Overcoming uncertainty: former environment and Brexit chief Clare Moriarty

By on 04/11/2020 | Updated on 05/11/2020
Clare Moriarty was leading the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs when the UK voted to leave the European Union.

Following the 2016 referendum, Clare Moriarty ran the environment department then the UK’s EU exit operations. She tells Matt Ross how a focus on human nature helped her to lead staff through the uncertainties – and could smooth the path forward on civil service reform and COVID-19 response

The Brexit referendum’s ‘Leave’ result was “a shock” to civil servants in the UK’s Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), recalls Clare Moriarty. “Lots of people had spent their working lives focused on the relationship with the EU,” she notes; now everything would change.

For decades Defra had spent much of its time managing policies and services shaped in Brussels, overseeing issues such as the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) farm subsidy scheme and food quality standards. Repatriating and exercising those powers represented a huge task for the department, where Moriarty had been permanent secretary for less than a year.

“But civil servants have a very high degree of professionalism. They support the government of the day,” she says. And Defra staff were excited to create new environmental and farming policies, built around the needs of British consumers and producers. “It enabled deep change to be contemplated,” says Moriarty. “People were very quickly saying: ‘We could come up with a system which is better than the CAP’.”

The department soon expanded. “We grew in size because we had lots of additional work to do. And we grew in status, because a lot of those things were really very interesting,” she says. “Brexit was a recruiting manager’s dream.” For many civil servants, few opportunities are more attractive than the chance to wrestle with a major new policy challenge.

Finding common ground

That’s certainly true of Moriarty. Joining the civil service in 1985, she held senior policy jobs in health and justice, then moved on to service management and organisational change roles in the transport department. She rounded out her CV there, equipping herself for consecutive permanent secretary roles leading the Department for Transport (DfT), Defra and the Brexit department, DEXEU.

Defra presented a particularly interesting policy challenge, she recalls, because – unlike most countries – the UK combines environmental, food production and rural economy issues in a single department. So at DfT, “everybody thought that rail was a good thing. Then I moved to Defra, and everything immediately became contested. It was quite difficult to say things without appearing to take sides.”

Clare Moriarty (second left) led Defra, a department with a broad remit. Moriarty says this helped to create more rounded policies.

That broad remit has big advantages, she argues: resolving tensions within the department generates more rounded, integrated policies than can be achieved by interdepartmental horse-trading. And in Moriarty’s experience, building consensus can be easier than it appears: “The agricultural lobby groups will often express themselves differently from the environmental lobby groups, even if ultimately they want the same thing,” she comments.

How to build a policy

Asked the principles of good policymaking, Moriarty first notes the importance of having both a “political imperative” to achieve an outcome, and an evidence-based, wide-ranging analysis of the options. Policymakers and ministers must combine “a clear desire to get somewhere, with a sufficiently open mind about the best way of getting there.”

Equally important is “user focus”: putting the citizen’s perspective at the heart of service development. This involves “testing how particular ways of doing things may feel different to the user – because two things may look identical in what they achieve in policy terms, but if one of them works with the grain of how human beings behave and one of them works against it, the first is much more likely to be successful.”

And finally, there’s the practical issues about whether and how a policy can be delivered. “A policy is only as good as its implementation,” she comments: departments need “the people, the capability and the time to land it on the ground.”

Living with uncertainty

Brexit met few of these principles: after the referendum there was a huge political imperative, but no evidence-based analysis of the policy options, consideration of user needs or clear plan for delivery. Prime minister Theresa May soon laid down her negotiation red lines, but couldn’t win MPs’ support for her emerging EU deal. So civil servants received a series of deadlines for EU exit, but no clear picture of the target operating model – and hence the systems and capabilities that would be required.

Uncertainty is “the stock in trade of civil servants,” comments Moriarty, but this was “a step change higher”. Many departments “were kind of paralysed because we didn’t know what we were trying to get to, and therefore people just sort of sat and waited,” she explains. But this wasn’t an option for her staff. “We couldn’t afford to do that in Defra, because there was just so much work to do,” she says.

In a bid to equip the department for whatever Brexit might emerge from the politicians’ wrangles, Moriarty set staff to work on projects covering key aspects of the many potential outcomes – creating “Lego bricks” that would probably be useful “whether we’re going to be asked to build a pink fairy castle or a yellow submarine!” It was important for staff morale, she adds, for people to have clear goals they could work towards “in near focus, even if the far focus was very uncertain.”

Out of the frying pan…

By the autumn of 2018, with May still unable to secure a parliamentary majority, the risk was growing that the UK would exit without having agreed core issues around citizens’ rights, budgets and Northern Ireland. With the government playing down the chances of a ‘no deal’ exit, some Defra staff lacked the confidence to invest in preparing for a disorderly exit that might never come – but it was the department’s duty to safeguard the country against that risk. “So I said to the department: ‘We’re going to put a virtual reality headset on the whole department. And inside our headset, no deal is definitely happening’,” Moriarty recalls. As she told officials, “we’re just going to prepare like there’s no tomorrow, so that we are in the best possible position.”

