Bernadette Kelly on wellbeing, DfT at 100 and making major projects go to plan

Written by Civil Service World on 29 December 2019 in Feature

As 2020 approaches, senior figures from across government reflect on their highlights and challenges of 2019, look ahead to the next 12 months and share their favourite festive memories

Kelly enjoyed celebrating 100 years of DfT. Photo: Flickr/Dark Dwarf

What was your highlight of 2019?

I’m going to cheat and have three. I hesitate to call it a highlight for obvious reasons, but I was very proud of the way my department worked with the Civil Aviation Authority to bring 140,000 UK holidaymakers home from all over the world when Thomas Cook collapsed. It was a great operational response under huge pressure, and it meant 95% of people got home on the day they planned. We had excellent support from colleagues, especially Foreign and Commonwealth Office consular staff. As social mobility champion, I was really delighted with our first cross-government conference this year – fantastic energy and real insight from champions, networks and external leaders. And we’ve had great fun celebrating 100 years of DfT. I learned that the first drink driving offence was in 1897 and involved an electric car – who knew they existed then?

What has been the most significant change in your organisation this year?

It’s hard to avoid Brexit no-deal planning for this one. Mitigating transport disruption has been at the heart of Operation Yellowhammer and we’ve had to mobilise a huge effort, twice. I can’t pretend it hasn’t been challenging (procuring freight capacity especially) but it’s had some positive organisational impacts.  It’s really deepened our sense of “one team” working across DfT, our operational response capability, and our focus on wellbeing. More broadly, the work we’ve done with the Infrastructure and Projects Authority on improving major project delivery is also really important, and the lessons learned report we published in April is having a big impact for us.

"We’ve had great fun celebrating 100 years of DfT. I learned that the first drink driving offence was in 1897 and involved an electric car – who knew they existed then?"

What will be the biggest challenge of 2020 – and how are you preparing to meet it?

Picking up on my last point, the delivery of big transport projects will continue to be a huge challenge for DfT. When things like Crossrail don’t go to plan, it’s a big deal and has real impacts on people and the economy. I expect net zero and decarbonisation to be a key issue for DfT in 2020. Next year should also be a big year for reform aimed at making the railways run better. The insight we get from the Civil Service People Survey on socio-economic background should be really exciting, too – it will be a massive opportunity for the civil service to lead the way on social mobility in 2020.

Tell us a favourite festive memory from your youth…

I remember my dad and mom winning on the premium bonds around the beginning of December and giving me and my brothers all our Christmas presents early, so we celebrated twice that year. I got my first grown-up watch. They claimed they’d already bought them but I now realise there’s absolutely no way they would have been that organised. Christmas was always a last minute panic in our house!

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