By Suzannah Brecknell

20 Mar 2024

Looking back over four years as chief operating officer, Alex Chisholm shares what he’s proud of achieving, what he regrets, and what he will miss most about the job


In May 2022, Alex Chisholm took a risk: he made a prediction.

Speculating about the future is fraught enough for any government official. But it seems particularly bold for the man whose department closed nine days after he first became a permanent secretary and whose move into the part of government responsible for national contingency planning coincided with the emergence of a global pandemic.

The risk, admittedly, was a calculated one. Chisholm was setting out three key changes he would like people to notice about the civil service in 2024-25. And at that point, after two years as civil service chief operating officer and Cabinet Office permanent secretary, and with the worst of Covid-19 behind him, he had a pretty good idea about which changes he would be able to drive through.

By 2024, he said, the civil service would be more UK-wide. It would be getting better at using data to shape policy for delivery and solve problems and it would not be made up of people “sitting in offices, coming up with plans for the future, but [those] actually focused on delivering for citizens today, with a customer focus.”

As Chisholm sits down in February 2024 for his final interview in post, he smiles as CSW reminds him of what he said. “I agree with myself that those are still the most important things,” he says.

He’s smiling because he has a good story to tell on these things. He proceeds to set out progress on each of them, listing facts and figures from an extensive briefing sheet and, in doing so, confirming his claim to be a man who values facts, evaluation and data.

On the drive to be a UK-wide civil service, he points out that government has “smashed” its target of moving 15,000 roles out of London by 2025, having already moved 16,000, and has accelerated the Places for Growth programme so that the aim is now to move 22,000 roles by 2027 compared to an initial target of 2030.

The programme is also achieving its underlying goals, Chisholm says, with evaluations showing not only that new locations attract a more diverse set of civil servants but also that those people are staying in post longer than London-based colleagues. Geographic diversity also allows officials to build close links with local communities, business and civil society, which provides what he calls “a great antidote” to any tendency towards London-based thinking among policymakers.

Chisholm is confident that the change is now a settled part of civil service life. “With any big change in government, there’s often a moment where it’s almost suspended in midair and people question: ‘is this really going to be seen through?’ I think we’ve got over that point. It’s become part of a new normal.”

Chisholm on... Places for Growth
The ambition to relocate civil service jobs is nothing new, so what has made Places for Growth successful compared to other programmes? Chisholm points to two things which made a difference. First, that it had strong leadership from both political and official sides of government.  

“It wasn’t enough for Rishi Sunak when he was chancellor to say, I’d like to have an office in Darlington. It made as much difference for Tom Scholar as permanent secretary to say ‘and you can do any job with the Treasury from Darlington’ and for Beth Russell and all the other leaders to say ‘and I’m gonna work from there’.”

“The second factor that’s been very important in the success of this growth is actually in the locations themselves,” he says, describing a “gigantic co-ordination exercise” carried out by the Places for Growth team led by Ravi Chand. This requires balancing pull factors from towns and cities keen to attract civil service offices as part of their own growth or development plans as well as a “book building exercise” to get the right number of people into those offices.

Progress around PfG has been generally praised, but the IfG recently questioned whether the energy security department’s second HQ in Aberdeen would be able to achieve the goals of driving growth, diversity and new career paths for civil servants given the small numbers of officials located there.

“It’s undoubtedly the case that you need a critical mass to create the prospects of getting promoted and have a variety of roles,” Chisholm says, and this is harder to achieve in smaller locations.

But the critical mass, he suggests, doesn’t just need to be civil service roles. While Aberdeen is also home to the North Sea Transition Authority which employs lots of civil servants, he suggests that those who chose to work in these teams are likely to be specialists in things like offshore operations, carbon capture and storage – people who will be working closely with industry “and the industry is very big in Aberdeen”.

 “So I think the nature of the linkages will vary,” he says, “but you’re right that people need there is enough critical mass of one kind or another.”

Progress on the digital and data work is less obvious to outsiders. Much of the focus has been on foundational work such as tackling legacy systems and increasing government’s digital capability through a near-60% increase in the size of the digital and data profession.

Building up this particular cadre of professionals reflects the fact that digital is increasingly core to government’s work, he says. “We needed to not just see digital work as projects where you employ consultants and contractors, and then afterwards, you are left with no deep knowledge or familiarity with how to work those systems.

