Defra chief Tamara Finkelstein on pink brocade, rainbow lanyards and a year of green action

Written by Civil Service World on 25 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

"The reality is much more boring": not Finkelstein's everyday attire. Photo: PA

What was your highlight of 2019?

Being given the opportunity to lead the Defra Group as permanent secretary must rank as one of the highlights of my year. The responsibilities of Defra are so wide-ranging, so to learn more I kicked off a campaign called Defra Group in 100 Objects, asking people throughout the group to identify items that shape our work – the finger bone of a blue whale, a drone to measure river flow, our rainbow lanyard proudly displaying our diversity. These items and the skills and commitment of the people who chose them are another highlight.

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

Defra has changed in size and shape as we have made preparations for leaving the European Union. Colleagues from other departments have joined our teams following a call for volunteers across the civil service. We have become expert at bringing new people into our teams, welcoming them and training them up. We have learned so much about moving at pace while looking after each other, boosted by our grassroots “be kind” campaign.

"We will continue to make changes so that we can leave the environment in a better place than we found it"

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

The year 2019 has been a Year of Green Action, which has successfully engaged people to connect with nature in myriad projects around the country, from litter picks to creating wildflower gardens. Building on this in 2020 we will continue to make changes so that we can leave the environment in a better place than we found it. In the year ahead there are more opportunities to work internationally as well as at home to make progress on tackling climate change and biodiversity loss, culminating with the UN conference on climate change hosted by the UK in Glasgow at the end of the year.

Tell us a favourite festive memory from your youth...

Some years ago, I worked in a team that put on an annual Christmas panto with a script brilliantly written by a team member, including topical references to ministers and political events. I was given the role of Prince Charming and decided to invest in a hired costume, which was a pink velvet brocade suit with white stockings and gold cocked hat. I decided to take my three-year-old daughter along. She was terrified and started crying, so I had to complete my performance with her in my arms. A few months later we were talking about my work and she said: “I know what you do, you are Prince Charming in the panto.” I realised that she thought I went in each day and put on my pink suit... the reality is so much more boring!

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