Shan Morgan interview: Welsh Government perm sec on Brexit, future-proofing the civil service and how a globe-trotting career led her back to her roots
Taking up the post as permanent secretary of the Welsh Government was a homecoming for Dame Shan Morgan after a career that has taken her around the world. She talks to Richard Johnstone about devolved taxes, Brexit talks, and Patagonian adventures
Photos by Louise Haywood-Schiefer
Dame Shan Morgan’s career has taken her from Brussels to Buenos Aires but there has always been, she says, a thread tugging her back to her Welsh roots. In February 2017 that connection finally brought her to Cardiff as permanent secretary of the Welsh Government. Yet even on the other side of the world, when she was the UK ambassador to Argentina and Paraguay, Morgan was linked to the Welsh diaspora.
“I remember my grandmother, when I was very small, talking about the Welsh community in Patagonia,” Morgan tells Civil Service World at the Welsh Government’s Whitehall offices. “I thought, ‘oh, I don’t believe that’. Then, lo and behold I went to Argentina.
“One of the strongest memories I have is my first official visit as ambassador – going down to part of the Welsh community in Patagonia and giving a speech in Welsh to celebrate the twinning of one of the towns there with Aberystwyth – which is the town where a lot of my family are from. So, yes, there has been quite a thread.”
Morgan’s parents were Welsh speakers, and although she didn’t live in Wales while growing up (her father was in the RAF and her family were “London Welsh”) she made frequent visits and worked to learn the language. Add in the fact that, when working in Brussels, Morgan found herself representing the views of Wales and other devolved administrations on areas like transport and environment, and it’s clear her job now feels like a homecoming.
“All my holidays were in Wales when we were young and ever since we have gone back at least every year,” she says. “There has always been a very powerful pull towards Wales, and there was something a bit unresolved, in a way. This was a great opportunity to go and live in Wales and to make a contribution, drawing on all of my experience from the whole of my career.”
That career started with the then Employment Department in 1977, working on youth and adult employment policy at the Manpower Services Commission. It has also taken her to posts at the British Embassy in Paris and the UK Permanent Representation to the EU (UKRep), as well as her four-year stint as an ambassador.
Life as an ambassador was both challenging and great fun, says Morgan, who held the post from 2008 to 2012, a time often marked by bellicose rhetoric from then Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner over the Falkland Islands.
Morgan visited the islands before taking up post but not while ambassador – “oh no, I would have been PNG’ed [made persona non grata] immediately”, she says – and whenever relations reached a low point, she would be called before the foreign minister.
This made for what she describes as “quite an extraordinary experience” where “I lived with half my stuff semi-packed just in case I did get PNG’ed because I’d have had about four hours to get out the country”.
“I love change and trying out different things. I want to create that for people and give them a chance to taste a different working environment”
Although it never came to this, Morgan recalls some moments when it seemed close. “I remember going to a big celebratory event with the reopening of the major opera there – a great big festive event – and we had just had a particularly difficult period with the Argentine government, to do with military exercises taking place in the Falklands.
“They objected to that, and I came along to this big celebratory event, and a number of my more forthright ambassador friends said, ‘I’m surprised to see you still here’. So, yes, that was interesting.”
Despite those tense moments, life in the diplomatic service was “always fascinating”, and Morgan evidently loved what she calls getting under the skin of a country.
One example stands out, she says. “The most unforgettable thing I did was join an expedition across the Andes on horseback, which is something one of the local governors did every year to celebrate a historic ride by one of their independence heroes to go and liberate Chile. They re-enact it every year and I was invited to join. It was fantastic – six days going across the Andes.”
Her fellow trippers “were delighted to discover that I didn’t expect any special treatment as ambassador”, says Morgan, who slept on the floor in a sleeping bag like everyone else.
And then for something completely different
Morgan’s diplomatic experience influenced her approach to leading the Welsh Government civil servants – though in this case she already knows the language (she describes her Welsh as “reviving”).
