With the end of 2015 in sight, we asked Whitehall's top officials to review the year, set out their priorities for 2016 – and shed some light on their festive plans. Mark Lowcock, permanent secretary of the Department for International Development, takes part in our biggest-ever perm secs' round-up series...
How did you tackle the biggest challenges facing your organisation in 2015?
Our single biggest challenge in 2015 has been defeating Ebola in Sierra Leone. Thousands of public servants – from the military and the health service, as well as civil servants – have been involved in that. They include hundreds of my colleagues from DfID, many of whom, like the brave nurses we have all seen looking after very sick people in Ebola treatment centres, volunteered to go to Sierra Leone to help contain the epidemic. I have found it very humbling and inspiring in my own visits to Sierra Leone this year to see their commitment, professionalism, skill and courage. As I write, Sierra Leone is Ebola free, but the road to recovery will be long and hard, and that is what we are focused on now.
We have faced an unusually large number of other crises too – including the Syria conflict, Yemen, the major earthquake in Nepal in April, staving off famine in South Sudan, and the growing global refugee crisis. In a way the hardest thing for me and my colleagues has been to ensure we delivered all the government’s ongoing commitments on international development alongside handling the crises. On the big things, we have done that, but inevitably some of the smaller tasks have been delayed or rescheduled.
Like everyone else, we also spent a lot of time in the first part of the year preparing for the election, and then handling the settling down process afterwards. Since the summer we have been busy planning for the parliament ahead, especially in all the work on the Spending Review and, in the last few weeks, putting its conclusions into practice. We have more internal planning to do, but we feel pretty well set up for the next four years.
What are your department’s top priorities in the year ahead?
DfID is increasingly in the business of tackling problems that start elsewhere but have the potential to affect the UK directly if not dealt with. Refugee and migration challenges, pandemics, and security and conflict problems are all best tackled as close as possible to their origin, regardless of whether the motive is to fulfil our moral responsibilities or to safeguard our own national interest. For all the challenges, I remain optimistic. Forty years ago, most people in the world – literally, more than 50% – were hungry most of the time, saw many of their children die in infancy, struggled to get them any education and were constantly oppressed by the fear or reality of violence and insecurity. Today, even though the population is much bigger, fewer than 10% are in that position. And we now have much better tools and knowledge to solve global problems than we had in the 1970s.
What film do you hope to watch over the festive period – and what’s the best game to play with the family on Christmas Day?
What I’d really like to see is the movie length version of Mr Mourinho’s post-match interview after Wayne Rooney’s five goals sink Chelsea on Boxing Day. We’re all allowed to dream, right? (Deputy editor's note: this Q&A was carried out just before the ex-Chelsea manager's festive sacking...) On games, my autistic 18-year-old son has a large collection of Thomas the Tank Engine games we all get drawn into.
Perm secs round-up 2015: Whitehall's top civil servants review the year – and look ahead to 2016