“Right across government, that’s been a massive change. Now we have a number of departments – I’d pick out HMRC and DWP as leading ones – where they really feel like digital departments. They’ve got really serious capability. We still use the private sector for certain things, but we don’t depend on them for everything. That’s absolutely transformational.”

One element which is obvious to those outside government is the rollout of GOV.UK One Login, a system that aims to make it easier for citizens to sign in to government services while saving money for departments. Chisholm notes that in his previous discussions with CSW this system was “a kind of gleam in my eye” but it is now used to access 26 government services. Four million “digital identities” have so far been issued, with that number set to grow rapidly as big service departments like HMRC begin to roll it out.

The public should also notice an improvement in the most commonly used government services, as the Central Digital and Data Office (part of the Cabinet Office) works towards a target of improving the “top 75 services” so that they are rated “Great” according to CDDO’s assessment system. This work, Chisholm says, will also help to address the final area he mentioned in 2022: the shift towards a delivery and customer-focused organisation.

The reason for picking 75 services, Chisholm explains, is that the CDDO found that there were 7,507 government services, with 1% of those responsible for around 80% of transactions. Using common methodologies and metrics, CDDO works with departments to improve these services. At the first assessment, nine of the 75 services were rated “Great”. Now, it’s 13 – and Chisholm “confidently” predicts that number will be doubled in a year or so.

While One Login and other digital services aim to improve citizen experience while increasing efficiency, Chisholm mentions another piece of work that focuses on the experience and efficiency of civil servants themselves. The interoperability programme – he acknowledges the name is a mouthful – aims to remove barriers that stop civil servants from working across different parts of government. That means practical things like a single pass that allows them to easily visit – or work from – different government buildings (the GovPass system now has 112,000 active users) or a standardised wifi network, which means they can easily get online in those buildings (GovWiFi now has 614,00 users across 274 locations).

Interoperability extends beyond networks and buildings – it’s also tackling the traditional pain points of recruiting new civil servants and moving officials between departments, as well as helping to build a central picture of the skills and capabilities available across government.

These building blocks, he says, will mean his successor doesn’t face the situation he did when prime ministers asked him how many people had the skills or knowledge to help on challenges like EU exit and Covid.

“The answer I had to give was: ‘I can’t actually tell you that; we’ll have to go to departments or public bodies to find out and get people together,’” Chisholm says. “In the future it will be much easier to move people around in much the way that we do with surge teams now (see box below).”

“We’ll be scheduling resources against projects, according to the best set of skills, and that will also create a really strong incentive for civil servants to continue to invest in those skills and feel that they are being used effectively.”

Chisholm on... the Surge and Rapid Response Team
“This is something which I think really shows the best of the civil service. The Surge and Rapid Response Team is over 1,000 people from different departments, jointly sponsored by me and HMRC’s second permanent secretary Angela MacDonald.

“When the ambulance service came under huge pressure, those teams stepped in to do triage to relieve that pressure; when there was a large  number of people coming out of Ukraine and trying to  get visas in the UK following the invasion by Russia, again, Surge teams leapt into action – 200 people supported the processing of those visas. And they did the same for the EU settlement scheme – 97 members of the SRRT were put into action and they closed 263,000 cases.

“That shows how civil servants rise to the challenge but it also shows the flexibility that we’ve got to flow resource where it’s needed. They actually have contracts which enable them to be deployed in different contexts, and that’s the shape of the future.

“When people picture a civil servant, they might think about somebody in an office, sitting behind a computer, but a huge number of civil servants are frontline-focused, really helping with major public delivery issues. Any member of the public thinking, ‘Do I admire the civil service, would I consider working there myself?’ should think about those people and their lionhearted efforts to help the public in times of need.”

Chisholm’s title of civil service COO suggests more coherence across the half-a-million civil servants than is in fact the case. Those officials are not employed in one organisation through which a COO can force reform. Instead, they work in autonomous departments accountable to ministers, over which Chisholm has limited direct control.

Luckily, the challenge of achieving objectives using both hard and soft power is not new to him: before becoming perm sec at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (the one that was shuttered nine days after he joined), Chisholm was the first chief executive of the Competition and Markets Authority.

As a regulator, he was used to balancing different approaches to influencing. As he once told CSW, his technique at the CMA had been to “try and create frameworks in which people can do the right thing”, rather than “marching around issuing orders to people”.

At the end of his time at the Cabinet Office, does he feel that balance has worked, or does he think the COO job could be changed to give it more power? “Obviously there are a lot of different ways that can go,” he replies, adding: “What we have tried to do is be firmer in areas where you really had to have a common approach, but more empowering in areas where a common approach wasn’t really worth pursuing.”