“I thought, I am going to treat this job a little like another posting to a new country,” she says. “Because Wales is a country with different politics, a different culture, different systems, a different language. I need to get under the skin of that country to be able to do my job properly.”
The vacancy came up after Morgan had moved from Buenos Aires to Brussels for a posting as UKRep’s deputy permanent representative, which also provided valuable experience as the Welsh Government now works on its Brexit preparations.
“The job vacancy came up when I had been in Brussels for four-and-a-half years and was starting to think about what I should do in the future,” she says. “In fact, it was the headhunters who got in touch with me – maybe my name had been suggested by various people – so they got in touch.
“I had the job in the back of my mind because I had always realised it would be a great organisation to work for, and the timing was right. So I thought: yes – this would be something completely different at a time when I’m up for something different.”
At UKRep, Morgan was involved in representing Britain in EU negotiations on devolved issues, which gave her an appreciation for the Welsh Government’s work.
“In Brussels, I was always very conscious that the legislation I was negotiating, once it came down to national legislation, was devolved. I was dealing with things like environment, transport, energy, social affairs – a wide range of things and most of which are devolved.
“So it always seemed right to me that I should understand the priorities of the three devolved administrations. I used to visit them every year and go and talk with their policy people, and I generally used to meet with Welsh ministers as well.”
Preparing for Brexit
This experience gives Morgan an ideal background for the job at a time when the Welsh Government is preparing for EU exit – and ministers are making the case for a soft Brexit.
Preparation for EU exit is “mainstreamed” across the administration, she says, with priorities set out in a series of white papers, including calls for access to the single market and membership of a customs union.
Given, though, that prime minister Theresa May has said the UK will leave the single market and will not remain in a customs union, what options do Morgan and her fellow civil servants prepare for?
“We are working with our colleagues in Whitehall to talk through what the potential implications might be for us, and just to flag up concerns as well,” she says, “so that colleagues understand the implications for the Welsh economy from certain courses of action.”
Morgan does this through her attendance at the “Wednesday morning colleagues” meetings of permanent secretaries chaired by cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood. She also has a monthly get together with Department for Exiting the European Union permanent secretary Philip Rycroft to discuss progress.
In particular, negotiations are under way between the UK and devolved governments about how EU powers – in the areas Morgan used to negotiate – will be handled after Brexit.
Cabinet Office minister David Lidington has said some areas may need action at a UK level to protect the UK internal market. He set out 24 areas – out of 155 policies affected by Brexit – where UK-wide “legislative common framework arrangements might be needed, in whole or in part”.
“This was a great opportunity to go and live in Wales and to make a contribution, drawing on all of my experience from the whole of my career”
Morgan says Welsh ministers “believe very strongly that powers coming back should go to the devolved administrations where they are part of the devolved settlement rather than coming via London”, but notes discussions are ongoing.
“I think it is really important to keep those contacts going and make sure people understand what our issues are and what we care about,” she adds.
Alongside work preparing for Brexit, the Welsh Government is also undertaking a number of other reforms, with Morgan leading a drive to get the civil service more closely aligned with the government’s priorities.
“I had a very clear mandate from the first minister [Carwyn Jones] when I arrived,” she says. “It was two fold really – to align the energy and resources of the Welsh Government much more closely with ministerial priorities and to boost the skills and the energy of the organisation.
“That is a more long-term thing and goes beyond any one administration, but he gave me those twin goals.”
This has led to what Morgan calls a “future-proofing” programme focused on improving the skills and systems of the Welsh Government.
“[We are] improving our appraisals system, talent management and promotion – making them more robust, more transparent and more consistent across the whole organisation,” says Morgan.
This has “been very much a bottom-up process of building in improvements based on our own experience of these kind of systems – boosting skills and training and trying to be more innovative and exciting”.
Although the plan “recognises we are in a situation of resource constraints”, Morgan says it is not just a response to austerity. “It is part of my job to hold down headcount, make sure the resources are focused in the right areas and that they are matched up to ministerial priorities, and get the most we possibly can out of the money we have available for training.” she says.
