Ten years of the Civil Service Awards: a judge’s eye view

Written by Björn Conway on 22 June 2015 in Opinion

Ahead of tonight’s ceremony celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Civil Service Awards, Björn Conway of EY shares his experience of being a judge, and why he believes it's important to celebrate the achievements of civil servants

It’s the tenth anniversary of the Civil Service Awards, and the fifth year that I’ve been involved. Time really has flown. I remember first getting involved in the awards after an enthusiastic introduction from our global marketing director, quickly followed by a meeting with the then-cabinet secretary, Lord O’Donnell, and attending my first awards presentation at Lancaster House. Our involvement is popular and motivating for our own staff as well as, I hope, for the civil service. 

My own background is a healthy mix of private and public sector work, generally with a good dose of strategy, change and programme delivery thrown in. As a former engineer, I’m pragmatic and not too bad with numbers. I look for cases that approach challenges from a new perspective and deliver something tangible but not necessarily measurable. What really strikes me is the diversity of the submissions – they cover everything from improving operations and inspiring staff at the front line to developing innovative policies and running very large and complex programmes. I have seen many great examples of achievement, and in early meetings with fellow judges, clear winners emerge quickly. 

The greatest change over the last few years has been the considerable improvement in the quality of submissions. Read in isolation, many of them could be deemed worthy of an award. There is still the odd project that is too early in its life to have demonstrated benefits, but in general the decisions are really difficult. 

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The judge’s meetings are quite intense affairs. In the room are many of the most experienced permanent secretaries in Whitehall and each one has reviewed the cases, identified their key points and order of preference, and comes prepared for debate. It’s a very positive experience, and although we know we're seeing the best of the civil service in the 600-plus submissions, it's our job to work out which is the most deserving of recognition. It's great knowing that by the time the short list reaches us, we are reviewing the group of finalists who will get to attend the awards ceremony – which this year takes place in Buckingham Palace.

After a bit of small talk, the process gets under way. Una O’Brien, permanent secretary at the Department of Health and panel chair, gets us started with a brief introduction and the first case category is reviewed. Each judge takes it in turn to set out which they think is the most deserving submission and why. We move around the table until everyone has spoken – perm secs who have submissions from their own departments are careful to abstain from the debate unless they're required for background detail. 

In some cases, there is a clear leader and we move on. For others, it's much closer, and if we don't decide through friendly debate we will come back to it later. By the end of the judges' meeting, we will have a near-complete list of winners. The themes running through the awards have inevitably changed as we’ve moved through different governments and into a more austere environment, but the impact of the programmes and initiatives being undertaken by the civil service are stronger than ever.

To celebrate the awards' 10th anniversary year, we're launching the 2015 awards with a past award winners celebration in Lancaster House tonight. I’m really looking forward to meeting some of the early award winners and catching up with those I've reviewed over the last few years. It is going to be very interesting to see how they have got on and what new stories they have to tell.

You can visit the dedicated site for this year's Civil Service Awards here

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Björn Conway
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Björn Conway is EY government and public sector leader

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