As a director general at the Government Legal Department, Susanna McGibbon oversees legal services to a range of departments across Whitehall. She talks to Beckie Smith about her love of inquiries, government legal work in the public eye and life beyond Brexit
It is a cliché, but a well-fitting one, Susanna McGibbon says, that there is no typical day in the life of a Government Legal Department director-general. Much of her time is not spent at the One Kemble Street office near London’s legal district where she sits down with CSW.
“A lot of my job is quite peripatetic,” she says, five months after taking up the role. “My responsibilities are for teams in different government departments that are quite dispersed. So I’m often travelling between Kemble Street and Westminster.”
McGibbon’s day might begin with a legal director updating her on the status of a key legal challenge, followed by an executive team meeting at the Department for Work and Pensions, or steering GLD’s department’s people strategy to make GLD – in a nod to the 'Brilliant Civil Service' vision – a brilliant place to work.
“One day I might be talking to the Department for Transport’s legal advisers about freight or the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s legal advisers about GDPR,” she says. “I need to understand what the moving parts are – not being all over the detail, but knowing where there might be crunch points or areas where I can give a bit of a steer.”
McGibbon’s varied legal career within government so far, including stints at the business department and then at the Department for Communities and Local Government, has helped her understand how different departments work. And the six years she spent in charge of government litigation before becoming director general last September made her a champion delegator. “There was no way, as head of litigation, I could be on top of all the 40,000 or so cases that we had on the go at any given time. So I got used to being able to dive into the detail of a case as and when necessary, but also able to stand back and let the team crack on with it.”
Throughout her career, McGibbon says one “strong theme” has been involvement in public inquiries. As a lawyer at the Ministry of Defence, she supported soldiers giving evidence to the Bloody Sunday Inquiry into the 1972 tragedy when British soldiers shot 28 unarmed civilians protesting against internment during the Troubles. Thirteen of the victims died on the day.
At the Cabinet Office, she supported senior witnesses to the Hutton Inquiry, and later helped to set up inquiries into the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire and the infected blood scandal in which thousands of haemophiliacs contracted Hepatitis C and HIV from contaminated clotting agents used in NHS transfusions during the 1970s and 1980s.
McGibbon is drawn to inquiries, she says, because they are unlike anything else a government lawyer might encounter. “Quite often they aren’t routine and can come from left field, so it’s not something you’re naturally expecting, and it’s a bit different.”
They can also be a force for seismic change, she adds: “A good inquiry will result in improvements rather than simply be a blame game. The focus should be much more on the recommendations for the future and how things can be improved, whether operationally or in policy.”
McGibbon also worked on the Chilcot Inquiry into the UK’s role in the Iraq War, which led to the government agreeing to tighten up how military operational decisions were made. But she doesn’t see this as a personal achievement – “just something that it’s been worthwhile to contribute to and be part of”.
Her proudest moments, she says, have been more quotidian. “The things I’ve tended to be most proud of have been very much in the building and improving capability area: building teams that have grown to enhance their legal professional skills, developed a stronger sense of teamwork, worked across boundaries, thought about new ways of doing things,” she says.
It might seem strange, then, that McGibbon never intended to be a civil servant.
“Oh, goodness, no,” McGibbon exclaims, when asked if she ever expected to end up where she is now. In the early days of her career as a barrister, the idea of going from private practice to “arch bureaucrat” didn’t really stack up.
But time and again, civil service postings proved enticing and now McGibbon sees herself as well and truly part of the team. Her wins are the department’s wins, and she’s keen to emphasise how much she values her colleagues. Her conversation is full of references to how “absolutely great” GLD staff are, and to their “amazing” collaborative spirit and “brilliant” work.
Her commitment to team morale is perhaps necessary, as staff are dealing with an unprecedented workload in the run-up to Brexit after several years of budget pressures and pay stagnation.
“There’s an enormous amount of directly Brexit-related work going on – getting up to near 40% of what we do. That’s 40% on top of what we were doing pre-Brexit,” McGibbon says. “And very little of the rest of our business has stopped.
“There’s an enormous amount of Brexit-related work going on, getting up to near 40% of what we do. That’s 40% on top of what we were doing pre-Brexit – and very little of the rest of our business has stopped”
“Everybody is contributing in one way or another, even if they’re not doing glamorous Brexit work.” There is a slight, sceptical pause, before she laughs at her own description and adds: “Although lots of people would take issue with the word ‘glamorous’.”
