'2020 was truly a tipping point for HS2': DfT perm sec Bernadette Kelly on a year of getting 'shovels in the ground', and frustrating media battles

2020 was a year unlike any other, with the coronavirus pandemic upending the work of government and changing how we live our daily lives. Senior figures from across the civil service tell us how the unprecedented 12 months affected them, and look ahead to 2021
Department for Transport permanent secretary Bernadette Kelly. Photo: Louise Haywood-Schiefer

By Civil Service World

22 Dec 2020


What am I proudest of my Department achieving in 2020?

I suspect I am going be one of a large chorus saying the response in my Department to COVID was phenomenal.  The way people didn’t drop a beat in adapting to lockdown working, instantly threw themselves into the task of responding to the crisis - in our case, keeping the transport network running safely –  and worked tirelessly and at pace was tremendous.   And the way people supported each other in their teams was just brilliant.  Made me extraordinarily proud to be a civil servant and part of the Department for Transport. Although the year was inevitably dominated by COVID,  our big portfolio of projects has kept us busy in DfT too. 2020 was truly a “tipping point” for HS2 -  shovels are now firmly in the ground after a huge amount of work to ensure it’s on a sound footing for successful delivery in future.  With Highways England we opened the A14 Huntington road scheme – the biggest in the UK – ahead of schedule, and we saw the last of 122 InterCity Express Programme trains delivered – if you’ve travelled by train from London to Bristol, Cardiff or Newcastle in the past year you will probably have been on one of these.   We’ve had a big push on walking and cycling during COVID, and hopefully some of these active travel habits will stick beyond the pandemic.   Finally, within the Department we really stepped up our game on D&I and especially action on race in 2020 – still a long way to go but I believe we’ve now got a plan which will make a real difference to how we look in 2025.

Hardest part of being a leader in 2020?

Hard to choose!  The relentless pace, “always on” nature of remote working, tedium of endless zoom calls and challenges of navigating how decisions were being made all made life difficult at time.   Some of the things I love about my job – like meeting new joiners to DfT, or our Summer interns, or getting around the country to see some of the great things being achieved in transport – just aren’t the same virtually.   I personally found it frustrating that in such a challenging environment, the narrative of a battle between politicians/SPADs and the civil service was playing out in the media.  Fortunately that was very far from our experience in DfT but it was still demotivating for people who were working incredibly hard responding to the crisis.  On a happier note, I think COVID has brought us closer together as colleagues and leaders in lots of ways  - my WhatsApp habit has snowballed and it’s become a great source of advice and mutual support (and occasionally gossip of course).

Main challenges for DfT in 2020?

So many.  There’s a lot of uncertainty about how transport will recover post-COVID – for example how much long-term change we will see in commuting – so we need to work this through.  Transport plays a huge part in decarbonisation and levelling up so we are going to be busy.  And of course, we’ll be grappling with what the new normal feels like in DfT post-COVID – trying to make some of the good changes we’ve seen, like more flexible working, and improvements in senior visibility and on inclusion, stick.   But we have to get through Christmas and the end of the EU transition period first.   Transport is often in the headlines during the Christmas/New Year holiday is often but this year could be something else! 

People will have to be more creative about celebrating this year. How will you make the festive period on Zoom special?

Mostly by spending as little time as I possibly can on Zoom or Teams.    Exercise has been harder to fit in during the dark lockdown days of November/December.   The restrictions mean we won’t be entertaining or eating out as much so I’m determined to use the time to get out and about on the South Downs where I live (and not spend it on the sofa watching Christmas TV!).

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