'Our people didn’t just manage, they excelled': Peter Schofield on how DWP handled the pandemic

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: DWP

By Civil Service World

15 Dec 2020


What are you proudest of your organisation or team achieving in 2020?

It’s been a big year for the Department of Work and Pensions and probably the proudest I’ve felt during my entire career as a civil servant. As soon as we started to see the economic impacts of Covid-19, my entire department came together quickly with a can-do attitude to face the challenge. With huge increases in Universal Credit claims, our people didn’t just manage, they excelled. This wouldn’t have been possible without our people taking on new or expanded roles and learning different skills to make sure we could process and pay millions of new Universal Credit claims on time.

The majority of colleagues continued to come into the office throughout this time so we could continue to deliver vital services, and we invested in digital equipment so increasing numbers of colleagues could work effectively from home. We rapidly introduced new ways for customers to interact with us and worked across teams, across government and with our external partners to join up services.

DWP has played a crucial role in providing a vital safety net for those who need us, and I couldn’t be prouder.

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

During the first few weeks of Covid, it felt like I was running on adrenaline alone. At the time it felt like a good idea, but it isn’t sustainable. With people working from home, it’s even more difficult to have that mental barrier between work and other things in your life. I’ve been using my regular leadership calls to remind leaders at all levels to make sure they take a break – whatever that looks like. We can’t help the public if we haven’t taken care of ourselves.

"During the first few weeks, it felt like I was running on adrenaline alone. It felt like a good idea, but it isn’t sustainable"

What are the main challenges facing your organisation in the coming year?

We’ve made massive progress this year. The challenge of Covid has forced us to change and, as a result, improve our service. We’ve brought forward a number of transformation projects that we had planned for the future. Now we need to build on that momentum. We’ve already established a plan for where we’ll be by March 2021, and with clear ambitions we can start to build our new future beyond that. As the biggest ministerial department, we also have an exciting opportunity to be at the centre of the upcoming civil service reform which fits well with our own transformation plans.

People will have to be more creative about celebrating this year. How will you make the festive period on Zoom special?

I’ve become a bit of a video conference expert this year. My usual site visits to our offices around the country haven’t been possible, so I’ve instead met thousands of colleagues using video calls. But at home, I’m the least IT literate of everyone. Zoom will have its place in our Christmas, to enable us to connect with family and friends we aren’t able to be with in person, and I am already looking forward to a Zoom quiz night coming up.

But other than that, my task will be to try to get as many of my family off all types of social media for long enough to enable us to sit round a table and do old-fashioned things like chat and play board games. 


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