Loading BEIS: how a government department is created

Written by Richard Johnstone on 12 October 2017 in Feature
Feature

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy was created in July 2016 as part of changes announced when Theresa May became prime minister. Civil Service World met Angie Ridgwell and Jaee Samant, the civil servants responsible for the transition programme from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Energy and Climate Change, to reflect on the process. By Richard Johnstone

Jaee Samant (left) and Angie Ridgwell (right). Photo: Photoshot

When did you find out about the change?

Angie Ridgwell (DECC’s director general, corporate services, now director general, finance and corporate services in BEIS): I was in 3 Whitehall Place, in the Department for Energy and Climate Change. I’m sure we’d been called in by Stephen [Lovegrove, then DECC permanent secretary] and told about it, but I mostly remember it on the news, because we were watching the comings and goings at No 10 and they announced then that there was going to be a merger with BIS.

Jaee Samant (BIS’s director general, skills, deregulation and local growth, and legal, now BEIS’s director general for market frameworks): I was in this building (1 Victoria Street) and it was the night before the announcement. The directors general were summoned by Martin Donnelly, who was the permanent secretary at the time, and we were told that it was likely that this was going to happen. All our jaws dropped because we were told that chunks of the department would be going to the Department for Education, other chunks would be forming the Department for International Trade and what was left would be merged with DECC.

AR: I think it must have been harder for BIS, because actually DECC remained intact – it lifted and shifted whereas colleagues in BIS were being moved all around.

JS: Yes, BIS felt like it was being fractured because significant numbers moved out as well as significant numbers moving in.

What were your first reactions when you heard?

AR: This was my first machinery of government (MoG) change and I thought: “How exciting – this is the chance to be part of the creation of a new department”. If you’re in the private sector, this would have been something that would have been talked about and planned for a minimum of six months before it happened, and usually 12-18 months. It was really fascinating to see government in action from the inside, that these very fundamental decisions could be taken very quickly – though I’m sure there was lots of consideration to it.

JS; It was my fifth or sixth MoG change, and I also find them exciting, but I also felt complete uncertainty. I was on temporary promotion as director general, I was doing further education, and that was going to transfer over to the Department for Education, so I wasn’t at all sure what was going to happen to me.

What were the early priorities for creating a new department?

AR: The first thing that we had to do was just to meet with our colleagues so that we knew who we were actually going to be working with. We hadn’t even met each other at that point.

JS: I hadn’t met anyone in DECC at all, actually, but we had an informal joint ExCo (executive committee) meeting, and it was neither here or at 3 Whitehall Place, it was on sort of neutral territory [at the Institute of Directors]. That was with the two permanent secretaries and the two exec committees – and you must have been thrown into the transition straight away, Angie, because you were DG finance and corporate services, whereas because I was an almost purely policy DG I think it was only a couple of weeks later that I got involved at all in the transition and setting up of the department.

AR: I was very much in the department, being in charge of finance and corporate services alongside Howard Orme, who was my opposite number in BIS, and we had some clear responsibilities for thinking through how we were going to create a single department.

It took a while for the logistics to emerge, and for some of the basic information such as going down staff lists and working out where people were going to land. There was some quite fundamental stuff – identifying where staff were going to go, thinking about how we were going to divide up the budgets, looking at some of the forecasts from the Spending Review, because there were some anticipated savings that would have to be split up.

This is when the leaders really need to step up. People need to know what job they are going to do, where they are going to sit to do that job, and they need to know they are going to have the basics to be able to do it. And we didn’t always have the answers to these questions right at the start but those were the first questions that we started to pose before we got into transformation.

“My first MoG change was in 1995 when the Department for Employment was merged with Department for Education. I was in the secretary of state’s office at employment, and it felt cataclysmic” Jaee Samant

What were the aims in those first days?

JS: My first MoG change was in 1995 when the Department for Employment was merged with the Department for Education. I was in the secretary of state’s office at employment, and it felt cataclysmic – you don’t know as a private secretary whether you’re going to have a role – and fundamentally my abiding memory of it was just the complete absence of control over your future and the complete sense of being done unto.

It is something I’ve always remembered, and one of the things we tried in this was to make it as happy an experience as possible. You can’t give people an illusion of control, because they don’t have any, we are all done unto to a certain extent, but there are some things you gain and some things you lose with any machinery of government change. So as a leader it is important to recognise that people have an emotional journey to make.