"What we have tried to do is be firmer in areas where you really had to have a common approach, but more empowering in areas where a common approach wasn’t really worth pursuing”

This has meant being “quite fierce about the Places for Growth numbers”, for example, and on ensuring departments sign up to GOV.UK One Login, given both reforms will only achieve their objectives if a critical number of departments join in.

By fierce, CSW assumes, Chisholm means using the levers and controls he does have, rather than shouting at someone in a meeting. “Yes,” he replies. “I’ve never shouted in a meeting… I just want to emphasise that.”

The strength comes from combining what he calls “sweet reason” – reminding colleagues why these programmes should succeed – with a degree of flexibility over how each department implements change and a solid spending control to act as a backstop on that flexibility.

The reason why One Login was properly funded, he says, was because the Treasury and Cabinet Office agreed that alternative digital identity schemes wouldn’t receive funding. So, having first built a system which they knew would work, the centre of government ensured that departments would have to use it. But, departments could work out their own rollout plans to suit their circumstances.

Asked specifically whether he thinks the Cabinet Office needs more hard levers, Chisholm responds by pointing out that his approach has actually been to reduce the number of levers the department is using. His teams conducted an audit of the Cabinet Office spend controls – which cover a variety of categories from IT and property through to contingent labour and comms spend – to discover which were really providing value and reducing risk, compared to others that were duplicating perfectly adequate departmental controls. As a result, the Cabinet Office stopped enforcing some controls – focusing its effort on the ones that really made a difference – and evaluated the impact to show that there was no increase in risk or cost as a result.

If he could start again with the benefit of hindsight, would he do anything differently? Chisholm’s answer sounds like a response to perceived criticism that change hasn’t been fast or extensive enough. “I think the basic answer is no,” he replies, adding that reforms had to be made at a pace, “consistent with the wider situation”.

“If we had said [civil service reform] was the dominant objective at a time of hard deadlines for EU exit, immense, unprecedented pressures on Covid, and the other challenges we’ve had – particularly the knock-on effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – that would have been, I think, incorrect.”

He notes again the improvements made in moving civil service jobs out of London, digital reform, interoperability and talent development schemes. “That sets us up for success in the era ahead. One always wants to go further and faster, but in the vortex of change that we have experienced, the pressures that we faced, it was right to go at the pace we have done, so I don’t have any regrets about that.”

Chisholm on... what he will and won’t miss
“I love the civil service, it’s an amazing institution. And it has dealt magnificently with this era, which will be remembered in the long run of history because of EU exit, because of Covid, and because of war in Europe. Any one of those things would have been exceptionally difficult to do in a five-year period, and all three have been knocking shoulders in the same period. I’m filled with admiration for my civil service colleagues that we’ve been able to deal with all that. Part of this is because people are very, very committed: they always give of their best and, when there are huge problems, they walk towards them, roll up their sleeves and say, ‘How can I help with that?’ It’s just an amazing culture to be part of. So I’ll really miss that.

I think perhaps what I won’t miss is the rate of change that we’ve experienced. In my not-quite-four years here in the Cabinet Office, I’ve had five secretaries of state and 46 ministers, which is a lot. They’ve all been good in different ways, but each one has taken some time, understandably, to get across their brief, to build a new set of relationships. I think that’s been difficult for them, quite honestly, because it’s complex work that we do, and it’s been a greater rate of change than you would want to support that efficient partnership between the civil service and political leadership.”

Chisholm leaning on a rail outside a brick office

He does, though, add one “area of slight regret”. It relates to a failure to collectively plan and communicate a way to meet pressures on public finances by creating a smaller, but more skilled and better equipped, civil service.

“At various points, the communication from the government has been that we need to have big reductions in the number of civil servants,” he says. “And we haven’t actually been able to match that up with plans that really show that working. It’s been more aspirational, rather than implemented.

 “We need to put in place a more realistic and deliverable programme for shifting over time, probably over a number of years, towards having a lower number of people involved in doing administrative work, which hopefully will be done by machines. That will mean the average quality of every civil servant’s working life is going to go up. The work they do is more easily done, because they are working proficiently with brilliant technology and data. So we can get a lot more done in our working days, do a better job of helping the citizens that we serve, and we won’t need to have as many people as we have today. And that will enable the civil service, and the services we support, to be affordable in a very constrained environment for public expenditure.”

