Facing the future: exclusive interview with UK Treasury chief Cat Little on how to navigate uncertain times

By on 14/02/2024 | Updated on 16/02/2024
Photo of Cat Little speaking.
Photo courtesy of HM Treasury

The second permanent secretary to the UK Treasury and head of the Government Finance Function tells Global Government Forum about navigating headwinds, productivity plans, and the imperative for government decision-makers to be representative of the populations they serve  

Taking on one of the most senior roles in a department as central to the government – and the country – as the UK Treasury is daunting at the best of times. But it’s fair to say that Cat Little’s transition to permanent secretary level at the economic and finance ministry was a more hair-raising rollercoaster than she might have liked.

She rose from director general of public spending to the position of acting permanent secretary to the Treasury in September 2022, just two weeks before short-lived prime minister Liz Truss’s disastrous mini budget, which caused market chaos, crashing the value of the pound and prompting mortgage rates to skyrocket.

Truss had sacked well-respected Treasury permanent secretary Tom Scholar two days after assuming office – in a move criticised by former cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell and described as an “ideological purge” by FDA union boss Dave Penman – leaving the task of running the department to Little and her colleague Beth Russell.

Describing it the only way an impartial senior civil servant can, Little says it was “a fast-paced, challenging, busy time that is well publicly understood”.

Once Scholar’s successor was found, in the form of James Bowler, Little became the department’s second permanent secretary. Since then, her focus has been working with departments to grapple with the impact of inflation on their spending commitments.

The erosion of spending power has made it “quite difficult to deliver all of the things we had hoped we could” and prompted the making of “difficult choices about how we balance lots of different pressures and priorities in our financial plans”, she says.

Aligned with that has been Little’s work to drive forward efficiency and productivity plans. In June last year, chancellor Jeremy Hunt launched an efficiency drive that he promised would be “the most ambitious public sector productivity review ever undertaken by a government”, with the Treasury playing a key role as an enabler of reform.

Findings of the review, set out in the Autumn Statement, focused on reducing the amount of time key frontline workers spend on administrative tasks – including by embracing the opportunities presented by greater use of artificial intelligence – and how preventative action could reduce demand on public services.

The task of Little and her team is now to help government embrace the innovation and technology needed.

Little, who will be a keynote speaker at Global Government Forum’s Innovation 2024 conference on 20 March, says she is thinking about “how we reimagine public services and the work of the civil service in the future” – something which she describes as an “exciting, collaborative piece of work across the whole of the public sector”. 

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Accelerating decision-making – and why pace isn’t always the answer

Such thinking is ever more important amid the headwinds that government has had to deal with in recent years, which range from the COVID-19 pandemic to the economic and policy impact of the war in Ukraine.

Little says dealing with multiple big events has become normal. “Certainly during my time at the Treasury, we’ve only been operating in a period of multiple competing, complex challenges.”

The Treasury learned during the pandemic, as so many governments did, that it was possible to accelerate decision-making and its processes in response to crisis. And many of the changes made during that time have, Little says, been sustained.

She offers a few examples: “We’ve run approvals in parallel, we’ve condensed the way in which we make decisions, we try to pre-empt decisions being needed.” But she acknowledges that such changes must be “balanced with the sorts of risks that you’re willing to tolerate”.

“The most important thing for the Treasury is that we have a responsibility to taxpayers to make sure that we are achieving value for money, that if things are novel and contentious, we’ve considered the consequences of that,” she explains.

Getting that balance right is a constant challenge but Treasury leaders have “really worked hard” to achieve equilibrium between adding value and delivering on the department’s core spending control mission while at the same time enabling decision-making to be much more agile. As a result, Little says the Treasury is “much more revolutionary in the way in which we develop policy with departments”.

However, though it has been able to accelerate certain decisions and processes, she is keen to stress that pace isn’t always the answer.

“Quite often, when we look at major government programmes and very complex government programmes, we encourage more time upfront to make sure that we’ve really thought through the big strategic questions that help set up for success rather than rushing into delivery,” she explains.  

Due to the pressure to get things done, rushing into delivery does still happen, she admits, but what’s important in such cases, is to make sure programmes are “sequenced carefully”.

In her other role as head of the Government Finance Function, Little has been working to attract people from different parts of the public sector, and from outside the civil service, into government and on how to build long-term careers for people with a financial professional anchor in the civil service.

The approach includes “encouraging people to do stints in other parts of the civil service, and exposing people to different career paths and different ways of developing new skills”.  

More broadly, this vision for allowing more permeability in and out of the civil service aligns with a push by government, including by then-Cabinet Office minister Jeremy Quin, who announced last year that hundreds of private sector tech and data specialists would be seconded to the civil service under a new scheme.