Then a vacancy arose: Philip Rycroft, DEXEU’s permanent secretary, had scheduled his retirement to coincide with March 2019’s EU exit date. With her experience managing Brexit preparations, Moriarty was asked to take the job – arriving as May conceded first a two-week exit extension, then a six-month one. But by July May was gone, replaced by Boris Johnson: he took the country to the brink of no deal again that autumn, before signing an exit agreement in October.

…into the fire

During this period, recalls Moriarty, DEXEU “experienced levels of uncertainty that were an order of magnitude higher even than what we’d had in Defra. So I tried the ‘virtual reality headset’ and it just didn’t work: it was like it kept fritzing”.

At Defra, she explains, the ‘business of usual’ work of overseeing public service delivery, new legislation and ongoing projects provided some stability even as the direction of travel changed. But at DEXEU, “when it changed, it changed 180 degrees and nothing stayed the same”: there were too many variables to build a detailed plan, and staff simply had to respond to events.   

Following October’s exit deal, Johnson began trade deal talks – but his ambitions were far narrower than his predecessor’s, comprising a ‘thin’ deal focusing on goods. Under May, “the objective was to have as little change as possible and as little friction as possible”, says Moriarty, but Johnson’s government “was always clear that decision-making autonomy was really important, and clear-eyed that a degree of friction was going to be inevitable.”

So even if the UK does sign a deal before the ‘transition period’ ends at the end of 2020, new barriers to trade will arise: “We are moving to a new relationship where a degree of friction is part of how we do business,” she comments. Asked about the risk of disruption in the first part of 2021, Moriarty highlights the scale of change anticipated on 31 December: “When you significantly change the relationship, a whole lot of processes need to change. And there’s no expectation that can be mitigated out of existence.”

It’s all about people

In January 2020 Johnson, opting for a small, Cabinet Office-based trade team, abolished DEXEU. Moriarty left government, began taking on project work – including a Health Foundation review of COVID-19’s impact on inequalities – and reflected through the long months of lockdown on her 35 years in public service. Asked now how the civil service needs to change, she calls for a greater focus on people – both in terms of managing the workforce, and in how officials relate to the country they serve.

Just as policymakers focus on user needs to build public services, managers must think about staff perceptions to lead organisations successfully, says Moriarty (third from left)

When she first joined, she recalls, staff “weren’t very much encouraged to bring behaviour, emotion, feelings into the way they thought about their work.” The civil service’s strengths in analysis, rigorous decision-making and clear presentation of policy options are hugely valuable, she adds.

It’s equally important to ensure that “people care about each other, care about the work they’re doing, and care about the people that they’re serving.” Just as policymakers must focus on user needs to build effective public services, ministers and managers must think carefully about staff perceptions to lead organisations successfully.

Win support, not battles

This is particularly important as the government develops its civil service reform agenda: to win a workforce’s support for major changes, says Moriarty, “you have to sell people the problem before you can sell the solution; and it has to feel like a shared problem.”

There’s plenty of common ground between ministers and civil servants: the government’s aims of improving digital skills and project management, for example, enjoy widespread support. But change always worries those invested in the status quo – in many organisations, she says, there’s a “level in the middle for whom change is more threatening”, so “you often see organisations where there’s quite a high desire for change, but it’s difficult to make it happen.”

In these circumstances, Moriarty comments, there’s a “temptation to say: ‘Let’s blast through this, because we must get to the other side’.” But she warns against allowing reform plans to become a battle between leaders and staff. “The magic ingredient is respect,” she says: civil servants “want to be best in class, to offer slick services. But sometimes if the narrative is: ‘There’s lots of brilliant people [in the civil service], but they don’t really know how to get things done,’ then people will respond by putting their shoulders up and being a bit grumpy.”

Office politics

The government’s attempt to get civil servants back into their offices in September – apparently in a bid to revive city centres – illustrates the importance of winning hearts and minds. When the pandemic hit, the civil service shifted to working from home – adopting flexible working techniques that leaders had spent years promoting: “COVID pushed us through a whole lot of things that we have been trying to do for a long time, and not been able to get over the psychological barriers,” Moriarty comments.

After months at home, however, many were eager for more human contact: civil servants don’t “want to sit in their room doing zoom calls” forever, she notes, and would have welcomed “a happy medium, which might be going into the office a couple of days a week.”

However, the way the government approached the issue “came over as something very directive,” she comments. As newspapers published opinion pieces attacking “workshy Whitehall”, the Cabinet secretary urged permanent secretaries to “move quickly” in repopulating offices.