AR: Very early doors, Jaee and I went out and we spoke to a lot of staff and one of the main things that we said to the staff was we would be open and honest with them, we would answer their questions and we would tell them the truth as we knew it. If the answer was that we didn’t know the answer, that is what we would say. If the answer was that we couldn’t tell them the answer because there were sensitives, that is what we would say to them too. On the back of that, we arranged a number of workshops and consultation pieces where staff could genuinely start to feed in their thoughts and aspirations for the new department. So while they didn’t have a sense of control about the MoG, as we started to bring the department together they could have a sense that they were able to influence the formation of BEIS, and they clearly felt that was impactful.

What were the key challenges of the programme?

AR: Between BEIS, DIT and DfE we have moved 4,000 people between offices and within offices with 95% satisfaction. And I have to say there was a point in the programme where this was about to go off the rails, it was bit of nightmare, but our governance arrangements enabled us to flag that and we brought in resources and got to grips with it.

JS: One of the things that a number of people said to us was that while you are determining the futures [of staff] – whether there is going to be restructuring or moving around people – during that very febrile stage at the beginning do not start doing work on things like values. That has to be the second phrase. At the start you focus on the really big ticket items about which people are feeling anxious and emotional. It sounds obvious, but I’ve worked in organisations where some sort of merger has happened, and alongside talking about redundancies they start talking about values for the new organisation – it just doesn’t work.

When were you able to move from the immediate response to think about the aims and values of BEIS?

AR: For me it was quite quick. I popped in to see Alex [Chisholm, then BEIS’ joint perm sec] and said I would really like to work on the transformation and by some means, fair or foul, I managed to persuade him to let me do that. Whether it was through ignorance because I had never been though an MoG before, I don’t know, but actually I quite like change and transformation, it excites me, I think it is a huge opportunity, so I was there quite quickly. Also, financial and corporate services is at the heart of any organisation so we were most impacted and also the part of the department most required to create the environment in which the new organisation would operate.

JS: For me it was a bit later – Alex and Martin asked me a couple of weeks later. I was really pleased. I have run change programmes before and really enjoyed them. It was novel in terms of having two senior responsible owners for a programme, but, as Alex keeps teasing us, it was his great inspired move, because I suppose in some ways there was something totemic in having a person from DECC and a person from BIS.

“All the advice on MoG changes is about disaggregating things, not about merging things. That is really bizarre – generally if you disaggregate something there is a merger elsewhere” Angie Ridgwell

How did the rest of Whitehall respond to these changes?

AR: One of the things I would reflect back is that all of the advice on MoG changes is about disaggregating things, not about merging things. That is really bizarre because generally speaking if you disaggregate something there is a merger elsewhere. I also think, in terms of disaggregating and recreating services, the functional leadership model wasn’t mature enough a year-plus ago to help that. What it has done is give some resilience because the networks between functional leaders across Whitehall are much stronger. If you have a problem or a challenge you can go into that network, so that makes it slightly easier to source resources, so that is important.

BEIS has launched a review into its staff retention problems following the merger. What still needs to be done to make BEIS feel like a single department?

AR: There are some basic infrastructure issues that still need to be resolved. I think the staff feel quite strongly that we still have two different systems and that is probably the single biggest barrier to us feeling like a department, because depending on where your genesis was you have to use one system or another for HR and finance – we are looking to change that but we haven’t for commercial reasons been able to yet and I think staff do feel the frustrations of these systems. So one of our priorities now is to try and resolve that for them.

JS: In October 2016, we had the People Survey for the new department and it showed that people’s understanding of the organisational mission and objectives had completely tanked – exactly as one might expect two months after a merger. One of the most pleasing aspects of the transition is people’s understanding of what we are here to do has reassuringly increased over the course of the last year quite considerably. We now have got a set of BEIS values, drawn together after consultation, and they are: brilliant, enterprising, inclusive and skilled – neatly forming the word BEIS. It would be premature to say they are completely embedded – they are still very new – but people remember them and appear to like them. We are doing things to help people internalise them. For example, we are shortly going to have permanent secretary awards which will celebrate people who have been brilliant, enterprising, inclusive and skilled.

About the author

Richard Johnstone is CSW's deputy and online editor and tweets as @CSW_DepEd

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