Crisis response: an interview with Sir Suma Chakrabarti

By on 27/08/2020

Suma Chakrabarti, the former UK permanent secretary and EBRD chief, sees opportunities as well as risks amidst the COVID crisis; but western governments, he warns, are fumbling their response. Matt Ross asks his views on global leadership and civil service reform – and learns why he didn’t apply to become UK Cabinet secretary

The vast stimulus packages being poured into pandemic-hit economies, says Sir Suma Chakrabarti, could fund a decisive shift towards a more environmentally-sustainable world – while positioning countries to meet growing demand for green technologies. “There is a first-mover advantage here,” he says. “If people retool their economies quickly by taking up the green agenda, they may well find they’re going to get more investment in future, at faster pace, than those who don’t.”

And Chakrabarti, who in July left the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) after serving two four-year terms as its president, argues that work to improve governance and address inequalities can generate equally rich economic rewards. Under his leadership, the bank championed green investments – which rose from 27% of the total to 46% – while working both to remove the barriers that prevent women and other minorities from realising economic opportunities, and to strengthen democratic institutions. The approach paid off handsomely: EBRD’s profits climbed by 40%.

National policymakers, he suggests, could design stimulus packages “with a bit of conditionality – to say: ‘You can have this, but we want you to change your production processes to be much greener and so on’.” And in doing so, they would be avoiding an important error made by governments during the 2008 financial crisis. Chakrabarti has discussed this issue with former UK prime minister Gordon Brown, who was widely credited with coordinating a global response to that economic shock, and “he says there was a missed opportunity, in terms of using the stimulus packages that were put in [during the financial crisis] or afterwards to really tilt to green,” he recalls. “There is a risk, I think, that we repeat some of the mistakes of how we dealt with the financial crisis in neglecting the medium- to long-term agenda.”

Every nation for itself

In part, he believes, governments are foregoing these opportunities “because the focus is on rescue and survival. It’s difficult for many political leaders to think beyond the next week, at the moment.” And in part, the omission reflects the decline in cooperative working between nation states: “It’s not like the financial crisis, where you saw Gordon Brown and Barack Obama in particular leading the G20 through the process, having a very coordinated approach which involved the multilateral bodies,” he says. “Among the governments who own these organisations, there’s not a lot of coordination. The G7: pardon me, but does it even exist? I don’t know what it’s doing half the time any more! And the G20: slightly more active, but again, not very clear where it’s going.”

“The problem with our current politics is that the big countries aren’t that interested in small countries any more,” he adds. By the time of Chakrabarti’s second term as EBRD chief, he recalls, “the US in particular had drifted off, and really did not have an agenda other than one that other shareholders would consider negative.”

Chakrabarti: “The problem with our current politics is that the big countries aren’t that interested in small countries any more.”

The lack of foresight evident in many governments’ responses to the pandemic, he suggests, emphasises the need for civil services to develop the “ability to think really long-term”. This is as true of the UK as anywhere else, says Chakrabarti, who spent nearly 30 years in the UK civil service – including stints as permanent secretary of the Department for International Development (DfID) and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). And what else needs to change? Britain is currently entering a new phase of civil service reform, championed by Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove and the PM’s adviser Dominic Cummings: which of their critiques would he support?

What’s wrong in Whitehall?

“I have some sympathy with the view that science is not one of the strengths of the civil service,” says Chakrabarti. “I’m not sure it’s one of the strengths of the people who are saying it’s not one of the civil service’s strengths, either! But leaving that aside, I’d say the social scientists have had too much of a sway sometimes, and with many of the issues we’re facing – like climate change – you do need a strong scientific background.”

He also backs the need for more experimentation and innovation across the civil service, along with one of the key planks of the UK government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda: the goal of moving more policymakers out of London and the South-East. “It would give a better feel of the service being truly national,” he says, recalling that when he moved DfiD’s UN and Commonwealth Department to East Kilbride in Scotland, “you started seeing policy people making a career there.”