“It sounded as though people were being expected to come back into work full-time, when they weren’t. And it also carried this implication that people weren’t working,” says Moriarty. Telling people they should “go ‘back to work’ as opposed to ‘back to the workplace’,” she adds, “wasn’t particularly helpful.”

The government might have had more success in encouraging people back into the office, Moriarty suggests, had leaders focused on ensuring that staff felt safe in the workplace. In the event, the policy collapsed within weeks as rising infection rates forced a change to government guidance.

But even if officials had returned to city centres en masse, Moriarty isn’t convinced that it would have encouraged businesses to recall their own staff. “I don’t know that people were really looking for someone to set an example before they went back,” she says.

Work with the grain

The office repopulation debacle illustrates the importance of considering what Moriarty calls “the grain of how human beings behave.” And as the government develops its plans for civil service reform, she urges ministers to focus on careful policy design and the search for common ground.

“If you ask civil servants what they’d like to see improved, you’ll probably get a list of things which is not a million miles away from what a reforming politician would come up with,” she says. “By and large, people do want the same things.”

To identify those shared goals, it’s important that “people are not dismissive of other ways of seeing the world. If you start from a position of respect, and listen… then you do usually get a common way forward,” she says. “That will be the question for the current reforms: whether they’re underpinned by that sense of mutual respect.”

That respect is not obvious at the moment. But Moriarty is clear that the best way for ministers and senior leaders to achieve lasting change is by co-creating reforms with the staff, developing their ideas and views into a joint agenda. Look beneath the surface, she believes, and leaders can often find and develop a sense of common purpose – clearing the way for substantive, lasting reforms: “My experience is that, if there’s mutual respect, you can make anything happen!”

For more on Brexit from Clare Moriarty, see our recent analysis – also featuring her predecessor as DEXEU chief, Philip Rycroft, who warned in October of a threat to UK democracy.

Clare Moriarty: five thoughts for better government

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 Clare Moriarty’s answers.

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

“There was a lot of interest in the health service in some of the examples from Sweden, where they have really successful models. I remember somebody giving a talk about it, and the thing they said that was really striking was that everybody in the top tier of this health system had been in place for 15 years.

“It was at a time when probably the average tenure of a CEO in an NHS trust or foundation trust was about 18 months. When people stay in post for a considerable length of time, you build the relationships, you build the knowledge. We think it’s about getting the right policies, but actually continuity of people is hugely important.”

Are there any products or innovations from this country that might be valuable to your peers overseas?

“The focus on behavioural insights: the behavioural insights team, the things we’ve done around ‘nudge’, and quite a sophisticated approach to thinking about the range of levers that we have – whether that’s regulation, taxation, grant-giving – and the right lever to use to make a particular outcome happen.

“Sometimes there’s a desire to go for a target. And targets are good for some things, but not for everything. So that sense of understanding what causes people to take a particular course of action and nudging them towards it is, I think, a really interesting lesson from the UK.”

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

“Creating opportunities for them to get to know each other. I had a fantastic experience when I was a young civil servant: I went to Paris, to the École Nationale d’Administration, which is where the French senior civil servants train. So I learned about how the French system works, I worked with people from lots of countries, and it just expanded my mind. Opportunities for people, not just to learn a bit about what’s happening, but to have the conversations that enable us to understand what makes people tick in different countries, would create such a valuable resource for building better global systems.”

What are the biggest global challenges in your field?

“I’m going to define my field quite broadly, as I don’t have a specific field any more! And I think I would pick up two things.

“One is climate change and biodiversity. It is such a massive global challenge. We know so little about how to fix it. And there’s a tendency to focus on small things that we can do something about, and not really to understand the things that are going to make the most difference. It is biodiversity as well as climate change.

“I think the other thing is really digging into the sense of the interaction of people, policies, and what happens in broader systems. There is a tendency for governments to think that you can make a policy, and then it happens and things change as a result. I think increasingly we’re dealing with really complex ecosystems; and in many cases, in international ecosystems, governments don’t have direct levers to make things happen.

“One of the things that we’re seeing with some of the COVID policies is that it’s like a chemical reaction: you’ve got a policy, and then you’ve got lots and lots of different people with different preoccupations. And the way the policy lands and how it impacts is hugely different. [We need to] really spend time understanding what’s happening in that interaction between government policies and people, and use that to inform the way that we take decisions.”

And what is your favorite book?

The book I’ve most recently read is Bernadine Evaristo’s ‘Girl, Woman, Other’, which I thought was fantastic. The other thing which has been my most popular book of 2020 – of the lockdown – is Collins Wild Flower Guide. I live in an area where there are a lot of wild flowers, so I put my time to good use and really focused on what I was seeing right down at the level of my shoes.”

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.

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