Why hasn’t the civil service been able to develop this plan? Chisholm suggests the challenge is finding the right balance between central and departmental leadership. He points to the shared-services agenda as a comparison.

“I remember in a previous era, the initial aspiration [for shared services] was to move from having hundreds of different systems for HR and finance to one system across government. That was probably too extreme and not very deliverable.”

Under Chisholm’s watch, the plan was reset so that five clusters of departments would each create a model of shared services that works for them. While the Cabinet Office plays a “supportive and enabling role”, the clusters are led by departments that can move at their own pace, recognising that modernisation takes time to be done well.

“That programme is rolling out beautifully,” Chisholm says. Externally assured reports estimate the strategy could provide £3.3bn of savings and efficiencies over 15 years – over double the expected annual savings for less than the price of departments working separately. “All of that has been a very concerted, long-term programme,” Chisholm reflects.

The shift to a smaller, higher-performing civil service will need the same kind of programme. “We need to show a coherent, well designed, well consulted plan, and also one where civil servants will respond: ‘Good, because not only will my job become more valuable, but I will be better paid,’” he says.

Chisholm on... morale and the impact of change
“I’m delighted to say that we saw the biggest increase in overall engagement scores in the 2023 People Survey and were a top performer for leadership and managing change. There was also a 10 percentage point gain in those people who said that the Cabinet Office is a great place to work.

“That shows that we did a great job over the last year in building support and improving lots of different things that were worrisome to people. But it also reflects that the figures were poor [in 2022]. People were in the mode of saying: ‘I’ve just got everything ready for the new person, exactly to their specification, and it’s a different person a few weeks later.’

“We’re very closely wired to the world of politics and communications, and it becomes hard for people to feel calm and confident and productive in that context. So there can certainly be too much change, which feels bewildering, but I’m actually very much in favour of change. All of us in the civil service are here because we believe in a better world. We want that change. There are some fundamental issues in this country and around the world which we need to focus on. We need to make sure that everyone is up to finding the best possible way to pursue those goals, which can be hard to do if the day-to-day friction of surprise becomes too great.

“So the leaders that are most admired here [in the civil service] are those who remain very graceful under pressure, and even when things are changing fast – with ‘lots of incoming’, as we say – they remain their best selves to absorb some of that pressure rather than passing it on. It’s also those who are able to take what can be quite a noisy environment and find the signal through all that noise which tells us what we need to be acting on to pursue these long term goals.”

The day before we meet, it’s announced that Chisholm’s successor as COO will be Treasury second perm sec Cat Little, with whom he says he has worked “hand in glove” to drive change.

What advice does he have for Little as she prepares to step into the role? On a practical note, he advises her to keep focusing on those three important things – a UK-wide service, digital and data, and end-user experience – and to be prepared to invest in the opportunities presented by AI and other new technologies.

Then, he has a more reflective answer. “This period’s been quite turbulent. At various times, the partnership between civil service and political leadership, as well as the bonds of trust with the public, have been a bit creaky. Everything that we do as civil service leaders should be to reinforce that partnership, and build those bonds of trust with the public.” 

Chisholm on... delegated pay
In 2020, when asked if it was time to reconsider the use of delegated pay in the civil service, Chisholm gave a one word answer: maybe.

In 2024, after several years of bruising pay talks, a summer of strikes over pay and a growing amount of churn which the NAO has attributed at least in part to problems in pay and reward systems, his answer is longer and more emphatic – though he starts with a classic civil servant’s caveat.

“We need to relook at the cost and benefits,” he says. “The benefit which led to the original delegation was that individual public bodies and departments have got different types of workforces, so they should be able to have the pay framework that is most appropriate to those very different workforces.

“But the disadvantages of that means that there are now differences that sometimes are hard to justify between different departments, and which encourage a certain amount of people hopping between roles in order to improve pay.”

Pay delegation also leads to complex employment conditions which make it harder to manage change in government, he adds, so there does need to be “a good, hard look” at the question.

The recently-published People Plan hopes to do just that, he says. “I would also say you need to look at the relative balance between pay and pensions and the total reward package, because people’s preferences have changed.”

The final issue which the reward strategy must consider is the fact that “every single civil service grade bar one – AA – is worth less in real terms today than it was 10 years ago”. For all the benefits of flexibility, interesting work and a decent pension, that fact does need to be addressed, he says.

“Otherwise you won’t be competitive, and we need to be competitive because the work of government has never been more important in the life of the country.”

Share this page