Steps so far include the Welsh Government securing a licence to hold hip TEDx conferences, and moves to make more secondments available, starting with internal posts – although Morgan hopes to expand opportunities to the voluntary and private sectors.
Morgan, who describes herself as a serial secondee, wants to give more people “a taste of doing things differently”, she says.
“That is something I’ve really enjoyed throughout my career. I started in the employment department at the Manpower Services Commission, and I moved via the Foreign Office to the Welsh Government. I love change and trying out different things and it has taught me a lot – just going and working in different places. I want to create that for people and give them a chance to taste a different working environment.”
Tax and spend
Another key reform is devolution of taxes to the Welsh Assembly, with Morgan’s first year marked by preparation for the introduction of Welsh versions of stamp duty and landfill tax from this month.
“That is something very exciting for us – from now Welsh taxes will be collected for the first time in 800 years,” says Morgan. “Colleagues have been working for about four years together to develop the policy, the legislation and the new Welsh Revenue Authority that is going to be taking that forward.”
This will be followed by devolution of a Welsh rate of income tax from April 2019, with responsibility for setting the rates separately for each band, meaning that from April 2019, the Welsh Government will control around £5bn of tax revenue managed by national and local government in Wales. Morgan describes it as “a significant step forward”.
“This is something very powerful, I think, in the public imagination and it is something we have worked hard to get right,” she says.
“It is a sign of maturity, isn’t it? Devolution is only 20 years old, but this is the sign of a mature government, having tax-raising powers, and we will work incredibly hard to make a success of it. We have got to – it will be a key part of our credibility.”
Helping to design taxes more tailored to Welsh economic circumstances is just one of the ways civil servants can make a difference to life in the country, and Morgan’s main reflection on her time in post so far has been the opportunities afforded by the closeness of the government to the people.
“Devolution is only 20 years old, but having tax-raising powers is the sign of a mature government, and we will work incredibly hard to make a success of it”
“In Whitehall, you look out the window and you see another Whitehall building, that is just how it is in a major city like London,” she says. “In our offices, including even in Cardiff because there are hills, you look outside and you can see your stakeholders. They’ve very visible – and we’re very visible. We’re under scrutiny, but that closeness is very powerful.”
This means the civil service in Wales is “small enough to really know each other but big enough to make a difference”.
“That is a bit different from Whitehall departments, where people are certainly committed to delivering quality results but it is bigger, it is wider, and it is perhaps not quite so immediate,” Morgan says.
“Everyone here is working to make a difference for the people of Wales – for their family, for their neighbours. It is a small country with a small population, but it is an ambitious country. We should be able to make a difference.”
Morgan’s early career was spent focused on employment and social affairs policy, working initially on employment and vocational training policy at the Manpower Services Commission. Her first job in Brussels was at the European Commission’s employment and social affairs directorate, working on policy on long-term unemployment and local economic development.
After returning to Britain, Morgan continued to work on labour market and employment policy, including a spell as private secretary to the permanent secretary at the Department of Employment. That led to her being named the UK’s government delegate to the International Labour Organisation’s governing body from 1994 to 1997.
In 1997, Morgan was seconded to the British Embassy in Paris as labour and social affairs attaché, before taking up her first appointment to the UK Representation in Brussels, leading on social, environmental and regional affairs.
After moving to the Diplomatic Service in 2006, she was ambassador to Argentina and Paraguay from 2008 to 2012, a period where she was made a companion of Order of St Michael and St George in recognition of services to UK interests in the EU.
Following this posting, Morgan returned to UKRep as deputy permanent representative in July 2012, leading negotiations in areas such as climate change, environment and energy, fisheries, social affairs and health, and transport, before taking up post as the Welsh Government’s perm sec in February 2017. In the Queen’s Birthday Honours last year Morgan was made a Dame Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George.
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