Exit interview: Philip Rycroft on keeping promises, morale and leaving DExEU

Written by Suzannah Brecknell on 20 June 2019 in Interview
Interview

Philip Rycroft has spent much of his career working on devolution – the biggest force for change in the UK’s government until the EU referendum. He led the Department for Exiting the European Union from 2017 to the end of March this year, helping government try to deliver the result of that referendum. Suzannah Brecknell caught up with him to find out more about why that’s been so hard, and what Brexit means for devolution. 

Photos: Baldo Sciacca

In 2009, Philip Rycroft made a promise. His new job as director general for business and innovation in the business department meant a weekly commute to London from his home in Scotland – where he had spent much of the previous decade working in the Scottish Executive and Government. “I made a promise to my family that I wouldn’t do it for more than 10 years,” Rycroft tells CSW. “And there are some promises that you keep.”

So it was that earlier this year a press release announced that Rycroft – by then permanent secretary at the Department for Exiting the European Union – would be leaving government at what seemed a rather awkward time. His official departure date, 29 March, coincided with the day when the UK should have been leaving the EU, but was in fact entering the first of two extension periods granted by Brussels as the prime minister tried and failed to get her withdrawal agreement through parliament.  

When Rycroft began thinking about the best time to stop that long commute, “the obvious break moment was between phase one and phase two [of the Brexit negotiations],” he explains when he sits down with CSW a few days after that official leave date.  

“Clearly having a new leader for DExEU in place to take it all the way through phase two made absolute sense. So it reveals the limits of my predictive power that we’re still here after what was meant to be exit date and still with no resolution. My own planning has been overtaken by the wider political events.”

Rycroft joined DExEU in 2016, while also retaining his previous role as director of the UK Governance Group in the Cabinet Office, a unit he helped to set up and describes as being “a powerhouse of devolution and constitutional expertise in Whitehall”. It was initially understood that Rycroft would be providing input on the constitutional and devolution aspects of Brexit negotiations as second perm sec. But a few months later Rycroft took on a broader role: leading the whole department after its inaugural perm sec Olly Robbins was moved the Cabinet Office to lead on negotiations under Theresa May’s direct management.

As Robbins’s team took over negotiations, DExEU’s role became, as Rycroft puts it, one of “marshalling” the “tremendous cross-government effort” to deliver and prepare for EU exit. At the time, it had around 450 staff. Just over two years later he leaves it with around 750 – a rapid growth achieved mainly through secondments and Fast Stream placements. 

“What I absolutely recognise is that there are very strong views about Brexit and how it should be handled, every which way you look. Of course that had an impact on the way that business has been transacted in government”

This means turnover in the department has been high, but Rycroft does not think this has been a problem. It’s actually “not much higher than the department which is most analogous – the policy bit of the Cabinet Office”, he points out, adding that despite high turnover the department has continued to be able to recruit. “People have been very happy to come and work in DExEU –  I hope the vast majority have a very positive experience of working here,” he says. 

To support staff in the highly pressurised environment, DExEU developed the “DExEU difference” (see box below), which aims to provide wellbeing and career support to enhance staff morale. Rycroft adds the leadership team has also “tried to create sufficient stability in terms of the leadership of the department to ensure that the management of the department has given people some stability in a changing world”.

Yet despite Rycroft’s efforts, the department has seen a great deal of churn in leadership. Rycroft’s successor, Clare Moriarty, will be the third permanent secretary DExEU has had in its three-year existence. It has also had three secretaries of state, as well as a succession of ministers and several DG departures.  

“That’s the world we live in,” Rycroft says when asked about adapting to this kind of turnover. “I’ve no doubt people will react to my departure as they have to other changes. DExEU has an incredibly resilient body of people, very focused on the task in hand, very aware of the importance of what they’re doing – the historical significance of it – and very committed to doing that work and doing it well. Ultimately what sustains a body of people through these sorts of challenges is their commitment to the work that they’re doing. And they’ve done that brilliantly.”

