By Suzannah Brecknell

31 May 2022

Suzannah Brecknell sits down with civil service chief operating officer Alex Chisholm to hear about his drive to create a more skilled, truly UK-wide, delivery-focused and streamlined civil service


Like many of us, Alex Chisholm has been re-expanding his horizons in recent months. In 2020, when he had just become civil service chief operating officer and Cabinet Office permanent secretary, Chisholm met CSW virtually from home. In 2021, he was back in his Whitehall office, but still using Google Meet to share his plans for reforming the civil service. In 2022, we are not only meeting in person, with views over Horse Guards Parade and the chance to admire his smart standing desk, but Chisholm is full of enthusiasm about recent trips to new government offices in Salford, Glasgow and Edinburgh.

These offices – among others – are posterchildren for Places for Growth, a key part of the modernisation and reform programme he is leading. His excitement about the drive to move civil servants out of London is palpable: it’s the first thing he mentions when asked to reflect on progress of the Declaration on Government Reform, a document published just under a year ago in which ministers and perm secs set out their joint vision to rewire and revamp government.

Chisholm mentions this area of reform not only because there has been “measurable” progress – 4,000 roles have moved out of London, and departments have published plans to move another 15,000 – but because it ties with wider aims to change the face of the civil service. “It’s so important to make the best use of the talent we can across the country and get close to the communities we serve,” Chisholm says.

The Cabinet Office, he continues, had just a handful of people in Glasgow a year ago, but when he visited this spring there were 250 staff there. Some of those staff are in a photo montage hanging on Chisholm’s wall, celebrating the first 100 people who joined the department’s Scottish office. This particular development is close to his heart, clearly, but he also mentions other examples of progress over the last year which are less visible. The Government Major Projects Portfolio has been expanded, bringing better oversight to a raft of crucial projects; there have been improvements in the contract management function; and the new Campus and Curriculum for Government Skills, which is available to all civil servants, will be “critical to our ambitions to be more skilled as well as innovative and ambitious civil service”, Chisholm says.

If I could fast forward and get to 2024-25, I think people will say the civil service has generally become much more UK-wide and that’s a big and important change

Those three words – skilled, innovative, ambitious – are the key strands of the modernisation and reform programme, and form the structure for this year’s Civil Service Live, government’s annual, cross-department learning event. The event, comprising five conferences across the country, is taking place in person again this year after two years online. Chisholm points out that the event will not only be “getting people back together” but is in keeping with government’s “whole UK approach”.

“It’s London, it’s Edinburgh, it’s Cardiff, it’s Blackpool and Newcastle, so there’ll be one near you, and we’ve tried to tailor the programmes and speakers to make those feel like local events as well as a national event.”

Those attending Live can expect not only a range of sessions organised by teams who are energised by the chance to create in-person discussions but also to find out first about the next steps in the modernisation programme. The Declaration on Government Reform sets out 30 actions which were due to be completed by April 2022 . Government’s own reporting, as well as separate assessments from CSW and the Institute for Government, show that fewer than a third of these actions were completed, and several were not even under way by the deadline. The IfG called for government to refresh the programme and create a greater sense of urgency.

Chisholm acknowledges that if reform is to succeed, it requires a constant focus: “Long-term watchers of government would say that with government reform, you need to keep putting more air into the balloon. It needs to continue to travel up, and that’s what we absolutely plan to do in the second year.”

So he is “sure there will be new actions”, though he stresses that those actions must not become an end in themselves but always focus on driving real change, and he gives a few hints as to the announcements we can expect at Civil Service Live.

Firstly, there is OneLogin, the plan to replace a plethora of sign-in services with a single system across government. Chisholm describes this as “a big, incredibly important and very strategic programme” which will save money, improve citizen experience and also open the door for improvements in the way services are delivered.

Then he flags up the importance of creating a civil service which is “data confident”. “We’ve got huge amounts of data across the system and [we need to be] increasing [our] ability to share that data both through interoperability and legal gateways,” he says. “Are people confident in the use of that data? Do they understand how they can use that to drive policy, to drive better outcomes for delivery, to shorten the timeframe to be able to fix issues that need fixing. Whether you’re an AO or permanent secretary, all of us need to be data confident and we all need to be skilled up further to do that.”

