Interview: Defra permanent secretary Clare Moriarty on flooding, Extended Ministerial Offices and modernising her department

Written by Jess Bowie on 24 March 2016 in Interview
Interview

Since Clare Moriarty became permanent secretary of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs last August, she has found herself drawing on three decades of Whitehall experience to tackle challenges like flooding and organisational reform. Jess Bowie meets her

By her late teens, Clare Moriarty had come to expect jokes about the fictional villain whose surname she shares. When she went to university, she thought she’d get one up on her fellow students. She had a small badge made saying: “I know the joke about Sherlock Holmes.”

It was greeted with bafflement. “What about Sherlock Holmes?” was the general response among her new peers. “Everybody I met up until then had referred to it!” she says with a smile. “So I deduced that half the population knew about Sherlock Holmes, and the other half didn’t.”

The permanent secretary of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Conan Doyle’s criminal mastermind don’t share many traits – except perhaps a keen intelligence and a talent for overseeing huge and complex schemes (which are more organisational than diabolical, in the civil servant’s case). There’s also a knack for numbers: Professor Moriarty is a mathematics genius, Clare Moriarty – who “still sees herself as part of the government finance profession” – is a qualified accountant with several senior finance roles under her belt.


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Defra savings must not undermine flood defences, say MPs


As a young girl, she didn’t necessarily dream of being a permanent secretary, but unlike most children Moriarty did actually know what a perm sec was: both her grandfathers and both her parents were civil servants. “I wouldn’t say I thought: ‘I must become a civil servant!’ But I did know when I was growing up that I wanted to do something interesting,” she says.

The career which followed would certainly satisfy that childhood wish. Now, after three decades in Whitehall, Moriarty, 52, has arrived in one of the civil service’s top jobs. “And everything I’ve ever done has come in useful,” she says. “I think this is my seventh government department, and I’ve worked in finance, in corporate services, in policy, I’ve done secondments in the NHS, and did a lot of commercial stuff in my last job [as director general for rail at the Department for Transport].

“And because as the perm sec, you are in charge of everything in a department –  and because Defra is fantastically diverse, with very direct, hands-on delivery, very ethereal policymaking and lots of European stuff – I’m always looking at things thinking: ‘It’s unfamiliar in this particular form, but actually it reminds me of that.’

“I’ve worked in health, and there are parallels between human health and animal health. I’ve worked on IT programmes when people had barely invented IT programmes. So everything that turns up, and I think: ‘Oh yes.’ It’s a different context and there are lots of things I don’t know, but there’s always something I can compare it to. I didn’t quite expect to be reaching so broadly across all of my past.”

She pauses, before adding with a laugh: “It makes me feel that 30 years of experience is all worthwhile!”


Flooding was one issue Moriarty had already encountered in her time at the DfT, albeit from the other side of the tracks. After only a few months as head of the environment department she was dealing with it again –  and how. For the second winter in a row, images of the army rescuing people from their homes – and of concerned politicians in wellies – dominated the news.

Many, including local council leaders and Labour MPs, argue that the policies of this government, and before that the coalition, have significantly worsened the impact of recent floods. Critics point to the axing of land-use regulations which were brought in by Labour to lessen the damage caused by floods; the failure to deliver planned defences in areas which then went on to flood; and the fact that councils’ flood defence budgets for 2015-16 had been cut by a third. In December, the Efra Committee expressed concern that “Defra’s requirement to find reductions of 15% in resource budgets over the next four years may affect vital flood protection work”.

What lessons have been learnt from the most recent floods – and what are Moriarty and her Defra colleagues doing to ensure the evidence on what works is really being listened to by politicians?

“Well, it’s worth saying that the flooding we had in December wasn’t just a bit worse than previous rainfall. We were looking at the highest ever rainfall in 24 hours,” Moriarty says. “The December rainfall in Cumbria was 50% higher than it had ever been. So it was an order of magnitude more, and that just puts unbelievable pressure on the flood defences. And so there’s a moment of: ‘Well, flood defences can do lots, but they can only do so much.’ We are part way into a six-year investment programme: £2.3bn is being spent on flood defences, so that hard flood defence will remain really important.

“But what’s been quite interesting about these recent floods is the amount of emphasis that has been put on the upstream defences, the softer prevention. What can we do by planting trees in the right places? By providing wetlands, and creating places where the water can flow?

"We want good farming environments, good water quality, good flood management. How do we package those up together and use all of the different means that we’ve got in as coherent a way as possible?"

“One of the things that came out of the December floods is the National Flood Resilience Review, which is taking a broad look at some of these sorts of questions: what’s the evidence base? What risk are we planning for? How do we understand the effect that floods can have? How do we think about infrastructure as well as settlements?”

Examining all the available options, including that of cultivating woodland and scrub to stem the flow of floodwater to the towns downstream, sounds right. But under the EU’s Common Agricultural Payment policy, farmers and landowners only receive subsidies if their land is cleared of “unwanted vegetation”. In the words of the journalist and campaigner George Monbiot: “If farmers don’t keep the hills bare, they don’t get their money...European rules insist that we pay farmers to help flood our homes.”

Moriarty, while admitting she is not yet an expert on all of the intricacies of the CAP, says Monbiot’s words don’t “marry up with her understanding”.

“I don’t think we are paying farmers to do things which are detrimental to the environment. The CAP is a framework which applies in 28 different countries with incredibly different landscapes and styles of agriculture, and there is quite a lot of flexibility for individual member states to design environmental measures to do what works for them,” she says.

She acknowledges, however, that there is always a risk of unintended consequences. “One of the things that we are really focusing on in some of our broader work is how we look at the department and all of the delivery bodies that are part of the Defra group, and make sure that we are using money in the best possible way. There certainly is the potential for one particular policy to drive you to pay someone to do something, and then you actually have to pay to sort it out further down the track. That’s why we’re asking: ‘Okay, holistically, what are we trying to do?’ We want good farming environments, good water quality, good flood management. How do we package those up together and use all of the different means that we’ve got in as coherent a way as possible?”


The “broader work” Moriarty mentions was the subject of a recent Institute for Government speech by Defra’s secretary of state Liz Truss (pictured left). Setting out her vision for the modernisation of the department, Truss said that for the first time, “Defra will have a plan and budget for each [part of the landscape], rather than 34 organisations operating with different plans”. These new plans would, in turn, be integrated with a 25-year framework for the environment, launching this spring. The minister also described how, in the newly joined-up Defra, different bodies would “share the same IT, HR and communications”.

Those in the audience might have been struck by how, with all her talk of change programmes and integrated systems, Truss seemed to be more on permanent secretary territory than secretary of state territory. So who exactly is leading on the modernisation of the department? Is the environment secretary in charge of policy and accountable to parliament, or is she accountable for running the department, too – and how does that fit together with Moriarty’s role as perm sec?

“Well, I think what’s interesting is that because the modernisation that we’re doing is so integral to delivering the objectives of the department and to working within our Spending Review settlement, actually, you know, they’re not separable,” Moriarty says.

"The way in which we organise the department is critical to how we deliver our objectives"

“In the past, I think one of the problems departments have had is they’ve said: here are our policy objectives over here, and here is our organisation over there. But actually, the way in which we organise the department is critical to how we deliver our objectives. So it may sound like a cop out, but actually it is absolutely a joint effort. I am responsible for running the department, but how the department is organised is critical to how we deliver our objectives.

“To give you a concrete example, the secretary of state talked [at the IfG] about the single boundaries for the Environment Agency and Natural England. That’s the first step in a process that allows us to bring together all of the government actors in a particular part of the country – around the Defra issues – in order to really focus on environmental outcomes. So this goes to exactly the sort of issues that George Monbiot raises: how do we make sure that we’re not spending money twice to get to the same objective. Actually, what Natural England are doing, in supporting farmers to put together their environmental stewardship proposals, is relevant to what the EA do in terms of flood defences. By having a common set of boundaries and a single plan and budget for that area, we actually achieve our objectives.

“So you could say that that environmental objective, that’s policy, that’s the secretary of state. How it gets delivered is directly through looking at how we’re organised, that’s perm sec territory. The reality is that they have to go hand in hand. There’s no point doing organisational change for the sake of it. Running everything in this kind of group model is new for Defra, and it’s quite new for government.”


Another model that’s new for government is the Extended Ministerial Office, or EMO. The brainchild of former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, EMOs are supposed to bolster ministers’ private offices with experts and policy advisers, who come in on short-term civil service contracts. The approach was agreed in 2013, but departments have been slow to adopt it. Defra, however, has now bitten the bullet. Its EMO includes Fiona Gately, whose experience at Duchy Originals will help Defra promote British food and drink, and, until recently, it boasted the Open Data Institute’s Ellen Broad, there to advise on the department’s push for open data.

“I think what’s been really interesting is that the EMO has allowed us to access a different group of people who can come in and ask questions – who see the world in a different way,” Moriarty says. “In practice, a lot of what they’re looking at are cross-cutting issues. So Ellen was from ODI, and data is a cross-cutting issue. They are specialists but they’re not like special advisers, because special advisers are clearly political. We have great special advisers too, but [the members of the EMO] are just injecting a bit of different thinking. They work very closely with the secretary of state, but they also work very closely with the relevant civil servants. So they sit in the strategy unit.”

