Incoming civil service COO Cat Little sets priority to empower Whitehall departments

By on 21/03/2024 | Updated on 21/03/2024
Incoming chief operating officer of the civil service Cat Little speaks to Sapana Agrawal, the director of modernisation and reform in the Cabinet Office, at the closing session of Innovation 2024. Photo: Rob Greig
Incoming chief operating officer of the civil service Cat Little speaks to Sapana Agrawal, the director of modernisation and reform in the Cabinet Office, at the closing session of Innovation 2024. Photo: Rob Greig

The incoming chief operating officer of the civil service, Cat Little, has said she aims to help focus on “the things only the centre can do” in order to free up other departments of government to succeed.

Little spoke with Sapana Agrawal, the director of modernisation and reform in the Cabinet Office, at the last session of Global Government Forum’s Innovation 2024 conference as she transitions to the role of COO and Cabinet Office permanent secretary, from her current post of second permanent secretary in the Treasury.

The conversation reflected on the discussions across the two days of the Innovation conference, in particular how government can take more risks in trying new ways to deliver services.

Little said she was particularly interested in exploring “how do we focus on the things that only the centre of government can do?” to give departments space to innovate.

“Only the centre of government can create the conditions for the state to succeed,” she said. “That doesn’t mean us running things and controlling things from the centre, or setting up some rules. It’s actually about how do we liberate and empower Whitehall departments, the country, devolved governments, and enterprises across our supply chains, to really grapple with some of the challenges that we’re facing.

“How do we do that? Well, I think the centre therefore needs to focus on only the things that the centre could do. And the things that the centre really has to do are to set a strategy to be clear about the priority outcomes, the problems we’re most trying to fix, and that has to be part of the usual democratic process with ministers, and then we need to set the investment.”

This process will set the framework for departments to be more innovative, she said. There will be a government spending review following the UK general election that must take place by 28 January 2025, and Little said this was “where strategy and resources come together to bring fiscal meaning to grand ambition”, adding: “Only the centre can do that. But I’m really interested in how do we create conditions for people to succeed and to liberate people to innovate more effectively.”

Read more: UK urged to create ‘Department for the Civil Service’

‘Assume you’ve got more power than you think you do’ to innovate

Elsewhere in the session, Agrawal asked Little how civil servants could be empowered to take risks.

This was a frequent theme at the Innovation conference. Sarah Munby, permanent secretary of the UK’s Department for Science, Innovation & Technology, discussed how to change the way civil servants think about risk, telling delegates that “you need to really give them an enabling space that lets them do things that are different”.

In her comments, Little said that she would urge civil servants to question the frequent assumption in government that they don’t have permission to do things differently.

“We always underestimate our own agency,” she said. “The number of people who come to me in my current job and say, ‘Could you help me out with this thing, because I need this approval over here’, or ‘I don’t think the Treasury is going to let me do something, because you always say no, so how can you help me to work out how to get you guys to say yes’, and it’s [a situation where] you can just do it. You don’t need to come to us with permission.

“So our kind of default can be to assume we don’t have the authority to do something that someone else has. So I would always suggest, just question that a little bit. Assume you’ve got more power than you think you do.”

Little compared the “very hierarchical” culture at the Ministry of Defence, where she worked as director general finance, with the Treasury, “a very small place that is really big on empowering the most junior person to take the biggest decisions”.

“There’s no right or wrong – there are very good reasons for why these organisations work in that way. But my early compare and contrast when I joined the Treasury was: isn’t it so exciting that we give the most difficult thing to the most junior person with the least experience? There are some pitfalls to that, but isn’t that great to be able to say, as a leader, I trust you to take this really wicked problem, and I’m going to give you empowerment and authority to work out what you think the solution is.”

Calling this “a really bold, high-risk thing to do”, Little said that she would recommend civil servants “take some risks” through engaging more people across government organisations to help solve problems. “Empower the most junior person you know to go and think about [a problem], because I bet you they will take that very seriously and think very hard about it and come up with some brilliant options that the most senior people, who tend to be less creative and I include myself in that, [might not].”

Read more: ‘Hope is not a strategy’: how to change how civil servants think about risk

Innovation 2024 was held on 19 and 20 March 2024. The event was 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 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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