But other reform agendas close to Chakrabarti’s heart seem to have gone backwards since he left government for the EBRD in 2012. In 1998 he led the creation of ‘public service agreements’, which aimed to catalyse cross-departmental working by setting shared performance metrics. And as a permanent secretary, he was involved in a number of cross-departmental initiatives: these included the ‘conflict pool’ – designed to coordinate the activities of DfID, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence in unstable regions – and work to develop “a common set of objectives about the criminal justice system” across policing, the courts, prisons etcetera. However, none of these programmes are still running: “It’s a bit of a sadness that I think a lot of that has not really been taken further forward,” he comments.

Given the chance, he would have gone much further: speaking earlier this year at Global Government Summit, Chakrabarti argued for the appointment of “outcomes-based ministers” such as “a minister for reducing reoffending”, with responsibilities running across various departmental briefs. These ministerial roles, he says, would have to be aligned with permanent secretaries’ own goals: as an example, he says, “the justice and Home Office permanent secretaries would also need to have a shared, reducing reoffending objective.” And budget lines would have to mirror outcomes rather than departments, with parliamentary “accountability to a cross-cutting committee rather then a departmental committee.” There’s little sign of such ambitious changes being introduced in the UK – but Chakrabarti hasn’t given up on the idea: “I hope to persuade certain emerging markets to do it, if I didn’t persuade the UK government”, he comments.

Fishing in a bigger pool

Another field in which progress across the UK civil service has been disappointing is that of ethnic diversity. Although the proportion of ethnic minority senior civil servants continues to grow, it’s still only half the figure for the whole workforce – 6.3% compared to 12.7% – while at the very top, representation has slipped backwards. During Chakrabarti’s last years in the civil service, he was one of three ethnic minority leaders at permanent secretary level – “but now we’ve got no ethnic minority permanent secretaries at all,” he notes. Former prime minister Tony Blair and Cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell pushed hard for greater diversity among senior leaders, he recalls, and “to some extent, the investment put into me was partly a response to that. The civil service is responsive to politics.” But those political signals have disappeared, he believes: “This government isn’t willing to talk about this sort of thing – at least in terms of public service leadership; it may do in terms of political leadership.”

One of the things Chakrabarti thinks it’s important for the UK to safeguard as it embarks on civil service reform is the protection of officials who speak truth unto power

Finally, Chakrabarti argues for a different relationship between central and local government, rebalancing the UK’s top-heavy system. Ideally, he says, the centre would “say: ‘Look, this is the government’s agenda. How you achieve it in each locality is up to you. And we’ll gather in a year’s time, and will all be able to take credit for those areas that were successful’.” Unfortunately, “central government doesn’t trust local government”: the big problem, he argues, is that “politicians want more and more power. They want to be able to say they were successful, and they think success is equated with controlling the agenda. I think you have to take pride sometimes in other people’s successes, but that’s not part of the vernacular language that our governments in the UK ever speak.”

And what to protect?

So these are some of the changes required in the UK civil service; and what must be protected during the coming wave of civil service reform? “The non-political nature of the civil service,” he replies. “I wouldn’t want to go to the American system: I’ve worked very closely with it, and it’s not very good. It’s potluck whether you get really good people. I can compare the US Treasury under the Obama administration and the Trump administration, and quite clearly under the Obama administration there was a far better cadre of people – both the political appointments and the civil servants. And they worked better together than currently.”

“The other thing I’d protect is that you’re protected if you speak truth unto power,” he continues. “There are many ways to deliver the government’s agenda, and you should be able to say to the government: ‘Look, I think you’re more likely to get to this objective if you do it this way than if you do it that way, for the following reasons.’ And obviously, you need to speak truth unto power when you see bad things going on in terms of unethical behaviour and so on.”

The UK civil service is currently under pressure on both fronts: Cummings has regularly criticised and undermined the principle of a permanent civil service, while the trickle of senior officials forced out during the UK’s tortuous path towards Brexit has become a flood since the special adviser arrived in Number 10. In that environment “people become much more cautious,” comments Chakrabarti, noting that some “governments tend to play, shall we say, a little bit more hard and fast with the rules” governing the civil service’s operation.

