By Tevye Markson

17 Jul 2023

Against a tempestuous backdrop of industrial action and concerns over staff morale, civil service chief operating officer Alex Chisholm tells Tevye Markson how he is working to make government better and civil servants happier

For a man who quips that his “daily agenda” is to make people happy, civil service chief operating officer Alex Chisholm is remarkably calm in the face of this year’s People Survey results.

Published in March, the results show dissatisfaction with pay is at its highest level since the survey was launched 14 years ago and falling scores in all themes – results which have been reflected in the biggest wave of civil service strikes in decades.

Despite all this, and a weighty reform agenda to deliver, Chisholm says he does not find his job stressful.
“I like to be in the centre of things. I like to be very busy,” he says.

“Someone once defined stress to me as being asked to do things that you didn’t want to do. Pursuing a modernised, reformed civil service that works really well for ministers, civil servants and the public – that is what I want to do, so I don’t find that stressful.” 

Announcing the Civil Service People Survey results internally in December, Chisholm and cabinet secretary Simon Case told officials the worsening scores reflected “a difficult year with significant political turbulence and media commentary, the pressures of international events, a challenging economic climate and, in many areas, change and disruption”. The last year alone has brought two changes in prime minister, a multitude of ministerial shakeups, a shock permanent secretary sacking and relentless attacks in the press on the so-called civil service “blob”.

As well as anger over pay, satisfaction with “leadership and managing change” dropped four percentage points and a higher proportion of respondents said they wanted to leave the civil service. But sitting in his office at 70 Whitehall, Chisholm says the survey results were “not bad, actually”.

“Overall, 65% of people responded, which is incredibly high. Most public services, not just here but elsewhere, are 30% or lower, so that’s good. And I think the overall engagement score fell by one percentage point – obviously it’s disappointing to go down rather than up, but we have been going up every year up until that.”

He accepts that in some areas, however, the scores are more problematic.

Pay “was particularly painful”, Chisholm says, because inflation shot up between March 2022, when last year’s pay remit was published, and October, when the survey ran.

The mismatch between last year’s average 2-3% pay rises and rocketing inflation has culminated in months of strikes – not just in the civil service but across the public sector. 

When we met, the government and unions were in deadlock over pay but Chisholm voiced hope over the situation, saying “the pay environment is improving” for the civil service overall, and expressing the hope that this would lead to better relations with unions. 

Improved relations seemed a pretty distant hope at the time of the interview, with the government refusing to renegotiate civil servants’ pay, let alone meet the demands of PCS – the civil service’s biggest union – for a 10% bump. But by early June things did look more promising. The government offered concrete talks with unions and, a few days later, a new 2023-24 pay deal which included a £1,500 one-off payment for all officials under the remit. The three main civil service unions welcomed the offer, which sweetens the 4.5%-5% current-year deal for rank-and-file civil servants that was tabled in April. And last week, government anounced it would give senior civil servants a pay rise of 5.5%, but without the one-off payment.

The other area where Chisholm says there were “really significant issues” in the People Survey was leadership and managing change. The Cabinet Office, where Chisholm is permanent secretary, scored lower than any other department on this metric. Just 38% of its staff who filled out the survey said they were satisfied with this aspect of their jobs (down from 49% in 2021), compared to the civil service-wide average of 54% (down from 58%).

Just 21% of Cabinet Office respondents said change was managed well in the department, and only 16% felt changes were usually made for the better. These scores were down by 10 and 13 percentage points respectively, compared to the year before. By contrast, most other government organisations saw 3 and 4 percentage-point drops.

Chisholm says the drop, while “obviously disappointing”, is largely due to the amount of change in the last year at the Cabinet Office. “It’s exciting being at the centre of government, at the nerve centre, but sometimes, it can be even more than exciting. So I think that did affect a number of our colleagues,” he says – echoing his recent comments to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee that the “sheer rate of change” in policy focus had “discombobulated” civil servants.

The department also had the highest proportion of respondents who said they wanted to leave the organisation within a year, at 45%.

Chisholm says this is also due to the pace of change at the department, with people moving on quickly once the project they are working on ends. “We had people who were very focused on Brexit – and then we had people who came in to help with Covid,” he says.“I think at its peak, the Covid Task Force was 350 people. It doesn’t exist any more.”

To address declining satisfaction levels, the department has put in place a programme called A Better Cabinet Office, which is “working on all the things that staff have said they want – better skills, more opportunities for progression, operating across the UK, tackling respect and inclusion issues, and more scope for innovation,” Chisholm adds.

“Pursuing a modernised, reformed civil service that works really well for ministers, civil servants and the public – that is what I want to do, so I don’t find that stressful”

Major upheaval has been happening beyond the Cabinet Office, too – most notably, Rishi Sunak’s surprise creation of three new departments in February. 

But while machinery of government changes are often viewed with apprehension, Chisholm says the departmental switcheroo has provided a valuable opportunity for reducing replication of support services and building collaboration in areas such as cybersecurity and digital.

Another change in approach was Sunak’s decision to scrap Boris Johnson’s plan to cut 91,000 civil service jobs as a route to improve government efficiency.

Chisholm explains how Sunak has in some ways reverted to the strategy he set out as chancellor in the 2021 Spending Review to reduce the “non-frontline” civil service headcount to pre-pandemic levels by 2024-25.

“If you look at the published data about where we’re adding roles, they are still very much frontline roles. The Ministry of Justice have added some roles, the Home Office have added some roles, whereas some other departments have been able to reduce their net numbers, including the Cabinet Office,” he says.

“That’s not to say that we don’t value so-called back office roles, because very often they are doing important management or professional activity, which is necessary. But the philosophy of SR21 was to try and put your marginal pound into frontline public services and relieving backlogs and that’s still the philosophy of the government,” he adds.

Chisholm – who last year told CSW there were “clearly” too many civil servants relative to what was affordable – sees reducing the number of administrative staff, through automation and more data-sharing, as the key to unlocking a more efficient workforce. 

“I think that the sort of trick we need to try and pull in future is to be able to accelerate some of these transformation programmes where – if you look at DWP, HMRC, the Home Office and other big operational departments – they’ve got a lot of people still involved in the administration of public services and some of those activities are time consuming and not that rewarding,” he says.

As well as reducing overall numbers, he says redesigning some of these services will free up staff to focus on “higher-value-added work”. This will require investment in new systems and skills, he says. 

There’s plenty in motion, then, and plenty of challenges ahead, but there are also signs that earlier reform efforts are starting to bear fruit. Take the Places for Growth drive to move officials out of London. This is, he says, what civil servants are most likely to cite when he asks them what reforms have been successful – “the sense in which we are, more than ever before, a civil service that really operates across the whole of the UK”.

Some 11,000 jobs have moved out of the capital since 2020, meaning government is already half way towards its goal of moving 22,000 jobs by 2030. But the agenda “is not just a numbers game”, Chisholm says – what is more important is “who comes and works in the civil service, how they work, and how that’s helping us to change”.

Chisholm has spoken in the past about his memories of the Thatcher and Major-era Next Steps reforms, which coincided with his early years as a civil servant and saw the creation of delivery-focused agencies often based outside of London. 

In 2020, he told CSW this had been an  “exciting programme” but the time may be right for “a more ambitious programme of thinking about where, and how work is best done”.

In helping to realise Places for Growth, along with other reforms such as bringing in functional skills and fostering more delivery expertise, Chisholm is at the heart of change that has been building across government for almost all of his career. It’s perhaps no wonder that he finds this especially motivating: “The spirit, particularly the kind of campus-type environment we’ve been able to create in Darlington, is really exciting and energising.” 

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