By Suzannah Brecknell

07 Feb 2024

A year on from the MOG changes that shocked us all, the three departments' perm secs reflect and share their priorities for the year ahead

 

It was a record-breakingly cold day in New York when Gareth Davies received a message to call the cabinet secretary. “That always makes you pause, so I was busy looking on Twitter to see what on earth was going on,” he tells CSW a year after that freezing day in 2023. “I couldn't find anything, which made me doubly suspicious.”

Once he had spoken to the cab sec, Davies – who had only been permanent secretary at the Department for International Trade for a few weeks – found himself launched into a new role. The prime minister was creating three new departments and Davies would be heading up the newly minted Department for Business and Trade. He was, he recalls, “properly excited” at the prospect. “Of course, if you're not a bit anxious at that point, something's wrong, but there was also a sense also of the possible because what was really nice about this – and I've been involved in lots of machinery of government changes – is there was such a compelling logic to it.”

Back home in England, Sarah Munby – then head of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy – was about to become the perm sec of a science, innovation and technology department formed from units that had previously been spread over four ministries. She got the call about the news while wrangling (as she puts it) her three children over breakfast.

Sitting in Davies’ office for an exclusive joint interview to mark the creation of the new departments, Munby describes the same mixture of excitement tempered with caution as she contemplated the opportunities presented by her new department (“there was great logic to the changes, loads of brilliant work, lots of things I'd always wanted to be involved in – a feeling like I was getting my hands on an amazing toolkit”) but also the anxiety that her colleagues in BEIS would inevitably feel and how she could help to reduce and manage that anxiety.

The third new department – covering energy security and net zero – would be led by Jeremy Pocklington, then perm sec of the levelling up department, who was also out of the country when he was asked to call the cab sec. As the only one of the three new perm secs whose old department would still exist, it’s perhaps not surprising that alongside the excitement at a new opportunity, he felt sad to leave DLUHC, “a department I was very happy in” .

Pocklington echoes Munby’s focus on support staff, who he knew would also be feeling the mixed emotions of their perm secs. To do the best by those staff, he says, his priority was to move quickly once a transition team had been set up. “You need to make decisions quickly wherever you can to set out what you're doing, why you're doing it; where you can't make decisions now, say what the process is going to be. That's really important.”

All three perm secs also describe a need to balance the transition with a focus on existing delivery priorities. “At the time, our teams were working on some very, very important publications called Powering up Britain that we launched only a few weeks after the department was created,” Pocklington says. “We had to prioritise the delivery of that, make sure we didn't drop the ball.”

For Munby, there was an extra impetus to make sure her new department hit the ground running – her secretary of state would be starting maternity leave in ten weeks, adding “rocket boosters” to the pace of their work in that first period.

“I challenge almost any department and government to bring me a 10-week period in which they laid the groundwork on quite as many things as we did,” she says. “That, on the one hand, made for a very intense experience in those early weeks, because we were dealing with machinery of government and a huge delivery agenda. But on the other hand, there's nothing like real work, and working together on things, to start forging the department.”

For Davies, there were ongoing trade and inward investment negotiations that needed to continue without disruption, and he was conscious of the need to ensure his teams didn’t become too preoccupied with the process of change. “I've been through these things, both in government [and] mergers, takeovers in the private sector, and the big risk always is that everyone ends up looking internally,” he says. He wanted to offset that riskby ensuring the team tasked with delivering change was focused just on that – rather than being asked to do it alongside other priorities – while also supporting delivery teams to “crack on: deliver for ministers, deliver for the public”.

Over the next year, the three departments worked together to ensure the change was as smooth as possible. This happened both through formal mechanisms, including a cross-government board, and through a new, integrated corporate-services centre, which provides functions such as HR and finance for the energy and science departments as well as some specialised services such as counter-fraud work across all three new organisations.

“We owe an enormous amount to a group of, frankly, pretty heroic people, right across the four departments. You couldn't have done it without them”

All three perm secs praise their corporate-services teams as vital to making the change happen. “The reality is that those early days, when people were trying to stretch themselves across multiple departments and handling some really complex issues, were not always easy, especially for our people who are working directly on change money, digital systems,” says Munby. “We owe an enormous amount to a group of, frankly, pretty heroic people, right across the four departments [including the culture department]. You couldn't have done it without them.”

As Davies points out that these teams are “at the sharp end” of organisational change, Pocklington agrees: “There really are. MOG changes don't affect all members of staff the same. It's really important to recognise that. Corporate services, absolutely, are at the front end, managing the change, dealing with maximum uncertainty themselves about which department they would be working with, would there be an integrated services? And they did a brilliant job. We’re incredibly grateful.”

After all that change, what are the priorities for each perm sec moving into the second year with their not-so-new departments? 

Pocklington points first to the Places for Growth agenda. DESNZ has made good progress, he says – with second headquarters in Salford and Aberdeen – but there is more to do to ensure they have teams in all parts of the country where the department is supporting energy security and net-zero projects. Secondly, he mentions skills – ensuring they have the right capability to deliver some ”really big programmes”, as well as working with the science department to ensure they have access to cutting-edge expertise on science and innovation. Finally, he says, there will be a continued focus on embedding the new values of the department (to be collaborative, bold, inclusive and always learning) so that they are at the heart of all its work.

Munby’s list is not so different: “Number one, we still have to finish the work to build a single department. I think we probably had the most complex machinery-of-government work to do. And we're not done. Finishing that off brilliantly is a big part of the next year. Of course, that includes coming together in one building, which we haven't been able to do yet.”

Secondly, she wants to focus on “really making our values real” and finally on building “deep strategic integration across the department” that reflects its role as a convener of science and innovation across government.

“We're being asked to lead a system to drive change in science and technology, right across government and beyond. And that's still quite a new system: we're still young, the system of thinking around it is still young, and [there is] lots more to do. We're making sure we have a strategy that everyone in DSIT, everyone in government and, ultimately, everyone across the science and technology community can sign up to.”

“This is going be the big challenge we face over the coming years – how to really improve our productivity so we can help ensure we can get the wage rises we all want'

Davies' first priority is to keep strengthening links with businesses, while the second is to continue deepening DBT’s expertise on economic growth and productivity. “This is going be the big challenge we face over the coming years – how to really improve our productivity so we can help ensure we can get, frankly, the wage rises we all want.

“We've got some great expertise here. I'm keen to make sure we draw on insights we've got from our international networks on that, along with with our economists and people working day-in, day-out with businesses.

Finally, like Munby and Pocklington, he wants to build on the foundations of change set in the last year and “really create that sense of one DBT.”

This will involve making the most of technology and supporting the Places for Growth agenda through the department’s seven hubs. But he says that, over all this, “probably my biggest priority is just making [DBT] a great place to work. I really want to make sure that everyone who works here feels valued, supported, listened to, but most of all, knows that their work makes a difference.”

Munby sums up the sense from all perm secs as they celebrate the anniversary of those unexpected calls last year: “I think all three departments have had very impressive years, while also managing a hell of a lot of change. The whole thing has actually been an example of a civil service at its best responding to something that ministers asked us to do – not dropping the ball on delivery, and engineering what's actually really serious and complex change. Hats off to all our teams!”

To read the full interview with Davies, Munby and Pocklington, covering how they managed the process of building new departments and what lessons they have picked up for future MOG changes, sign up here to make sure you receive the spring issue of CSW.

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