By Tevye Markson

19 May 2023

Ahead of this year’s Civil Service Live, the civil service chief operating officer reflects on reforming government and learning from Brexit and Covid


Machinery of government changes – while they may have clear and positive aims – are generally viewed with trepidation, not just by think tanks like the Institute for Government, who have an eye on cost and disruption – but also by civil servants who face the prospect of organisational upheaval and issues with email systems and pay runs.

So when prime minister Rishi Sunak announced the surprise creation of three new departments in February, plenty of commentators wondered, with so many pressing challenges to address, whether this was the best use of government time.

In the three months since, while policy and delivery teams in the new departments have worked on a flurry of strategies and schemes, their colleagues in HR, finance and other support services have used the organisational change as an opportunity for reform.

At least, that's the message from civil service COO Alex Chisholm, himself no stranger to MOG changes, when he sits down to talk with CSW ahead of this year's Civil Service Live.

Sunak’s reshaping of Whitehall in February saw responsibilities from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy transferred into three new departments: the Department for Business and Trade (which also took in the former Department for International Trade); the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero; and the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (which also took over digital policy from the culture department). The Cabinet Office also gained and lost some responsibilities.

Chisholm said all the departments involved inhave used the MOG changes as a chance to consider where they could reduce duplication of services or capabilities.

Some services – such as HR and finance – have already been moving towards this approach via the government’s shared-services strategy. The shared-services agenda aims to standardise processes and services across government to increase efficiency, and is being delivered through five clusters made up of different departments across government.

All the departments affected by the February overhaul are in the same cluster, so the changes were a chance to build on that existing work – as well as to consider where they could collaborate more on areas which are not covered by the strategy, such as cybersecurity and digital. Different approaches considered included creating a centre of excellence in one department, or a common pool of skills across them all.
“What we found is that in each of those cases we don't need to have all of these services replicated five times over,” Chisholm says.
“So a lot of it is now going to be moved on to a shared-service basis. That will grow over time, but already is very strong between DESNZ and DSIT.”
This approach will not only improve efficiency, but should also make future organisational and even MOG changes less challenging, Chisholm says. It will enable the government to change the public-facing work of the department, while the core services that enable officials to get paid, for example, will continue to tick over in the background.
“That's an interesting example of how we've become much more flexible, but also how the money we spend is being spent on things that really matter and are necessary, rather than on duplication or waste, which obviously we don't want,” he adds.

"Although your department is different, and in some cases the leadership has changed, most people’s reporting lines have remained in place and you’re working off the same systems"

Chisholm says those creating the new departments have also learnt from past MOG changes that when you are making big shifts, it's best to minimise intra-directorate changes as much as possible. In most cases, he explains, entire DG groups – "or commands, in old language" – have moved together into new departments.
“So although your department is different, and in some cases the leadership has changed as well, most people’s reporting lines have remained in place and you’re working off the same systems. And that, I think, has managed the disruption.”
As he reflects on the progress of the civil service’s modernisation and reform agenda, Chisholm often comes back to the twin themes of changing structures while also focusing on the experience of the people that work in them.

Take the drive to move officials out of London. This is, Chisholm, 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 11,0000 jobs have moved out of the capital since 2020, meaning government is already halfway towards its goal of moving 22,000 jobs by 2030. Chisholm suggests new, more ambitious targets will likely follow.
“I think we might be victims of our success there and I expect that the appetite will go up in terms of the number of roles to be relocated,” he says.

The moves will also save money, he adds, pointing out that in Westminster high-quality office accommodation is about £70 per square foot, compared to about £17 in Darlington.
But the agenda “is not just a numbers game”, Chisholm says as he pivots to the people aspect of reform.
What is more important is “who comes and works in the civil service, how they work, and how that's helping us to change”.
“The spirit, particularly the kind of campus-type environment we've been able to create in Darlington, is really exciting and energising.”
Government research has previously found that many people in the civil service felt they had to come to London to develop their career and to get promoted – “that just is not the case anymore and I think that is really positive,” Chisolm says.

The importance of supporting people while changing systems and structures is also apparent when the civil service COO discusses digital reform. He’s proud of the “massive change” being driven by the OneLogin system, which aims to make it simpler for citizens to interact with government. OneLogin currently has around 700,000 users but will expand, Chisholm says, to 20 million over the next year.