Leading with candour, openness, and a curiosity about the future

Turning to her leadership style, Little says it’s “always changing”, and necessarily so given that, as she highlights, a core strength of a good leader is having to “constantly adapt to different circumstances”.

“I think my teams would say that I set direction, I’m very empowering, I’m quite authentic, down to earth.”

When it comes to leading teams through times of unpredictability and increased scrutiny, Little’s belief is that it is best done with “candour and openness” and with “lots of regular engagement”.

She is a great believer that to get through periods of intense change, a leader must get the whole organisation “to understand why you’re doing what you’re doing”.

This is near impossible to accomplish in circumstances where decisions are “completely out of your hands”. Here, Little says “it’s really important to talk about how you actually feel about it because there’s a good chance if you’re feeling it that your teams are feeling it too”.

A conversation about how to manage ambiguity can only really be successful if conducted openly and honestly, she says, “so I tend to walk towards problems, I tend to be very candid, and I will always share how I feel about things in as straight a way as I can”.

Asked about the leaders she is inspired by, she says “most senior people in the civil service generally are very inspirational people because they wouldn’t have got there otherwise”. But it’s the people on the frontline – those in the organisations that are “really at the hard edge of delivering public services whilst also delivering national strategy” – who she most admires and learns from.

Having to deliver vital services while dealing with day-to-day demands, as they do, is a “very difficult challenge”, she acknowledges.

“In many ways my job is so much easier because I don’t have day-to-day operational things that I have to do, I don’t deliver anything. I can afford to be more strategic and to think through complex issues, whereas when you’re in the frontline of the public service you have to do all of that and get the job done – I find it remarkable.”

Improving representation a ‘very personal responsibility’

One of the benefits of being a civil service leader is the opportunity to make real and lasting change, not only to systems and processes – as Little has evidently been doing with gusto – but to organisational culture. Getting this right can lead to tangibly improved policy and public service delivery outcomes, and not only for the population as a whole but for traditionally maligned pockets of it.  

Culture is driven from the top, and Little feels a “very personal responsibility” for making sure that the civil service, and decision-makers in particular, are “much more representative of the communities that we serve and of society at large”.

Gender is just one aspect of diversity and inclusion, of course, but on the topic of women in top public service positions, Little says that though “we’ve made great strides” there is still much work to be done.

“All of us have a responsibility to spot female talent coming through and to do everything we can to maximise the chances of women with potential reaching the very top of governments and the public sector and broader leadership within society,” she says.

She has, she admits, faced her own challenges as a senior woman in the civil service, particularly during her three years on the Ministry of Defence board as director general of finance.  

“You were quite often the only woman in a room and there is no doubt about it, there is a different way of thinking about problems and working through solutions as a woman,” she says.

“When you are the only woman in a group of male decision-makers, I think there’s a really important role for men to play in thinking through how that feels, and how you create the space and safety for women to operate and to bring the very best of all of their decision-making capacity and experience.”

The Ministry of Defence has been in the spotlight recently after a group of 60 women working in senior civilian roles at the department went public, describing a culture “hostile to women as equal and respected partners”, in which instances of abuse, sexual assault and harassment are widespread.

Across the civil service, representation of women has “massively improved,” Little says, “but there are still pockets where we have very male dominant decision-making and very male-orientated professions”.

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This is something she has been instrumental in changing as head of the Government Finance Function. She has, she says, worked “very, very hard” to try to shift the balance of gender, and she is “really pleased” that there is now a much more balanced senior leadership “than is certainly typical in the profession at large”.

That doesn’t mean the finance function – or indeed the civil service in general – can rest on its laurels. “It’s fragile and I worry that we can be complacent, and we must never ever be complacent about the importance of representation because it’s fundamentally linked to our successes as an organisation,” Little says.

She explains: “We need to remind ourselves constantly of why it matters for us to have leadership that represents society, and it’s because that’s when you make the best decisions and that’s when you have the best talent around an organisation’s decision-making table – and that means we deliver better outcomes for the country.

“That business imperative seems to me – in a world where you’re dealing with lots of uncertainty, lots of change, lots of complexity – to be a really important thing that everybody has got to grasp and continue to push on at pace.”  

Judging by Little’s tenacity in the face of turmoil in recent years, she is clearly helping the UK government ‘push on at pace’ in the face of unprecedented challenges.  

“I get told I’m very modern and I don’t quite know what that means but I suppose it’s future-focused. I’m quite keen to embrace new things and to be curious about the future,” she concludes. Given the range of issues government faces, such qualities have never been more vital. 

Cat Little is speaking at the Innovation in government concluding session of Innovation 2024 on 20 March. Innovation 2024, co-hosted by the UK Government, UK Civil Service and the Cabinet Office, takes place on 19 and 20 March 2024 in London.

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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