For staff working on the UK’s exit from the EU – not just in DExEU but across government – challenges have included learning to live in an uncertain environment and operate in a politically volatile arena with criticism from all sides of the debate.

The regular and vociferous broadsides against the civil service have prompted former and current cabinet secretaries to speak out, keen to defend the impartial values of the civil service. But have they affected Rycroft and his staff? Or do officials view them as just part of the territory? “It is a little bit par for the course,” Rycroft says. “DExEU itself has been subject to quite a lot of narky gossiping, if I could put it like that, mostly from people who don’t have the courage to put their name to the gossip.” 

This can be demoralising, he says, but he’s tried to encourage staff to see it as a reflection not of their own competence but of those spreading the gossip – people keen to get their opinions heard “largely without much real knowledge about what’s going on”.

“Given the political context, of course, the civil service is at risk of taking a knocking. Passions are running very high and people are looking for others to blame,” he says. Despite this, “the civil service has done its work magnificently well, not just since the referendum but actually in the legislation that delivered the referendum, which was partly done by the UK Governance Group, with the Foreign Office”.

“I’d hope out of this will come a confidence in the civil service: that we can take those sorts of knocks and deal with them because the work we’re doing is essential and we’re doing it to the very highest of standards,” he says. 

“I think the country should be very proud of the civil service – as I’ve told one or two select committees,” he adds with a wry smile.

Political sniping is one thing, but DExEU and the Brexit process have also been criticised from other, more benign, sources. Last summer, an Institute for Government report on Brexit preparations highlighted that political tensions were causing high levels of secrecy, which was in turn hampering cross-government co-ordination and engagement with business and parliament. It also noted that planning for Brexit was being hampered because departments were using different assumptions about what the impact of exit – particularly without a deal – would be.

Rycroft dismisses many of these criticisms. To the suggestion that communication with business has been poor, he says: “I don’t know where you get that from. We at DExEU have always spent a huge amount of time talking to business, as have our ministers.”

“I have absolutely no doubt at all that ministers have been presented with honest, forthright advice and have been able therefore to take political decisions on the back of robust advice”

He refers to a summit of business leaders convened by David Davis invited at Chevening House – the then-Brexit secretary’s residence, shared with the foreign secretary – in summer 2017. This was the first of several such summits and it was at this meeting that businesses set out their desire for a transition period. “It was actually a very good example of the business community influencing [Davis’] thinking,” Rycroft says.

“For myself, barely a week went by when I wasn’t engaging with one or more business audiences,” he continues – adding that other departments have also been actively engaging with industry. “The continuity of that engagement has been hugely important because the context has been shifting all the time. So we’ve had to keep going at it and the businesses I’ve spoken to have been very complimentary about how much effort DExEU’s put in to working with them.”

Nor does he accept the idea that DExEU has shunned joint working. “We’ve, of course, had to collaborate with departments right the way through all of this,” he says. There were restrictions on the circulation of some papers… and that was driven by the sensitivity of those papers.”

He is referring to details in the IfG report which said that certain documents were only available on specially secured servers, or via a hard copy that officials could not remove from secure rooms. Rycroft puts this down to concerns of ministers and “the folk who advise us on security”. “It has meant that some of the papers have not been as accessible within departments as perhaps departments would have wished,” he says, but he adds that the papers were “never not accessible” to at least some colleagues from relevant departments.

Rycroft adds that as time has moved on, DExEU has been able to loosen some of those restrictions. “So, for example, the work on no deal preparedness, along with the reporting we’ve done, has been more widely shared within departments.

“That’s reflected the changing political environment as much as anything, really. Clearly one would like to operate in as open a way as possible, but when you’re dealing with such sensitive material as we have been in DExEU, you’ve got to put the right parameters around that. So, as I say, we took advice and we responded to the political instruction we were taking at the time to protect that material.”