Ambitions for OneLogin and data use have both been enhanced by the first multi-year spending review since 2015 – for instance with the announcement of an Integrated Data Service being developed by the Office for National Statistics which will make it easier for departments to share data.

“With things which include a lot of initiatives and announcements, the question is: do you then follow through?” says Chisholm. “So I took great heart from the fact that this spending round does actually commit to deliver on those big priorities.”

Chisholm is a self-confessed government reform nerd, whose job is to be enthusiastic about modernisation. But one wonders if all of the civil servants he is leading feel the same about another round of change. After several hard years, with ever-increasing workloads, what is his approach to ensuring his teams feel energised, rather than overwhelmed, by the prospect of yet more reform?

His answer is to harness the public service motivation which most civil servants share, as well as the pride in what they have achieved during years which have been, he concedes, “very intense”. The “sense of public service and mission” has kept people going, he says, but he also believes civil servants have been motivated by seeing the immediate impact their work had as they got better at “fixing things fast”.

“Rather than saying: ‘Here’s a nice paper about something that will be launched in a year and a half’s time’ there were literally sometimes decisions taken at a morning meeting, which were announced that afternoon and where you could see the effect the next morning to change people’s behaviour,” Chisholm says.

Similarly, he believes the pandemic helped to reinforce a connection between civil servants and “their fellow citizens”, pointing to business loans which kept companies going, and to the shift which enabled people to receive benefits through digital channels because offices were closed.

“Things like that have given people a lot of pride, and that is key to the motivation about public services: to feel that what you do really matters to your fellow citizens, and you get real recognition for that,” Chisholm says. He believes civil servants also want to keep finding ways to do things better, and it’s this which will drive their engagement with reform programmes.

There were literally sometimes decisions taken at a morning meeting, which were announced that afternoon and where you could see the effect the next morning to change people’s behaviour

A central part of plans to change the way government rewards development of skills is the introduction of capability-based pay, which will determine pay for senior officials using performance assessment frameworks focused on professional skills and leadership. The reform, which has taken many years to develop, was described by outgoing civil service chief people officer Rupert McNeil in an interview with CSW as a “huge, once-in-a-generation opportunity” to reform civil service pay.

It is Chisholm, along with McNeil’s yet-to-be-named successor, who will oversee implementation of the plans. What does the COO think is key to ensuring they achieve the desired outcomes? He begins by noting there is “a broad commitment” to capability-based pay, both to address the problem of officials moving between jobs too quickly, and to “give both recognition and incentives for people to build on their knowledge and skills.”

He points out that the system has been carefully designed, tailored to different functions and levels of seniority. “We’ve had some successful pilots,” Chisholm continues, “and we’re also demonstrating that these will pay for themselves in terms of producing better results – lowering churn, lowering costs and having to recruit new people. So, we’re quids in, and that’s really important.”

But then, he shifts focus. “We haven’t yet spoken about the kind of environment in which we’ll be working over the next year, but I’m enormously conscious, as I’m sure you are and anybody reading this will be, that economically it’s going to be challenging.”

Given the economic outlook, he says, “all of us as civil servants have to look incredibly critically at all our own areas of expenditure and opportunities to economise.” This means improving efficiency and prioritisation, but it also affects the number of people the civil service can employ.

Chisholm was speaking before plans to cut the civil service  back to 2016 levels were announced, but the Spending Review had already made a committment to roll-back headcounts to "pre-Covid" levels.

“The civil service has grown a lot – necessarily, I think most people would say, in response to the demands of the EU exit and Covid,” Chisholm told CSW. “But we now need to reverse out some of that growth because we clearly have too many civil servants relative to what is affordable, and also those tasks are behind us, and we should be getting better at doing things as effectively with a smaller number of people.”

In the early years of the coalition government’s austerity drive, civil service leaders drew connections between pay restraint and falling headcounts. Pay was frozen then, and leaders argued this could mean fewer job losses because it would reduce the overall pay bill.

Things are different now, but Chisholm strikes a cautionary note for anyone expecting reform to mean big salary increases.

“Everyone would have been pleased to see, I’m sure, that the chancellor decided that the pay freeze should be lifted last November. Equally, there’s only a certain amount of money to go around, there’s huge demands on the public purse, there’s a very high level of indebtedness following on from the response to Covid. I’m not expecting the overall provision of resources to be increased. So, therefore, we need to look at the number of people as well as the pay we’re able to support.”

