‘I never dreamt we’d get Buckingham Palace’: the history of the Civil Service Awards

Written by Tamsin Rutter on 14 May 2018

With nominations open for the Civil Service Awards 2018, former cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell and his then-communications chief Siobhan Benita tell us to how it all began

When Whitehall & Westminster World (as Civil Service World was then-known), first cooked up a proposal for the Civil Service Awards 2006, it was met with a good deal of scepticism. Civil servants, as a rule, aren’t known for their love of the limelight.

But when the idea came to the attention of then cabinet secretary Gus (now Lord) O’Donnell, it quickly gained momentum. He was new in post, and looking for a way to bring his strategic vision for the civil service – his four P’s of pride, passion, pace and professionalism – to life.

It was also struck him as a good way to put out a positive message to counteract regular tabloid coverage, then as now, painting officials as staid, faceless and overpaid bureaucrats. It was an opportunity to showcase the good work of departments that don’t often get credit – “some, like the Home Office, that are always under the cosh as we’re seeing now, [and] ones like transport that are hidden away but doing great things”, O’Donnell tells CSW.

“There are all sorts of consequences of failure in the civil service – the Public Accounts Committee and all the rest of it – and I was always very critical of the fact that they only ever looked at failures, never at successes,” he says. “I thought, how could we try to change the culture of celebrating things that had gone well and being able to learn from them? Hence the Civil Service Awards.”

His communications chief, Siobhan Benita - now a co-director of the Warwick Policy Lab - led Cabinet Office efforts to get the Awards off the ground. The biggest challenge, she tells CSW, was getting departments engaged and reassuring people at the centre that it wasn’t going to cost too much. O’Donnell was at that time pushing for his workforce to start recognising themselves as “one civil service”, and the Awards fitted that agenda. “I think it was the first time any cabinet secretary had thought so much about getting this sense of, we’re all in this together,” Benita says. He first introduced the concept at Wednesday Morning Colleagues and, she adds, all the permanent secretaries of the day swiftly got behind it.

The Awards were developed in tandem with another project that aimed to unite the workforce: Civil Service Live, the government’s annual, cross-department learning event. The Diversity and Equality (now Inclusion) Awards, meanwhile, were a popular spin-off, reflecting O’Donnell’s committment to that agenda.

The first ever Civil Service Awards, celebrated in Lancaster House and presented by BBC journalist Andrew Marr, were more successful than anyone had anticipated. With more than 600 nominations submitted, the shortlisting process turned out to be more work than the organisers had planned – and deadline day preceded a hectic weekend for those manually inputting details from paper-based entries into a spreadsheet.

These nominations showcased the breadth of what government does. For O’Donnell, it was partly about showing that the civil service was worth more than the sum of its Whitehall-based, senior policy professionals – and Benita highlights winners from over the years who’ve developed tags for tracking fish, worked in conflict zones such as the Congo, and assisted Japan after its 2011 tsunami, as well as departmental teams creating more efficient processes that save public money. There have always been ways to celebrate achievement at the very top of the civil service – the honours system, for one – so this was about “the people doing great things quite often outside London and quite often at lower grades”, O’Donnell explains.

The former cabinet secretary wrote for CSW’s winners supplement in 2006 that the Awards, he hoped, had gone “a long way to dispelling the myth that the civil service is a collection of Sir Humphreys who retire to their clubs every evening before heading off to the opera at Covent Garden”.

In the early years, O’Donnell was looking for examples of innovation, people who’d taken risks, and projects that had broken through Whitehall’s silos. The Awards coincided with the now abolished Public Service Agreements, which required departments to collaborate on solutions to cross-cutting issues such as raising productivity, promoting wellbeing, and leading global efforts on tackling climate change. “I wanted to try and get examples of pieces of work which had crossed departmental boundaries, and that showed that people could collaborate,” he says.

The Gus O’Donnell Award for Outstanding Performance was handed out twice in 2006, to an individual, Sorwar Ahmed of the Pension Service, and to a team, the Department for Work and Pensions’ Disability and Carers Service Contact Processing Unit. Both were commended for improvements made to customer service, which O’Donnell recalls was “very much” a focus for him.

“I’d always thought that we needed to make the point that public services were there to deliver for customers and it should all be about customer satisfaction,” says the former cab sec. “A good public service is one that cares about its customers even though you’re not charging them.”

In 2007, the cabinet secretary’s award went to a Northern Ireland Office team working on the peace process, while in 2009 O’Donnell decided to hand it to the whole of Jobcentre Plus, in recognition of the extra work staff had done to help people hit by the recession back into work or training. “In a year when the demand on the services they provide has soared, their work has been outstanding,” he said, at the fourth Civil Service Awards.