On preparations for a possible no deal, does he recognise the criticism that there was little common understanding about what leaving without a deal would mean? “What I absolutely recognise is that there are very strong views about Brexit and how it should be handled, every which way you look,” he says. “So of course that had an impact on the way that business has been transacted in government. It’s been part of our job in DExEU to seek to see through that, to get to an evidence base on preparedness planning. 
“It’s up to ministers then, of course, how they respond to that.”

The civil service has stuck fast to what he calls “the eternal verities” of providing evidence-based advice even if that has not proven popular among ministers. But has that advice been heard amid the political challenges of Brexit? “I’ll speak in the first part for myself,” Rycroft says. “I’ve worked for, not just for three exit secretaries over the last couple of years, but also secretaries of state for Scotland and Wales, as well as advising the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster on devolution and Brexit related issues. And I can say with absolute confidence that the advice I have given has been heard.” He smiles broadly as though the case is closed. But collectively, has civil service’s voice been heard?

“Yes, I do think it has been. There’s been a whole range of collective machinery to consider Brexit issues. The part I’ve been most involved in the DPLD Exit committee, which transmuted into the EUXT committee” – here he pauses to smile at the jumble of letters and entreats us to “fill in the gaps”. For those not au fait with cabinet committee shorthand, he’s referring to the Domestic Preparedness, Legislation and Devolution committee and the European Exit (Trade) committee.

“Week in, week out, we’ve been taking papers to those committees, particularly on preparedness issues, and ministers have had before them all of the major issues that we’ve been concerned about for collective discussion and decision making. And I have absolutely no doubt at all that ministers have been presented with honest, forthright advice on those issues, and have been able therefore to take the political decisions that they needed to take on the back of robust advice.”

So Rycroft is adamant that the civil service has done its job “magnificently” in the EU exit process so far. Few would disagree that officials have responded well to incredibly difficult circumstances, but surely one can always improve – what could be done better in phase two? Although Rycroft is reticent, pointing out that the whole process is “unprecedented: the challenge, right the way back to the day after the referendum, has been to deal with a situation which is entirely novel but absolutely huge in its implications” – his answer does suggest that he recognises the need to improve engagements beyond Whitehall.

“Phase two is going to be very different sort of negotiation to phase one. It’s a very broad negotiation, it’s a very deep negotiation has got to turn 26 pages of political declaration into ultimately probably thousands of pages of legal texts. It will require, I think, engagement in a different way to phase one,” he says. This includes with parliament, business, civil society and the devolved administrations – a key area where Rycroft’s skills and expertise will be missed. 

Having spent the first half of his career in the Scotland Office, Scottish Executive and Scottish Government, Rycroft was also involved with co-ordinating Whitehall’s response to the 2014 independence referendum and was influential in setting up the Smith Commission which granted new powers to Holyrood after the referendum.

The cumulative effect of 20 years of devolution, he says, is huge. “It is no longer possible for people in Whitehall to think that they can easily make policy for the whole of the UK without engaging deeply with the devolved administrations and also, as it happens, with the mayoral authorities and local government in England as well. Power is more dispersed in some domains, but also there is more shared power, particularly after the last Scotland Act and the last Wales Act, which is going to require far more people in Whitehall to understand how the devolution settlements work and to understand politics in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.”

Despite the wide-ranging changes, he says “it’s been uphill work, shall we say, since the Scottish referendum campaign, to get Whitehall to recognise just how profound those changes are”. Particularly in the last three years, as Brexit has placed new strains on the relationships between devolved administrations. Rycroft says a lot of work has been put in to “improve the connectivity” between the administrations to handle the issues arising from EU exit.  

He adds that although there has been improvement “there is still some distance to travel” as governance in the United Kingdom continues to change. “There’s no doubt at all that Brexit is putting pressure on the system of intergovernmental relations, which was designed for a different era. It was designed when there were Labour-led administrations in Cardiff and Edinburgh, a Labour government in the south,” he says.