In December, the department relaxed its overtime policy for Grade 6 and 7 staff in recognition of these “extraordinary efforts”. They can now claim for any overtime they do past an initial threshold of 15 hours in a three-week period (the previous threshold was 30 hours).
“It’s never going to be like-for-like compensation – but we wanted to make it easier for people to claim overtime and [make it clear] that people shouldn’t be shy of doing so,” McGibbon says.
As well as workload, Brexit has increased public interest in Whitehall’s lawyers. The case brought in 2016 by businesswoman-turned-activist Gina Miller to prevent the government beginning the Brexit process without parliament’s backing was aired far more publicly than most GLD staff were used to.
The government lost the case when the High Court ruled that MPs must be given a vote on whether to trigger Article 50 – the formal mechanism beginning the two-year countdown to Brexit – but not before it had captured the attention of the public and media. The Daily Mail famously branded the judges that ruled against the government “enemies of the people” in a vociferous front-page attack.
The whole exercise put litigation under the spotlight in a way that was alien to many in the GLD, McGibbon recalls. “Normally there’s a lot that just goes on between the solicitors on each side [of a legal case] but this was very public – deliberately so – and very transparent,” she says. “All of our arguments were out there straight away. Inevitably the Twittersphere was crawling over every last word.”
Was there a part of her that wanted to jump in and correct all of the misinformation? “Yes, of course,” she says. “But it wouldn’t be right as civil servants or as lawyers – it’s much better for us to keep our powder dry. It’s not the parties who wore this out in public, it was the bystanders.”
GLD permanent secretary Jonathan Jones tweeted updates on the Article 50 case and took a more public-facing role in talking about the department’s work. But McGibbon says she’s “still a bit of a cautious tweeter”. Her Twitter feed is mostly filled with praise for her department, interspersed with announcements from other parts of the organisation.
There is also the occasional theatre recommendation, and her Twitter profile describes her as a “barrister, music lover and traveller”.
One of her regular haunts is the Almeida in Islington, where she recently saw Summer and Smoke – a “fabulous” lesser-known Tennessee Williams play that has since moved onto the West End. “There was a musical connection there because part of the set is eight pianos in a semicircle around the stage,” McGibbon says. She also plays the piano and on the day we meet, she has spent her morning commute listening to a Beethoven piano sonata.
Making time to switch off from work will no doubt be tricky in the coming months, but her most recent long-haul getaway took her to Cambodia, where the nation’s food, impressive temples, and harrowing recent history proved thought-provoking.
Can McGibbon see a time beyond Brexit where she and her staff will be able to resume normal service? “That depends on what happens politically,” she says. “So the answer is no. This could be a very challenging period.”
And as she points out, part of her job is to remember there will be life beyond Brexit. “I think it’s really important for people to realise that we’ve got a plan for the future. We’re not all consumed by Brexit – it’s really, really important that we do that brilliantly, but we need to be ready to be even more brilliant on what comes next.”
Part of that plan is the people strategy that the GLD board is in the process of developing, and which is designed to attract and retain talented staff and to develop their careers, McGibbon says.
Pulling in an ever-more diverse workforce will be part of that – the department already runs mentoring schemes for black, Asian and minority ethnic staff and won a Law Society award for “excellence in diversity and inclusion” last year.
It is also working on a proposal to put to the Treasury to improve its pay offer after scoring second to last among government departments for staff satisfaction with pay and benefits, according to the 2018 Civil Service People Survey.
Until now, the flexible working options GLD offers have allowed it to compete with top-tier private law firms for talent where it can’t compete on pay. But as private practices realise the benefits of flexible working, the department needs new ways to attract staff. McGibbon says she wants a system “that gives people a bit more of a sense of reward and progression”.
Aside from pay, McGibbon wants staff to feel stretched, appreciated and “able to fulfil their potential”, working in a modern environment and embracing digital practices. The GLD’s fundamental purpose – helping the government to govern well within the rule of law – won’t change, but her goal is to be “more aspirational, more ambitious for the quality of our work, and more ambitious for the kind of organisation we are to work in”.