By Jonathan Owen

26 Jul 2017

Departmental chiefs open up about areas of concern across government, including the need to focus on delivery and the impact of London house prices on the civil service

The civil service should beware of being the “busy fool” and must focus on delivering policies amid the uncertainty Britain now faces in the run up to Brexit, departmental chiefs have said.

The candid remarks were made during a plenary session on leadership at Civil Service Live earlier this month. Alex Chisholm, permanent secretary at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and Richard Heaton, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Justice, opened up about some of the issues they are most concerned about.

The civil service needs to concentrate more on translating policy into results, according to Chisholm. He said: “We’ve probably all experienced in our own departments this phenomenon whereby a huge amount of effort goes rushing in to develop a policy and announce a policy and then there’s a general vacation from the area and a very much smaller group of people left to actually make it happen and see it through.”


Chisholm, who has spent half his career in the private sector, added: “We should challenge ourselves to be more outcome oriented” and argued for a “greater emphasis right across the civil service on delivery”. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, he highlighted a project from his own department – the smart metering programme – as a model for others to follow. The permanent secretary described how: “The team who lead that have been doing it for seven years and that is incredibly rare…one of the reasons it is going so well is that the same people have been at it for a long while, figured out solutions and ways to deal with it – they haven’t just moved on for their next exciting opportunity or promotion, we’ve kept them and that I think is a model for how we should place a stronger emphasis on delivery in the civil service.”

Calling for a greater learning culture, Chisholm commented: “On learning and development, having worked in the private sector I can make some comparisons. I actually don’t think we do enough of it in the civil service…I think we spend a bit too much time doing stuff and not enough reflecting…coaching each other on it, because we are all so busy there’s the risk of being the busy fool and endlessly reinventing things.”

Chisholm, a father of three boys, recounted overhearing his teenage sons speaking about him and one remarking that he is “so relentless” – something the BEIS perm sec views as a quality. 

He has overcome various obstacles in his life, not least dealing with a stutter he had as a child, and said that while he may be a permanent secretary, he does not see himself as the “finished article” and is always looking to improve.

He also gave an insight into the rather haphazard start to his current job, telling delegates: “This time last year I was in my second week as permanent secretary at DECC [the Department of Energy and Climate Change] and got a call from the Cabinet Office saying you’re being merged, not sure which department yet. I think the first suggestion was Defra [the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs]. By lunchtime it had moved to transport, by teatime it was the department for business.”

The turbulence in which the civil service is currently operating in was raised by Heaton, who told delegates: “I think the context in which we lead is characterised by really acute uncertainty in so many areas. Brexit: we simply don’t know at this stage quite what path Brexit will take, quite what dislocation there will be…there’s a fantastic amount of uncertainty around Brexit.”

Leaders need to find a way of “accentuating the continuous” and trying to be in control of something, the MoJ permanent secretary warned. “If you lead an organisation in times of uncertainty and you’re simply a victim of events in all situations, in all contexts, you’re going to have a really tough time. Try and be in control of something, try to be the designer of what’s to come rather than simply being the victim of events.”

Heaton also raised the issue of rising house prices in London, which he predicts will force many civil servants further away from the capital. 

He said: “Housing prices mean we can’t, on public sector wages, be London-centred in the future unless something dramatic happens to housing prices and there’s a crash which none of us want.

“When I started, everyone bought a house within months of joining the civil service…and now it’s just inconceivable so something has got to shift and I think the outside London focus – we could be forced in that direction by house prices.”

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