Given this outlook – where officials may be rewarded more effectively for developing key skills, but shouldn’t expect their salaries to be significantly greater – it seems all the more important that civil servants feel they are benefiting in other ways, such as job satisfaction and career development. It also makes the “porosity agenda” – aiming to make it easier for people to move in and out of the civil service – more pressing.  

Chisholm wants to create a system where people can join the civil service at any stage in their career, in any part of the country and bring new skills, knowledge and connections to the organisation. “Some of those people will come and do five years and they’ll say, ‘I’ve had a great experience and now I’ll go and do something else.’ Every one of those people should say, ‘I’ve had a good experience. I’ve done important, worthy public work. I’ve added to my skills; I’ve learned a lot. I’m a more employable person, a better person as a consequence [of my time here].’”

Yet this is part of the reform agenda that government has acknowledged “has not moved as far and as fast as you would have wanted to,” Chisholm says. He adds: “There’s no one big switch you can flip.”

The recognition that “for porosity... a quick solution is probably a bad solution” chimes with Chisholm’s insistence that as the reform programme moves forward, it must focus not just on hitting targets and deadlines, but on achieving lasting change. It’s easy to measure how many jobs are moving out of London, for example, but this is not the point of Places for Growth. Rather, he says, the aim is to “recruit new people who are different from the ones that we have already, tapping into different parts of the communities and talent pools available to us”.

“We’re also hoping that in some of those cases, people will stay with us longer and will bring new thinking and new ideas about how to deal with problems which are better understood at a local level rather than sitting in an office in Whitehall,” he says. “That is harder to measure for an outcome, but it’s actually very important.”

Compared to the civil service I used to work for, the modern civil service is not only more focused on service delivery, but able to measure the experience people have

It does seem to be starting to deliver this change, he says. For example, he points to the business department’s new office in Salford, where the socio-economic background of new recruits is more diverse than in the London office. “Half the people there have been recruited locally and the most common thing they said is: ‘I would never have come to work in London. If this job wasn’t here, I wouldn’t have known about, and I wouldn’t have even considered it because this is where my community is.’ It’s very, very powerful but also, it means that that group of people want to help change us, which I think is great.” Openness to feedback and change is something which Chisholm thinks the civil service has got better at since he first joined as a young graduate in the late 1980s, especially from the perspective of how it delivers services. “Compared to the civil service I used to work for, the modern civil service is not only more focused [on service delivery], but able to measure the experience people have,” he says.

“We have lots of new ideas about how to sharpen further those feedback loops from the users of public services to the providers, and for those to be coming in on almost a daily flow. I think that will help make us more responsive to customer needs, but also accelerate the continuous improvement culture that we want.”

Chisholm is keen to stress not just what is being done to change government, but how. The Modernisation and Reform unit in the Cabinet Office has worked hard to engage with people across government, he says, including recruiting around 2,000 people to act as “reform champions”. The reform plans themselves were based on work which sought the opinions of 14,000 people. “It’s not like we just sat in a room and dreamt up some things that we thought looked half good,” Chisholm says. “It does reflect the views of the civil service. We’ve also worked incredibly hard externally [engaging with] think tanks and the business community. We’ve compared ourselves to the top 10 governments around the world, and that all fed into the reform programme. So now, we like the design. We like the goals. We see the support we’ve got across government. Now, it’s very much: let’s make it happen. Let’s bring about tangible changes for the better.”

And what will those tangible changes be? “If I could fast forward and get to 2024-25,” he says, “I think people will say the civil service has generally become much more UK-wide and that’s a big and important change.

“This is not just support operations or specialists in delivery bodies. This is all the roles. Treasury are saying that you can do any job in Darlington that you could do in Horse Guards – that’s a fantastic offer. And it’s really going to shift the way in which people develop their careers as civil servants, but also the perception that other people have about what the government does.”

He also hopes that the civil service will be known for being “fantastic at using data to shape policy for delivery to solve problems faster” and that it will be ever-more focused on delivery.

“My third area of difference would be that we’re not sitting in offices coming up with plans for the future,” he says. “We are actually focused on delivering for citizens today – doing what I think people expect of a civil service, which is to do a great job to deliver the government’s priorities.”

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