“I’d hope out of this will come a confidence in the civil service: that we can take those sorts of knocks and deal with them because the work we’re doing is essential and we’re doing it to the very highest of standards”

As powers return to the UK from Brussels, many will fall within the devolved competencies. “That is going to require a lot more close working across the administrations,” Rycroft says. “And that is why this is the moment to review intergovernmental relations, which will have to take account of the fact that post-Brexit we’re into a different world.
“I’m absolutely sure that the people thinking about that will come up with good solutions to ensure the intergovernmental relations are fit for purpose in a post-Brexit universe. But that will have to be thought through, no doubt about it.”

Rycroft may no longer be one of the ones in government doing that thinking, but he is keen to contribute to the discussions. Asked about his future plans he suggests there will be opportunities in consultancy or advisory roles, but he’s also interested in moving into academia. “I’ve learned a lot about devolution and the constitution, and obviously the impact of Brexit. And I would like to be able still to contribute to those debates, and to understand a little bit better some of the things I’ve been dealing with over the last 20-25 years.”

While Rycroft’s plans for the future may be clear, the department he leaves behind faces continued uncertainty and speculation about its future. But he is bullish for his former colleagues who are, he says, developing the sort of specialist knowledge about profound change that has served him well through his career.

“Given the nature of DExEU, nobody’s anticipating it will be around in five or 10 years time,” he says. “But, we still have a huge job of work to do, to adapt to life after Brexit. It will be challenging – of course there are opportunities there as well – but it is a very, very big change and it will require people who are building the sort of skill sets that we have in DExEU to advise ministers, devise policies, and help the country through that change.

“People in DExEU are learning those skills, understanding the nature the exit process and what it means for the country in a way that will stand them in hugely good stead in their future careers. They are at the front edge of this wave of change that will have to go through the whole civil service over the months and years ahead.” 

Rycroft on... devolution

“I became part of the formative policy unit for the Scottish Executive. I worked quite closely with Donald Dewar and wrote some speeches for him at around that time. In terms of taking us over into the new world of devolution and working with him, he was an amazing politician and amazing man, as he shepherded the country through that transition. It was an amazing thing to have done.

“As an official working on the creation of the new parliament it was very exciting. There were a lot of practical things to be done, but I also had the privilege to be in the policy unit at the centre of all of this as we were designing the programme for government for an entirely new institution with very extensive powers and with great hopes that those powers could be used to deliver things differently in Scotland to benefit the people of Scotland.

“Part of the difference of being in a devolved context is that layer for layer, you get a wider scope of policy responsibility. So as a director, in my first job as a director, this essentially meant I was working right the way across the school system, working for a brilliant minister, Peter Peacock. Together we drove substantial change in that system over the four years. 

 

The DExEU Difference

DExEU offers staff a range of training, mentoring and flexible working options which, along with its commitment to inclusion and staff wellbeing, it groups together as the ‘DExEU Difference’. While many of these offerings are also available in other parts of the civil service, the DExEU leadership has tried to ensure it tailors support to fit the unique enviroment in which its staff work - for example, focusing on development opportunities that will help them as they move on from the department. Rycroft explains that: “It has been an immense privilege to work with the team in DExEU. They come from very diverse backgrounds and have done a magnificent job in handling the demands of Brexit. So I and the senior team thought we owed it to them to do the do the very best we could to make it a great working environment. 

“The DExEU difference really encapsulates a lot of that – it’s a programme to give people the best of development opportunities that we can provide, and to encourage the various networks to make sure that its been a really inclusive environment to work in. 

“In many ways, this is about been harnessing the natural energy and enthusiasm of the people working in DExEI, but what I’ve been able to do is help to channel that and give it form. That’s been one of the great joys of working in DExEU over the last couple years.

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Suzannah Brecknell
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