Restoring goodwill: former UK HR chief Kevin White on repairing national government’s damaged reputation

By on 13/11/2020 | Updated on 13/11/2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has helped rediscover 'the value of the public service at a time when significant sections of our society were beginning to question it,' says Kevin White.

The UK’s response to COVID-19 fostered a suspicion of leadership, says former UK HR chief Kevin White – but it’s also an opportunity to revive trust in public services. The civil service should be more transparent and diverse, he tells Mia Hunt, while elected leaders should stop attacking officials

The UK’s poor performance in handling COVID-19 has fostered a suspicion of leadership, reflects former senior civil servant Kevin White – with civil service leaders, leading politicians, and appointed agency chiefs facing an increasingly sceptical nation. There is, he says, a sense in the regions and devolved nations “that the interventions that have been promulgated from the centre haven’t quite worked.”

All is not lost, however: the pandemic has also shown the value and agility of the public sector. “There have been terrific examples of creativity and of people making rapid change since the pandemic began, and a rediscovery of the value of the public service at a time when significant sections of our society were beginning to question it,” says White, who spent nearly 40 years in Whitehall, latterly as director-general of HR at the Home Office, before retiring in 2015.

Reigniting public support

There is also an opportunity for the civil and public services “to capture the goodwill of the nation”. White proposes five steps to reignite “the goodwill that we [the public service] have, for a whole variety of reasons, lost over the past 10-20 years”. These include:

  • Addressing the sense of suspicion about decisions being made in secret and improving accountability. White suggests a “COVID review” would be “a very good opportunity to start that.”
  • Learning that “one size doesn’t fit all and that localised operations are essential.”
  • Recognising that not everything can – or should – be done through a central system in Whitehall. “You need to work in partnership and deliver with others, and that means meeting your goals while helping the partner to meet theirs – not just getting the partner to do stuff for you,” White says.
  • Looking to the long-term, not just the immediate political term. For COVID-19, this will entail examining why the UK didn’t learn lessons from the SARS pandemic when other countries did and why, for example, it gave up a stockpile of personal protective equipment.
    Sustainability will also be important. White says the Welsh government’s Wellbeing of Future Generations Act is a “very interesting” example of how this might be achieved. The legislation requires public bodies to think about the long-term impact of their decisions, to work more effectively with people, communities and each other, and to prevent persistent problems such as poverty, health inequalities and climate change.
  • Pursuing more international collaboration. This final lesson might seem obvious but, White says, it is important to learn from abroad. “I sometimes think that’s in the DNA of this country – being insular and not thinking that we can sensibly learn from others,” he adds.   
Kevin White spent nearly 40 years in Whitehall, latterly as director-general of HR at the Home Office.

Such action is much more difficult when you’re working in the midst of a pandemic than when “you’re sitting quietly outside offering comments,” he acknowledges. But, he says, at a critical time, the government was “much more interested in trumpeting the excellence of its own solutions than learning practical, common sense measures from countries and systems that had a lead time on us and were already working through it.”

And these steps can be taken – by whatever government is in power – if politicians and public service leaders collaborate and involve “influencers, ‘opinion-formers’ and the media”, says White. Though he adds that the short termism of politics makes it “very difficult to look ahead, because you’re constantly dragged down by who said what yesterday”.

“There needs to be a recognition that doing things in a slightly different way would be helpful,” he says. “One of my worries is that we forget too quickly what it was like at the beginning of this emergency. That we get back to ‘normal’ – whatever that may be – too soon, and that the sense of needing to be different because how we were before wasn’t working might be lost.” 

Civil service reform

White’s call for adaptation links to the government’s wider civil service reform agenda. Though the handling of reforms has been criticised, White believes that civil servants are broadly up for change.

“People need to know why they need to change, where they’re going and what the future will look like,” he says. “It needs to be clear how to get there, at least the next one or two steps. And they need to know that – as is all too often the case, unfortunately – the changes are not a response to an immediate pressure that, as soon as the pressure is turned off, are reversed.”