There is also a burning need to recruit more people with digital and data skills.

“It would be difficult to overestimate the number of people we need to continue to recruit for digital and data,” Chisholm says.

“It would be difficult to overestimate the number of people we need to continue to recruit for digital and data”

“I think last year between April and October, we recruited 2,200 people in digital, data and technology across the civil service. But of course, if you look at what people are actually having to work on now, and you've got a civil service of nearly 500,000 people, that’s actually not that many.

“And it is a very intense market and there's people you are losing at the other end as well. So we are very much in a constant replenishment mode.”

Chisholm is also proud to reflect feedback from operational delivery professionals who say the systems they use to interact with customers are undergoing tangible improvements, but he soon returns to the importance of people. 

He wants to make sure that officials in all professions are comfortable with how these tools and technologies interact with their work.
“I don't want us in the future to think ‘alright, this is a digital issue, I need to go and talk to our digital people’,” Chisholm says.
“Or to say ‘oh, that's a data problem, I need to talk to data people’.
“We don't say that when there’s a language issue: ‘It's a word problem, I need to go and talk to people who can do words’.”
“We don't have to be experts,” Chisholm adds.
“We’re not saying we're all going to be coding away. I’ve got a Python expert in my private office but I don't use Python myself. But at least I know what it is and the value of it.”

Chisholm has also changed the way he works, moving from a “red box” to a “digi-box” for reviewing advice.
“It’s a webpage and that's much better. We don't have to scribble notes so no-one has to read my terrible handwriting,” he says.

“And it's all recorded for the future.”

Covid and Brexit ‘have improved delivery’

Another common theme that emerges as Chisholm discusses reform is the importance he places on listening to civil servants and understanding their perspectives on where change is – or isn't – happening.

At one point during our discussion, he reflects on a recent reform workshop with staff from the transport, levelling up and environment departments in which he asked what had changed most in the last few years.
“One of the big things that they said very strongly was that we have got more capable in our delivery,” Chisholm says.

“And this was coming from people who were used to coming up with policy ideas and getting the press release out, et cetera, but weren't always fully able to understand what it would take to actually deliver the change we want to.”
What’s changed? Chisholm says the experiences of getting ready for Brexit and dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic strengthened delivery capability by putting civil servants in a situation where there was no choice but to design and deliver policy at the same time.

“Covid was very real-life and it didn't allow for people to take a kind of ‘hmm, I'll write you a nice paper and you'll get it in a month’ approach”

“[Covid] was very real-life and it didn't allow for people to take a kind of ‘hmm, let me think about that and I'll write you a nice paper and you'll get it in a month’ [approach],” he says.
“We were trying to solve things fast and they were literally life and death matters.”
On the other hand, Chisholm says, the non-stop nature of recent events has hindered the government’s efforts to get officials to go on secondments outside the civil service.

While the civil service has had hundreds of secondees coming in, bringing new thinking and challenge, getting civil servants to go into the private, academic and charity sectors has been more of a struggle.
“I think we haven't got that bit of it working so well, partly because we've not been idle in the last three years,” he reflects. “We've had a mass of things to do, from Brexit, to Covid, to dealing with the response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, organising COP26, the G7 [summit] – every week brings a new challenge. 

“There's always a lot of high-pressure work to do, and I think sometimes that causes people to say: ‘perhaps this isn't the ideal time to go off on a secondment’. But we should be trying to encourage people to get experience elsewhere and bring that in, because we can learn from that with so much going on.”
Civil servants should also take advantage of opportunities such as Civil Service Live, where you can learn from experiences across government, Chisholm says.
“It's a great chance to meet civil servants from other departments, from other professions, functions, [and] to reconnect with old friends and colleagues that you've worked with and perhaps haven't seen for a bit,” he says.
“But also,importantly, to meet new ones, and to learn from experiences across the wider civil service. Sometimes you can be quite ‘head down’, working in your particular area of work. Here is a chance to be ‘head up’ and look at a bigger picture.”
For more of our discussion with Alex Chisholm, where we delved into topics such as pay, strikes, headcount targets and the Civil Service People Survey, pick up CSW's summer issue at Civil Service Live, which is now open for registrations

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