Olympics delivery lessons being examined for Brexit project management, says DExEU DG

Written by Richard Johnstone on 14 March 2017 in News

Sarah Healey says response to Brexit shows the civil service at its best

The Whitehall department in charge of negotiating Britain’s exit from the European Union is examining lessons from cross-government projects such as the 2012 London Olympics to develop structures for implementing Brexit, its director general has said.

Speaking at an Institute for Government event last night, Sarah Healey, the director general at Department for Exiting the EU, said although there had “never been anything quite like this before”, much of its work was in “quite traditional civil service tasks that are not necessarily totally particular to Europe”.

The need to work on legislation and parliamentary process, as well as implementation of the exit agreement, meant the department would take a collaborative approach to the Brexit process, Healey said.

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Civil servants across departments were working together “enthusiastically and with a real sense of common purpose”, she added. “There’s an understanding that if we fall into siloed ways of working, we won’t be able to achieve what we need to achieve with this project.”

Asked by CSW what Whitehall projects the department could learn from to manage the Brexit process, Healey highlighted the delivery of the Olympics as something that had been examined.

Having moved to DExEU from the Department for Culture Media and Sport, Healey said she had spoken to several former colleagues about what lessons could be drawn.

“Obviously there are differences, but I think there is huge value in learning from the cross-government effort,” she said. “During the Olympics, it was very clear what individual departments were responsible for, but there was clearly a place in which an overview was taken, so I think there are analogies there in how DExEU works.”

Reflecting on the formation of the department ahead of the formal start of the exit negotiations this month once prime minister Theresa May triggers Article 50, Healey said the quickness of the response showed the civil service at its very best.

“I am hugely proud of the department that has delivered a substantial white paper and which, at some point this month, will move to Article 50 and into negotiation mode,” she said.

“The civil service is often criticised for being slow to react to change, or slow to adapt to different circumstances, and in this situation it is spectacularly fast and moved very quickly to get things done.”

She told attendees that the creation of DExEU had been helped by improvements to the finance and human relations functions in Whitehall.

Forming a new department was very challenging, she said, but improvements in corporate functions had allowed for a basic structure to be put in place quickly.

“I think the civil service, probably about 10 years ago, when I think of other machinery of government changes I’ve been involved in, didn’t have a strong central HR function, didn‘t have a strong central finance function,” she started.

“Those sorts of things ­– where you can very quickly draw on them to set up new functions within departments and you can have those central functions – didn’t exist. It was made much easier for us having those to draw on, and we established the basics of the structure of the department very, very quickly.”

Reflecting on the work that has been done since the department was formed out of the Cabinet Office’s EU Unit after Theresa May was named prime minister last July, Healey said a standalone department was “the only thing that could have been done”.

“When you think about the legislative programme that we have had, the parliamentary activity we have been involved with, the legislation that we have to come and the scale of the task, I think it would have been quite challenging to have done that from a unit within the Cabinet Office,” she stated.

“I think being a separate government department is pretty much the only way we could have conceived of the scale of what we’ve been undertaking, with four very busy ministers talking to stakeholders in the House of Commons and the House of Lords all the time.”

However, Healey would not be drawn on how long the department would remain in place, saying only that it was a time limited department.

“I wouldn’t have thought that DExEU will be a permanent part of the landscape because at some point we will have exited the European Union, so it is pure speculation to think about when we might cease to need that coordinating function and move responsibilities into departments. We will, I’m sure, reach that stage.”

Asked if the department would need to bring in additional capacity, such as lawyers to determine the issues that need legislation in the future, Healey replied “not particularly”.

She highlighted the fact that cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood was confident the civil service would be able to implement manifesto polices alongside Brexit.

“It is a case of marshalling exiting resources in the best possible way,” she told event chair and IfG programme director Jill Rutter.

“The Great Repeal Bill will obviously be a really significant piece of legislation, it doing quite major and making sure the legal system works after Brexit is absolutely vital. The aim of the Great Repeal Bill is to offer maximum certainty, as much certainty as possible, that how things work the day after exit is how they were working the day before, while obviously removing the direct influence of EU law on the UK. So that is a very significant lot of work.”

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Richard Johnstone
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Richard Johnstone is CSW's online and deputy editor. He tweets as @RichRJohnstone

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