Indeed, he adds, “you probably don’t need to go much further than looking at the record of previous reforms to work out why there’s a bit of scepticism”. Leadership is crucial and showing that leaders are really committed to the agenda “has been the most difficult part”. 

Road to remote working

While reform rumbles on, the pandemic has brought future working practices into sharp focus. Before COVID-19, White says, the jury was out on whether remote working could be effective. Now, he adds, “no one can argue that you can’t work as hard, or as effectively, or be as collaborative at home as in the office. This really is a game changer.”

Remote working aligns with the “levelling up” agenda. But even this aspect of reform has history: White recalls being moved from London to Sheffield, in the North of England, when he worked at the now defunct Manpower Services Commission in the 1980s. This was part of what he describes as a “big dispersal programme” that moved many jobs out of London and into the regions.

Relocating away from Whitehall: Kevin White supports the move and says it can be helpful for society. Credit: Andrew Gustar/Flickr

Even 35 years ago, he explains, people could video conference – they just used banks of TVs to talk to colleagues in London. “There were huge benefits to people because the working environment was generally better than in London, the relative pay was better than in London, and the travel to work was better than in London,” White says. “There was a lot of angst and worry about being moved out of Whitehall initially but almost universally, it turned out to be a good thing.”  

As a result, White is “not in any way uneasy about the government’s plans to move more civil servants out of Whitehall”. Indeed, he adds: “I think it’s really helpful for our society as a whole that as many jobs as possible can be done in areas around the country, not just London and the South-East.”

But this may not work so well for civil service leaders. Looking back on his days in Sheffield, as he became more senior, he spent more time travelling to London. “The cost in terms of time spent on travel became too high and, as a result, there weren’t any director generals in Sheffield,” he says.  

He doubts this will change any time soon. “At that level, it’s a lot to do with personal relations and circumstances and about bringing people together from different departments, different sectors, different industries, and I think it could be quite a while before we are accustomed to doing those things remotely… The ultimate driver will be the ministers because necessarily, they are at the centre of those senior activities.”

Putting a stop to public pillory  

In an interview with Global Government Forum shortly after he retired in 2015, White called for a fresh approach to recruiting and developing talent in the civil service. While he maintains that the senior leadership in the civil service is not sufficiently diverse, both in terms of socio-economic background and ethnicity, he is encouraged by changes in the last five years. The HR function improved in various ways, while apprenticeships and enhanced development programmes have helped more “good people to come through”.

Now, however, he believes there is a new threat to encouraging promising young people to join the service: public attacks on officials and ministers’ readiness to play the blame game. High-profile examples include Olly Robbins, former PM Theresa May’s Europe adviser, and more recently press briefings against Cabinet secretary and head of the civil service Sir Mark Sedwill, who stood down last month.  

Olly Robbins, former PM Theresa May’s Europe adviser, is one high-profile example of attacks on officials. Credit: Rob Thom/UK Civil Service/Flickr

“Public attacks on civil servants make people very upset and angry,” White says. “It’s a cheap shot, attacking people who aren’t able to respond; unfair and counterproductive.

“Obviously people need to be held accountable for what they don’t do or what they could do better, but public pillory isn’t part of the proper process,” he adds. “It will put some talent off.”

White has felt the effects of this personally. About a decade before he retired, he says he stopped feeling proud when telling people that he was a civil servant. “Indeed, I used not to say it because I would expect the kind of response that was being driven by a combination of media exposure and political attacks on civil servants.

“It’s very sad that someone who is very proud and feels very good about what they’ve done, and what all their colleagues have done over the decades, feels uncomfortable talking about this in public. It’s pretty destructive, and I would imagine that it affects some of the people who one might want to be in the civil service and stops them from joining.”

At the heart of White’s insights, one message is clear: politicians and civil servants must learn from their own mistakes, and those of others, if they are to make real change. Neither party has a good track record in this respect, but the coronavirus pandemic presents a unique opportunity to take stock and to improve for the long term. White and many others will be hoping that, this time, the lessons aren’t forgotten.