Some of the awards handed out in the beginning, including for communications, leadership and operational delivery, have featured near enough every year since 2006. Other award categories have evolved over time, reflecting priorities within the government of the day. In 2007 for example, a technology category was introduced, which became “science and technology” in 2008 and “science, engineering and technology” in 2009. From 2014, there was a digital award in play.

The Awards have always been well supported by prime ministers of the day. Gordon Brown came to the ceremony in 2007 and 2008. Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg attended in 2010 (as did then home secretary Theresa May), and again in 2014. David Cameron was there for 2011, 2013 and 2014. May sent a  video message thanking civil servants in 2016 and 2017.

The big prize

In 2010, the five-year anniversary of the Awards, its organisers secured for the ceremony what O’Donnell describes as “the big prize”: Buckingham Palace. “I hadn’t even dreamt that we would get that,” he says.

The civil servants in attendance loved it, he adds. “We had the queen going round one way, and Prince Philip going round the other way in this big room in Buckingham Palace. You could tell where Prince Philip was cos there was always laughter, and I’d think, Oh my God, he’s being his typical politically incorrect self. And he was. It was great.”

Benita also recalls that the royal pair spent a long time talking to guests that evening. “For, in particular, junior civil servants who maybe hadn’t even been to Whitehall before to then get to have this amazing evening in Buckingham Palace, that was just incredible,” she says. “That really established the awards as a permanent feature, an annual highlight for the civil service.”

O’Donnell also believes the event did a lot for civil service morale. “Whatever kind of press coverage you might get, if the Queen is letting us use Buckingham Palace and being supportive of the whole thing, and the prime minister’s there saying thank you, then they begin to realise that what they do really matters.”

2010 also marked the arrival of a new government, and the start of Francis (now Lord) Maude’s five-year tenure as Cabinet Office minister. The civil service reform agenda was mirrored by a new award category in 2010, “more for less”, which was swiftly revised to “better for less” in 2011. By 2014 it had become the award for “excellence in civil service reform”. Oliver Letwin, a Cabinet Office minister from 2010, also made his mark with the award for clarity, which reflected his concerns about civil servants’ abilities to express themselves coherently in briefing papers.

O’Donnell was succeeded by Sir Jeremy Heywood in 2012, which was when the cabinet secretary role was temporarily split and Bob (now Lord) Kerslake took on the job of head of the civil service. That year there was a “head of the civil service” award, while Dame Una O’Brien, then permanent secretary at the Department of Health, took on a newly created role as Civil Service Awards champion. This role has been held by Richard Heaton, Ministry of Justice perm sec, since 2016.

Another special award was handed out in 2012, to recognise the efforts of civil servants who delivered the London Olympic and Paralympic Games. More than 100 entries were submitted for this category alone, and it was won by a team from the Ministry of Defence. Lord Sebastian Coe, the British Olympic Association chair, was one of the judges.

From 2013, the award categories began reflecting government priorities on growing the economy. That year there was an award for “growth”, the following year there was one for “supporting enterprise”, and in 2015 for “supporting productivity”.

The Awards were once again held at Buckingham Palace in 2015. Björn Conway, government and public sector leader for EY, wrote a piece for CSW to mark the 10-year anniversary – he’d been a judge for five years and EY had been involved from the very beginning. He wrote: “The greatest change over the last few years has been the considerable improvement in the quality of submissions.” He also provided insight into the judges’ meetings, which he described as “quite intense affairs”, with experienced permanent secretaries who had reviewed all the submissions and come “prepared for debate”.

O’Donnell is pleased the Awards have stood the test of time. Last year there were almost 900 submissions despite preparations being thrown off-kilter by purdah rules governing the snap general election. In 2016 there were over 1,000 entries.

Benita, meanwhile, says “there was definitely more of a sense of pride” among civil servants when she left government, in 2012, which she attributes in part to the Awards. It is the kind of celebration that’s taken for granted in private sector organisations but hadn’t been done before in government, she says.

“The civil service can be a really hard place to work and things do go wrong sometimes, and we have to hold our hands up when they go wrong… but it’s nice to know that there are these moments where you can celebrate all of the fantastic things that are done as well.”

Nominations are now open for the 2018 Civil Service Awards.

The Civil Service Awards Community is a new section on Civil Service World that aims to celebrate past winners, inspire people to nominate in 2018, and help us all to learn from good practice. If you’ve ever won or been shortlisted for an award, register your interest to hear about future events and projects for awards alumni