COVID-19 and Brexit driving need for major civil service reform, says UK Cabinet Office perm sec

By on 15/07/2020 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Alex Chisholm, permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office.

The combination of the pandemic, Brexit, ‘levelling up’, ‘net zero’ and other pressing agendas are driving a need for big reforms in the UK civil service, Cabinet Office permanent secretary Alex Chisholm told an online audience of civil servants today. Together, he said, they comprise “if not a burning platform, then certainly a very warm platform”, and will require “brilliant, diverse solutions”.

Chisholm, who took up the role of Cabinet Office perm sec and chief operating officer of the civil service in April, was speaking alongside minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove in a session on modernising the civil service during Civil Service Live on 15 July.

On Brexit, Chisholm said that at least 80% of related civil service work has so far been focused on the work required to leave the EU. After the end of the transition period on 31 December, the task will instead switch to “what we do afterwards and our responsibility to develop our own machine”.  

“We need to focus a lot of ingenuity and effort on designing our own regulations, whether that be procurement, state aid, planning rules or agriculture,” he said. “These are our responsibility now and as civil servants, we’d better get it right. I really feel that keenly and I think that’s going to be the greatest challenge of the next few years.”  

In a speech at Civil Service Live on Tuesday, Chisholm said that “it is sobering to reflect that, even with all the progress we have made, we are still contending with the challenge of the EU exit and with the response to COVID–19 – and we cannot have two ‘main efforts’.

“Much is needed from the civil service to deliver these mighty objectives.”

Removing obstacles

Chisholm said his main priority in delivering reform is to “remove the obstacles” that prevent civil servants from doing their jobs effectively. Such obstacles include burdensome bureaucracy, too much risk aversion, legacy systems, not being able to access the data required to make decisions, and difficulties collaborating with peers in other departments. “Those are the type of inhibitions that stop people doing what they want to do, which is to better serve citizens; and our responsibility – politicians and senior civil servants collectively – is to remove those burdens,” he said.

To understand these hindrances, those driving reform will need to listen to officials at all levels of the civil service, Chisholm and Gove agreed.

“The apex is the wrong model when thinking about the modern organisation,” Chisholm said. “When we think about the challenges we face as a society today, we really need brilliant, diverse solutions, innovative new thinking and to get the best out of all the talent available. And that’s not going to come just from one person or a small group of people at the top – it’s going to come from leveraging the best that’s in the whole organisation.”

Planning to listen

Gove added that beneficial change comes through conversation. “Politicians spend a lot of time making arguments and seeking to persuade or win over,” he said, “but actually, the most useful process is hearing: hearing from people on the frontline and listening to those who are involved in shaping and implementing policy.”

He mentioned a recent call he’d had in which policy and delivery professionals from 12 departments were encouraged to share their ideas for improving the civil service. Those who were concerned about providing honest feedback were given the option of doing so anonymously, though Gove emphasised that civil servants should not fear “presenting ministers with the unvarnished truth”.  

“We want to hear from everybody – we’re not being gradeist about this, and there’s no monopoly of wisdom at the top,” Chisholm reiterated.

The ‘levelling up’ agenda

On Tuesday, the government launched its prospectus for civil service reform which included a commitment to grow the number of civil servants based in the regions. The prospectus notes that 62% of senior civil servants and 80% of senior civil servants in policy roles are based in the capital. “The growth in the number of staff based in London has outpaced growth in all other regions in recent years. We will reverse that trend. By creating sustainable civil service hubs outside of London and the South East, we will widen our talent pool,” the prospectus says.

The high percentage of senior civil servants based in London is in large part due to the pull of working with ministers who have wanted to be close to Westminster, Chisholm said during Civil Service Live. “If we can get used to ministers being happy to get advice on the line, and themselves being happy to be based in places across the UK, that really will be a game-changer and that’s what we hope to see,” he said.  

During the event, Gove and Chisholm touched on a number of other topics related to the reform agenda including flexible work practices; pay and rewards; the merits of ‘promotion in role’; and improving lines of communication between staff and senior leadership.

Heaton becomes latest civil service chief to step down

Last week, it was reported that Sir Richard Heaton, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Justice is to stand down this summer. He is the fourth senior civil servant to announce his departure in the last six months, as the reform agenda gears up.

Late last month, Cabinet Office secretary and head of the UK civil service Sir Mark Sedwill announced that he is to stand down in September. The news followed a series of anonymous briefings to the press against him.

Sir Simon McDonald also announced last month that he is to step down as permanent secretary of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in September “at the request” of prime minister Boris Johnson. His exit comes ahead of the department’s merger with the Department for International Development.

And Sir Philip Rutnam resigned as permanent secretary of the Home Office in February, announcing he would take the Home Secretary Priti Patel to an employment tribunal. He said there had been a “vicious and orchestrated” campaign against him in the department – accusations Patel has denied.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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