Global Government Forum: five thoughts for better government

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

Can you name one key lesson or idea that helped you or your former civil service colleagues?

“The single idea that occurs to me, as told by a very wise expert in organisational development, is that how you do something is as much an indicator of success as anything else that you do. And that particularly comes to mind when you’re doing things connected to people or changing organisations. Making successful lasting change is really hard to do if you don’t go through a process which indicates and mirrors the kind of change you’re looking for.”

Are there any projects or innovations from the UK that might be valuable to civil servants overseas?

“I think the programme of work over the last five plus years to professionalise functions across the civil service has been profoundly helpful and, where that’s not been applied elsewhere, may well be something that might help. I’m not just talking about HR but about finance, procurement, programme delivery, delivery itself – all those areas of work which were rather like dark corners of the kitchen that no-one ever went to or looked at, and assumed they would function.

“Turning them into professions, recruiting people, developing expertise and being clear about standards has resulted in a much more efficient and effective operation, and is much more rewarding for the people that work in it. So I might suggest to civil services elsewhere that they look to see whether that would be helpful for them, and if it is, that would be a smart thing to do.”

What are the biggest challenges in civil service HR in the next few years?

“Well they’re endless, but I’ve thought about four.

“The first is being part of the process that holds the line between politics and the civil service; a centre for making sure that we try to do the right things and that we are not diverted by immediate political pressures, accepting when I say that, clearly it is the civil service’s job to do the bidding of the government of the day. So I’m not talking about holding the line against government policy, but often things happen which are unhealthy in organisations and you want HR to hold that line.

“Secondly, diversity. We’ve had a further tragic jolt [George Floyd’s death] about the importance of getting diversity right. We’re a long way away from the state we want to be in and HR has to be a key actor there, although it is not something that is just for HR, it’s for the whole organisation.

“I think more immediately, working out what our sustainable future for work is, as whatever one might characterise as normality emerges from the current crisis. There are going to be huge changes in how people work, where they work and what they do. That will take the reshaping of organisations, structures and activities, and new routines, and that’s going to be a big thing for HR.

“And lastly, talent development – building the next generation of leaders and making sure that there’s a future cadre of leaders that have got the skills and expertise you need. It’s also important to make sure that you’ve got the right blend of people – some that have been in the civil service for a longer time and people that have come in fresh from outside and can offer new insights right at the very top of the organisation.”  

What one thing did you achieve in your career as a civil servant that you’re most proud of?

“Am I allowed to say three? I was the senior responsible owner for a programme that we called Modernising the Employment Service, a programme that restructured the way JobCentres worked. It put in the touchpoint kiosks – which I think are still in existence – through which people can look at vacancies on the web, enabling jobseekers to self-serve to a degree and allowing us to put more effort and time into those who needed the most help. That was a fundamental restructuring of the way the whole organisation worked – part technology, part business change – and that programme won a government award so I feel pretty proud about that.

“But if I may, there are two other things. Firstly, being part of the Department for Work and Pensions executive team when we merged and demerged organisations after the department was formed, created agencies and reduced staffing by 30,000 in four years with hardly any compulsory redundancies. That was a big change programme where the whole senior team worked strongly together.

“And secondly, being part of the team, originally with Gill Rider, that gripped HR across the civil service as a whole and created a single HR function and profession. Chris Last was a key member of that team and with other director generals and I – there were four or five of us at the centre leading that – we created the HR function which Rupert [McNeil] now has the pleasure of leading.”

What’s your favourite book, or one you’ve read recently that you’ve most enjoyed?

“One is supposed to say War and Peace or the Dickens novels – I haven’t read War and Peace and though I used to really enjoy Dickens it’s been years since I’ve read one. Most recently, I’ve laughed out loud at some of the things in the Mick Herron novels. But my son gave me the P.G. Wodehouse compendium for my last birthday, so because it was a present from family and because I’m finding that I’m really enjoying that – and probably the book you prefer should be the book you’re reading right now – I’ll say that.”

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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