at the centre at the centre of decision-making

Speaking after Chisholm, Catherine Friday, global government and public sector leader at platinum global knowledge partner EY, argued that some of today’s changes contain solutions to the challenges thrown up by other disruptions. “Looking at the world today, from demographics to climate, geopolitics to economics, we know that global trends are making life challenging for governments. But I believe we have cause for optimism because some of the century’s other trends have prepared the ground for even more innovation in the public sector,” she said.

Catherine Friday, global government and public sector leader at platinum global knowledge partner EY

Friday cited the explosions in personal connectivity and data production as providing great platforms for public sector reform and innovation, listing a range of ways in which governments are deploying digital technologies to realise public goals. These projects, she said, were “successful because they’re putting humans at the centre at the centre of decision-making.” When the public sector combines the use of new technologies with a commitment to transparency and accountability, she added, “innovation goes hand in hand with building public confidence.”

“As Thomas Edison said: ‘There’s a way to do it better’,” she concluded. “Let’s go ahead and find it together.”

Innovation 2024 continues on Wednesday 20 March at the Excel Centre in London’s Docklands.
The event is supported by platinum global knowledge partner EY, and gold knowledge partners Appian, Capgemini, Defence and Security Accelerator, Google Cloud, IBM, Nortal, PA Consulting, VISA Government Solutions, Workday, and WT

About Matt Ross

Matt is Global Government Forum's Contributing Editor, providing direction and support on topics, products and audience interests across GGF’s editorial, events and research operations. He has been a journalist and editor since 1995, beginning in motoring and travel journalism – and combining the two in a 30-month, 30-country 4x4 expedition funded by magazine photo-journalism. Between 2002 and 2008 he was Features Editor of Haymarket news magazine Regeneration & Renewal, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development; and from 2008 to 2014 he was the Editor of UK magazine and website Civil Service World, then Editorial Director for Public Sector – both at political publishing house Dods. He has also worked as Director of Communications at think tank the Institute for Government.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *