People person: an interview with Clare Moriarty as she leaves the civil service

Written by Jess Bowie on 16 April 2020 in Interview
Interview

Her career as a civil servant may have come to an end, but Clare Moriarty is still driven by a desire to change things, and a commitment to supporting others. She talks to Jess Bowie about the challenge of shutting down DExEU, the importance of emotion, and whether the civil service is as inclusive as it says it is

Clare Moriarty has had quite the year. Shortly after she became head of the Department for Exiting the EU last April, her mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. When she herself was unexpectedly recalled after a mammogram in July that year, she was familiar enough with the process – after attending numerous appointments with her mum – to ask questions that got straight to a diagnosis. 

That summer, against the backdrop of wondering about her health, and what treatment she and her mother would need respectively, the Conservative leadership contest was unfolding. 

“We knew we were going to get a new prime minister. We weren’t absolutely sure who it was going to be, but we knew we would have to run pretty fast at what was traditionally a ‘holiday time’ of the year,” Moriarty recalls. 

Asked how she managed to stay focused at work during a period of such incredible personal stress, Moriarty says one image kept occurring to her that seemed to fit her situation. 

“You know those miniature trains that keep going round and round the same few stops? So three of the stops on my train track were: work, my mum’s health and my own health. Then the fourth stop was my two kids, who were starting university in September. That was a huge upheaval for them and for us. So I just went round my four stops: work, my mum’s health, my health, the kids going to university – and then back round again. Sometimes it felt like my head was going to explode.” 

Each stop on this unenviable train ride came with a massive dose of uncertainty, not least work. Knowing the new government would depart from Theresa May’s Brexit plans, but not knowing how, meant the DExEU perm sec and her staff had to keep planning against multiple scenarios. 

In the end though, work did still offer the opportunity to take action – rather than just waiting for test results and appointments to come round. “I said to colleagues: ‘Let’s allow ourselves to look at and talk about the uncertainty, and then let’s go and do something,’” Moriarty says. “There was always something we could make progress with, and concentrating on that was, in many ways, a relief from other things.” 

Moriarty, who had a mastectomy last summer, radiotherapy in the autumn and is now waiting for a course of bone strengthening treatment, describes herself as “basically fine”. Her mum’s lung cancer is not going away but has responded to immunotherapy, which has had a big impact on her quality of life. “But, you know, she is now in the shielding category for Covid-19. You never stop worrying.”


Since social distancing started, Moriarty has been at home in the Hampshire village of Steep. (After an attempt to speak to CSW on FaceTime is thwarted by patchy wifi, our interview takes place via old fashioned landline.) It is only a few days after she has formally left the civil service and she is helping to coordinate the local volunteer group.

Does part of her wish she could go back and be helpful during the unprecedented national crisis represented by coronavirus?

“The honest answer is, it’s really, really difficult not being part of something as big as this,” she says. “It is the moment when public service values very much come to the fore. But sometimes the most helpful thing you can do is not to get in the way. The thing about crisis management is that it has to be about roles: you are always secondary to the role you play. If you have a role to play, it’s really important you play that role, and if you don’t have a role to play, it’s really important you don’t get under the feet of people who do. So I am trying to think about the best way I can be helpful, which may be standing back and being available for people who just want a conversation and to talk through what they’re doing in the leadership of their organisation.”  

My experience is: emotion is there. It’s like vulnerability – you don’t choose whether to be vulnerable or not, you just choose whether to show it

From the outpouring of praise and appreciation from officials when her departure was announced, it was clear lots of people thought Moriarty had further to go in the civil service. “This is sad news,” CSW columnist and former senior civil servant Andrew Greenway tweeted. “I’ve often been critical of leadership in the CS. Clare was a perm sec who espoused the best of the service’s traditional strengths while pushing it towards the internet era. Her empathy and ability will be much missed.” 

As this tribute implies, Moriarty developed a leadership style that felt refreshingly open and modern in a civil service that talks the inclusivity talk, but doesn’t always walk the walk. Many wanted to see her take her this model of stewardship to the very top of the organisation. It was a surprise then when news emerged a few weeks ago that – after seven departments and 35 years – she would be leaving the civil service at the end of March.  

Why did she leave?   

“I’ve been a civil servant all my career, and a change agent all my life. There is a bit of me that constantly wants to see what more I can do and whether there is something different I can do to change the world. So I had always thought that I might end up taking everything I’ve learned in the civil service and put it into practice in a different environment,” she says.

“What the somewhat abrupt closure of DExEU did was that it created a rather sharp moment of decision. If I’d moved to another department I’d have been jumping in for the long haul – as a permanent secretary you need to stay long enough to shape and grow an organisation. So I got to a fork in the road more quickly and more starkly than I expected, and that crystallised this idea about doing something different.”  

As to what that something will be, Moriarty is still making up her mind. She is “not necessarily looking for a portfolio career” – the chosen path for many a perm sec retiring from Whitehall. 

“I think my ideal would be a big executive role somewhere that shares some of the characteristics of the civil service in terms of purpose and values, but which offers a different kind of challenge.” She hints that the university sector might be one such destination, but for now seems to want to keep her cards close to her chest.


That the closure of DExEU represented a “sharp moment” for Moriarty’s 750-plus staff, as well as for her, was something keenly appreciated by the department’s former perm sec. After endless anonymous briefings to the papers in the months following Boris Johnson’s arrival in No.10, which cast doubt over whether the department would still exist beyond “Brexit Day” on January 31, there was – when official confirmation came that it would indeed close – further concern among DExEU staff who felt they were being “left hanging” without any clarity about their future roles. 

This publication often asks senior officials about their experience of setting up new departments. How did Moriarty navigate having to shut one down? “I remember somebody saying once that growing an organisation is intellectually hard and emotionally easy, whereas shrinking an organisation is intellectually easy and emotionally hard. And certainly, winding down the department was exactly in that category. 

“There were lots of practical things to do, but fundamentally the thing for me was: how do we treat 782 people as individuals? How do we treat them with respect and humanity in a world where we’re doing things at breakneck speed?”
In the run-up to DExEU’s closure, the tectonic plates of EU exit work were constantly shifting, with many unanswered questions about which functions would sit centrally and which officials would transfer to other departments. But, for the bits of it that were under DExEU’s control, Moriarty says one of “the absolute guiding principles” was openness.  

She says the process made her realise something about the civil service: that it treats people like grown-ups during discussions about policy, but not necessarily when it comes to talking about their own jobs.  

“I decided that if I didn’t know something, I would tell them that I didn’t know. And, if I told them something that then turned out to be untrue the next week, I would tell them that. So on one occasion, I said [to staff], ‘On the basis of my best understanding, this is what’s going to happen.’ Then there was a meeting and the plan changed. So the next week, I said, ‘Working in DExEU, you’re used to fast-moving policy changes, and now it’s happened in a world which has to do with our jobs rather than our policy.’”

While Moriarty’s decision to be as straight-talking as possible doubtless stopped morale in the department from completely falling over, she says the whole experience – particularly those final four weeks in January – was emotionally “very full on”. Rather than ignore the emotion, though, she encouraged DExEU’s senior leaders to acknowledge it and incorporate it into team discussions.

“My experience is: emotion is there. It’s like vulnerability – you don’t choose whether to be vulnerable or not, you just choose whether to show it. You don’t choose whether to have emotions, you only choose whether you’re going to bring them into the dialogue, and by doing so, better manage your own emotions and the context you set for other people. That’s one of my fundamental tenets, which was tested quite well and indeed with people whose background is in departments where that might be received with scepticism. And I did have a conversation with some of them afterwards and they said, ‘Actually, that really worked: we were able to do what we needed to do, difficult though it was, because we were actually being honest with each other about how we felt about things.’ ”    

By mentioning her “fundamental tenets”, she has preempted CSW’s next question. Moriarty is someone who has thought long and hard about leadership over her career and has previously talked about the principles that guide her thinking, and the “accidents” which helped her to identify them. On her final day in Whitehall, she put out a blog introducing Leadership in Action, eight attributes distilled from the experiences of leaders from different departments which she describes as the “north star” of leadership in the civil service.

A few days after our phone interview, she emails with a list of the key pillars of Moriartyism specifically – which have been honed over decades:

  • Leadership is making it possible for other people to do their best work.
  • Only do what only you can do.
  • Ask yourself what, in six months’ time, you’ll wish you’d done six months ago – and do it now.
  • The currency of leadership is attention – spend it wisely.
  • It’s OK to feel what you feel.

It would be remiss – in any discussion of Moriarty’s leadership philosophy – not to mention red shoelaces. As anyone who has even fleetingly glanced at Moriarty’s Twitter feed will know, she certainly talks about them a lot. The shoelaces are entirely figurative, reflecting well-meaning advice from colleagues a few years ago, who emphasised that conformity rather than difference would help Moriarty get through the door to perm sec level. 

“I’d started off in – metaphorically – colourful clothes, and imperceptibly changed over the years into sober ones until the only colourful bit left was bright red shoelaces,” she told last year’s Women Into Leadership conference. “Still, they said ‘can you not just take out the pesky red shoelaces while you get through the door? You can put them on again afterwards”. 

Moriarty on...Sir Philip Rutnam's resignation

My personal reaction is that I was really sad. Philip and I worked closely together in the Department for Transport, including in the very difficult period after the West Coast Main Line rail franchise award collapsed, when he was permanent secretary and I was the lead DG on the inquiries. He is somebody of incredibly high integrity – which you really saw in moments of crisis like that. So I have a huge amount of time for Philip and I’m really sorry that he’s gone because we need people like him in the civil service.

Moriarty replied “no”, saying that if they came out they would never go back in again. 

It was an admirable stance, of course, but surely in the intervening years things have changed? In 2020, with “inclusivity” the watchword among civil service leaders, do people on selection panels still care about the colour of shoelaces – or other comparable elements of nonconformity?

“I think we’re probably at the stage where there’s a gap between what people really think and what they think they think,” Moriarty says. “So I think people have moved into the space where they want to embrace nonconformity. They don’t want to be the person saying ‘will you take your red shoelaces out’ and I don’t think people would explicitly say something that translated as that. But we’re not yet at the stage where people realise that they might be creating an environment where people feel they need to take their red shoelaces out. The in-going proposition is, ‘Yes, of course, you know, we’re open to lots and lots of difference.’ And then if you look at the outcomes, there is still a bit of a tendency for people to opt for what they feel more comfortable with. We are clearly still acting out discomfort with those who don’t fit the norm.” 

Still, “singleton oddities” (a phrase Moriarty uses at one point to describe herself) have occasionally managed to get through. It is her hope that, having pushed at the door and shown a cadre of future leaders a different way of doing things, one day the door will be fully open – or better yet, be knocked down. 

When asked what she sees as her biggest achievement, she says: “Perhaps this is just too cheesy, but actually what I have been trying to do for about the last 15 years is grow the next generation of leaders. A community of people who are comfortable with leadership that takes as its premise: ‘It’s all about the people’ – and who will be around long after I’ve gone.” 

And, as her involvement in grassroots activities like the modernising OneTeamGov movement demonstrates, Moriarty has sought to foster this community not just in the perm sec pipeline but right across the civil service. 

“When I find people who want to change things and make a difference, I just try and make them feel that they’re not alone. And that if they hang on in there, there will be space and opportunity to make a difference. So that while there’s an inevitable sense of loss at my departure, I think the achievement is having nurtured a group of people who feel confident as changemakers and can take things further than I have in my time.” 


QUICK FIRE ROUND

What makes a good minister?

Self-confidence about being a politician. The best ministers really occupy the ministerial space with a high degree of confidence and know that there is a gap between that and the official space.

Favourite minister to work for?

Stephen Dorrell, when I was at Health. My abiding memory is of a meeting where there was some important policy under discussion. The officials came along with their advice and there was a good, back-and-forth debate for over half an hour, at the end of which Stephen Dorrell said, “Thank you very much. That was a fantastic discussion. I am now going to do the opposite of what you recommended. Because, politically, that’s what I need to do.” And that was absolutely fine. We’d had an evidence-based and respectful debate, where it had felt like he’d properly listened to what people were saying. And actually it’s right for ministers to have other things that they need to put into the mix.

Health, DWP, Justice, BEIS, DfT, Defra, DExEU. Which was your favourite?

This is really difficult. I think it has to be Defra, because that was the place where they gave me the keys to the bus and let me drive it. I finally had the opportunity to bring together lots of things I’d been thinking and was able to shape the department and do things with culture that I had just never been able to do. Because there are things you can do as a permanent secretary that you can’t do, even as a DG. So I think Defra will always have a special place in my heart.

Most Thick Of It Moment?

When I was about 30, I was finalising the report of a review of NHS central management. We’re talking early 1990s, so we did just about have computers. But there was only me and an executive officer, and we were running round doing everything. We sent it off to the printers late one night and when it came back there was one section that was complete gobbledygook. I realised that when I was very tired I must have leant on the keyboard and inserted a string of random characters into the text. The report was distributed quite widely in the NHS. We had managed to put a correction slip in with it, but for months afterwards there was this conspiracy theory going round about the hidden message in the gobbledygook letters.

Biggest regret or disappointment?

I think it’s the consequences of always moving on. So being a human cannonball, constantly hoicked out of things and fired to other places – never quite getting to finish what I was doing, right back to one of my early jobs when I was head of drug misuse prevention. As I leave, there’s loads more I wanted to do on leadership but I’m really pleased that on my very last day we launched Leadership in Action, which feels like a great parting gift to the civil service.

 

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Jess Bowie
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Jess Bowie is editor of Civil Service World. She tweets as @JessBowie

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