'This year has been a tremendous reminder of the importance of the union': civil service COO Alex Chisholm reflects on 2020

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
Photo: Alex Chisholm

By Civil Service World

04 Jan 2021


What are you proudest of the government achieving in 2020?

2020 will be remembered everywhere in the world as the year of Covid. In the UK, we also welcomed a new administration, left the European Union, restructured a number of departments of state, outlined a massive new infrastructure investment programme, and accelerated our path towards net-zero emissions.

It would have been a challenge to make a success of any one of these challenges; accomplishing them all in a single year has required an extraordinary effort on the part of everyone working in public service.

What was the hardest part of being a leader in 2020?

Effective modern leadership is as much about listening as talking, intuiting as reasoning, signalling as directing. This has been especially difficult to do during extended periods of social distancing and screen-based communication. Yet the People Survey shows improvements in the visibility of senior leaders across government (up 12 percentage points from 2019 across all civil servants), which testifies to our collective success in overcoming this challenge, and indeed in finding a silver lining in flatter, more accountable and more responsive leadership structures and styles.

What are the main challenges facing the government in the coming year?

This year has been a tremendous reminder of the importance of the union - both in our response to the pandemic, and our preparations for completing our EU exit. In 2021, I expect union and constitution work to move to centre stage.

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