Indeed, he sometimes worries “that the civil service isn’t sufficiently protected within that framework” of merit-based appointments and open advice. Perhaps, he says, the Civil Service Commission – which oversees recruitment, safeguarding the principle of appointment on merit – “should have wider powers to investigate, and in a way to offer protection for the framework within which we think the civil service should operate, as opposed to just making appointments – which is obviously important, but not the only thing.”

Awkward fits

Given the limited overlap between his views on civil service reform and the direction of Gove and Cummings’ agenda, it is no surprise that the former perm sec decided not to apply for the Cabinet secretary’s job – which came free when the incumbent, Sir Mark Sedwill, was forced out. Chakrabarti has spent the last 18 years leading organisations, he says: now “it’s time for the next generation. And I suspect my way of operating would not have been easy for them or for me; put it that way. So, you know, the cost-benefit didn’t seem in the right place.”

Chakrabarti at GGF’s Leaders’ Forum in January

This at least leaves him free to comment honestly on other changes in the UK – such as the merger between DfID and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The merger could help support more coordinated policymaking across thematic areas such as climate change and modern slavery, he says – but Chakrabarti’s work on cross-departmental programmes has taught him that “mergers and acquisitions of departments” don’t resolve existing tensions between UK goals. “All you’re doing is internalising the conflict of objectives,” he says.

He also worries that DfID’s expertise in international development will be diluted: in terms of programme management, “DfID is very strong, and the FCO doesn’t have skills,” he notes. “The latest evaluations of the Overseas Development Assistance spend outside DfID show how poorly that’s being spent.” And Chakrabarti has bigger worries about the UK’s approach to diplomacy and international relations.

Stepping back

“For some time, UK foreign policy has been subcontracted to Number 10 Downing Street,” he says. “And on many of the big issues, the UK is no longer actually a player.” At one point Britain was, for example, playing a key role in managing Europe’s relationship with Ukraine – but nowadays “the UK is immaterial in the discussion about Ukraine’s future. France and Germany have taken that away; they didn’t invite the UK in. And we were so taken up with Brexit we didn’t take part.” He warns of a similar disengagement in sub-Saharan Africa – where the UK has the opportunity to build on existing strong relationships – and former Yugoslavia, where Britain “spilled blood and spent its treasure in both Bosnia and Kosovo” but is allowing the “western Balkans to become an EU play.”

Equally, Chakrabarti believes that the UK is poor at learning lessons from overseas – particularly on COVID-19, where Far Eastern nations “have dealt rather well with the situation, relatively speaking.” Some western leaders are “stuck in thinking that the West is always the best”, he warns; he hopes that the success of countries such as South Korea and New Zealand in combating coronavirus will “change the perceptions of some people in the West about their superiority.”

In parts of the UK government, “there’s a cultural ‘blankness’, almost; the idea that somehow we can’t learn [from other countries] because they must be so different,” he says. “When public service reform happened in New Zealand, I remember some civil servants in the UK saying: ‘That’s all very interesting, but it’s about the size of a parish council.’ There’s an unwillingness to take other people seriously who have done some things in difficult circumstances which you haven’t done.”

Yet in the face of a global pandemic, countries must learn from overseas if they’re to effectively protect their populations. And once they’ve drawn on the experiences of their peers around the world, they need effective, intelligent leadership to transform their citizens’ prospects. Pointing to the current political leaders of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Albania, Jordan and the West Balkans, Chakrabarti praises them as “courageous enough to take on vested interests, but also courageous enough to bring in reforms which wouldn’t necessarily make them popular, but would start moving their country in the right direction.” The results, he believes, come through in stronger economic growth, political stability and public institutions.

Looking at the world’s big powers, though, Chakrabarti sees little sign of the kind of international cooperation, long-term planning and visionary leadership that would give him confidence about the future. “I’m a bit gloomy about the prospects for an international, coordinated approach,” he says. “We’ll have to wait for a new generation of leadership to come in, I think.”

On September 10, Global Government Forum will be hosting a webinar on the topic: ‘Reset your economy: building a green stimulus package’. Confirmed speakers include Dr Steffen Jenner, a policy advisor in Germany’s Federal Ministry of Finance, and Dr Laura Altinger, a regional team lead working on nature, climate and energy issues in the United Nations Development Programme. You can sign up on our registration page.