"The EMO has allowed us to access a different group of people who can come in and ask questions – who see the world in a different way"

So fears that EMOs could politicise key parts of the civil service and, in the words of FDA general secretary Dave Penman, “act as a firewall between impartial, evidence-based advice and the minister” are unfounded?

It’s clear Moriarty sees no cause for concern. “Our EMO is more like an enriched strategy unit, rather than a turbo-charged private office,” she says.

“It just means that we’ve got a spectrum, from our deep subject matter experts and the strategy unit, to our EMO specialists, private office and special advisers. So there’s quite a diversity of thinking styles, but all in that space which bridges the gap between what ministers think and how civil servants traditionally operate. I strongly believe that the more we can do to ensure that everything civil servants do is underpinned by understanding where ministers come from, the better. When I was a principal private secretary 20 years ago, the private office was the main bridge. What we’re doing is creating multiple bridges, so the whole thing is more resilient.” 


If there is plenty to occupy Moriarty in the office, there’s a fair amount to keep her busy outside it, too. She has two teenagers (“I’m obviously not around as much as I might be, so they quite like making sure that I am attending to them when I am!”) and, as a lifelong chorister, she is also a member in the Whitehall choir, Etcetera.

CSW heard that Bernard Jenkin, the fearsome chairman of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, was also in a choir... “Yes, the Parliament Choir! I sang in that one for a bit, too – it’s great fun as well,” Moriarty says, preferring not reveal whether Jenkin sings like he interrogates. Moriarty’s next concert with Etcetera will be Beethoven’s Mass in C in St John’s Smith Square concert hall, just across the road from Defra HQ. The perm sec, who clearly does a good job of compartmentalising work and leisure, perhaps won’t appreciate the design of the flyer: it depicts a dramatic storm, with a bust of Beethoven rising out of what appear to be flood waters. 

 

 

Moriarty on…
...whether Defra is protecting farmers’ interests at the expense of flood victims
“I don’t think we are. I think if you ask the average farmer, they would say the opposite – they would say their fields are taking the impact of flooding in order to protect homes downstream. The secretary of state’s announcement at the Oxford Farming Conference in January [for plans to allow farmers to dredge and clear debris, and manage land to stop it becoming waterlogged] – concerned short, manmade ditches. At the moment farmers have to apply to the Environment Agency to get a licence to do something which, on the whole, they are allowed to do. So this is not a measure about allowing people to flood lots of houses, this is a measure about avoiding having lots of built-in bureaucracy in areas where it’s not actually adding value to the process it’s trying to help. 

"We have a general desire to avoid unnecessary bureaucracy. But we are clear that protection of people is the primary aim of our flooding policy and that’s what we’re trying to do. When you get a lot of water, it’s got to go somewhere, and we have some incredibly skilled people in the EA [working on these issues]. I think broadly speaking, everybody wants the same thing, which is to ensure we’re protecting homes and communities, we’re also protecting farmland, and we are maintaining the environment for the future.”

...Whether the chairmanship of the Environment Agency is a cursed role
“Like other bodies of its kind, the Environment Agency has a full-time chief executive and a part-time non-executive chair. Their roles are complementary, providing strategic and operational leadership to the agency, which has done fabulous work in the last few months. Being EA chair is certainly a demanding role, but it’s not an undoable one. Emma Howard Boyd is currently doing an excellent job in the acting chair role, and we will be running a recruitment process for a permanent chair in due course.”

...Rural Payments & digital woes
“The new Common Agricultural Policy scheme introduced in 2015 is the most complicated there has ever been, and the European Commission were tweaking it right up to February 2015. That in turn delayed settling the scheme details for England. The core of the [rural payments] system, which calculates how much farmers are entitled to receive, has worked well. The aim was to link that to a user-friendly front end. A huge amount of work went into that, but in the end it wasn’t possible to make it work reliably, at scale, in the time available – which drove the decision to switch to paper claims for 2015. 

"Processing paper claims has been more labour-intensive, and we’re very conscious that it has led to farmers receiving payment later than in recent years. But we now have paid some 71,000 farmers – 81% of the total – some £1.11bn, and we’re on course to pay almost all of them by the end of March. In parallel, the RPA have been developing the system for 2016 to make it easier for farmers to apply and more efficient for us to administer. I’ve trialled the near-final version, which will provide an online application form while keeping a paper option for those that need it, and found it very straightforward.”

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Jess Bowie
About the author

Jess Bowie is CSW's editor. She tweets as @CSWEditor. Clare Moriarty was photographed by Paul Heartfield

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