Global Government Forum: five thoughts for better government

Sir Suma Chakrabarti on learning from overseas

To help our readers get the best out of Global Government Forum, we ask interviewees five standard questions on camera – four seeking practical advice and opinions, and one to reveal something a little more personal. Here is the video, and underneath it, an edited version of Suma Chakrabarti’s answers.

Can you name one lesson or idea from abroad that’s helped you or your colleagues?

It’s the focus on results, which I was very much taken with in the US – with Al Gore’s focus on results when he was vice president. I took that to heart as something that we should learn from in the UK, along with my own experience of working with the World Bank and IMF. Hence the idea of Public Service Agreements as a way of trying to get the UK system more results-focused. And it’s something I will continue to focus on going forward as well, with new emerging markets.”

And are there any projects or innovations from your country that might be valuable to your peers overseas?

“What I thought particularly valuable was experimentation. It’s rare in the UK that we allow localities to experiment, but when we do the power of it is fantastic. And I thought what we did in the justice sector to try and reduce reoffending, the famous Peterborough prison example – paying private providers to see whether they could help keep ex-offenders out of jail for two years – was massively successful. And then applying that to other localities in the UK, and learning the lessons from them; that’s been very useful, and some of that’s been taken forward with social impact bonds. So I think that’s very much a UK contribution to better governance, better results.”

How can we improve the ways in which senior public officials work with and learn from their colleagues overseas?

“We need to! There’s a real need for the UK to open up its thinking to what’s going on, and I think the Global Government Summit has been an excellent way of trying to learn lessons. I would like though to broaden that out from the countries that currently participate, and bring more emerging markets in.

“I think the UK, more generally, has to look east – looking at different cultures, different ways of working. There’s Singapore, of course, but I think [South] Korea is another example of a country that’s done very well in this crisis. And [we should] learn lessons from countries that we probably never thought could teach us anything. Humility beckons and learning, I think, from different countries is something that we should be much more open to than we are at the moment.”

What are the biggest global challenges in your field over the next few years?

“I think there are three. One is the green economy space: the whole idea of creating green growth. We have shown that this can be done when I was at EBRD, which is extremely strong in this area. But EBRD alone isn’t going to achieve this. We need the whole of the multilateral system, but also national governments and the private sector, to take the green agenda seriously. And fortunately, the technology, the prices are coming down, so this has become much more affordable and bankable.

“Secondly, I think the whole question of inequality is beginning to worry me increasingly. I was worried even before the pandemic about this because of [what is] I think the fair critique that globalisation did not float all boats: that there were people left behind, whether it’s female entrepreneurs; whether it’s underserved regions; whether it’s youth unemployment. Now the pandemic has probably exacerbated those trends.

“So I think we need to worry about this quite a lot, really focusing on how to make sure that those who are getting increasingly locked out of the economic system have some opportunities to get involved and improve their livelihoods. And that’s going to be a big, big task. If it’s not tackled, the social, political, economic consequences are incalculable, and I think would be very worrying.

“And the third area that we need to focus on is digital transition, as I call it. We are doing this interview [via Zoom], in a way that we never thought we would. So the future of work is actually now already with us: it’s not in the future, it’s here. There are opportunities to that, of course, but there are also potential costs as well. And again, it could exacerbate inequalities.

“So those are the three areas that I think are going to be very, very important – and of course, underneath all this, governance and institution building continues as the bedrock for any successful economy.”

And what is your favourite book?

“Interestingly, my favourite book has just started being serialized by the BBC. It’s A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, which I think is the best book I’ve ever read – beautifully written. It captures for me – partly because of my Indian heritage, I guess – a lot of the things that made me love that country, and madden me about that country! But it teaches lots of lessons in life; and it’s funny, as well as interesting and stimulating in other ways, too. So I’m delighted to see it now on the screen; it’s a great book, I highly recommend it.”

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public sector management, policymaking and service delivery. He was the editor of Civil Service World 2008-14, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of Regeneration & Renewal 2002-08, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with communications consultancy, marketing and journalism work for publishers, public sector unions and private sector suppliers to government.

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