Gisela Stuart: ‘These exceptional times have demonstrated the value of an impartial civil service to vital democratic checks and balances’

The first civil service commissioner reflects on her first year in the role and recalls the 'Millennium bug'
The 'Millennium bug'. Photo: PA/Alamy

By Jess Bowie

19 Dec 2022


What has been your highlight of the past 12 months? 

Undoubtedly, being appointed as the first civil service commissioner.  

These have been exceptional times and they demonstrated the value of an impartial civil service as part of our vital democratic checks and balances. 

Elected governments can only function with the support of an effective civil service. As its regulator – providing assurance that appointment into the civil service is open, fair and on merit – the commission plays a vital part in maintaining the strength of the civil service. 

In our increasingly complex world, this requires greater two-way interchange between the public and private sector. Bringing in new skills and taking insights from the civil service into the private sector strengthens both sides. 

Civil servants have every right to take great pride in what they do. We all should do more to highlight the stunning opportunities offered by working in the civil service. 

It’s been a pleasure to get to know the new commissioners this year. They brought new perspectives and expertise from business, finance, HR and tech. I was proud to welcome our new chief executive, Kavalneer Walia, who leads our secretariat supporting the commission and two other independent bodies.  

"When I was a minister in 2000, we anticipated the millennium bug causing havoc across all government IT systems. There was a collective sigh of relief when only one NHS printer went wrong” 

What was your most difficult decision in 2022? 

It was difficult – but also enjoyable – to choose from 87 applications for the first ever Commissioners’ Mark of Excellence. This initiative, led by one of our commissioners, Natalie Campbell MBE, showcased innovative recruitment campaigns taking place across government.  The judging panel certainly had its work cut out. 

What is the biggest challenge to the Civil Service Commission in 2023, and how are you preparing to meet that challenge as an organisation? 

Adapting our regulatory model to an HR world where recruitment and the environment around us is changing rapidly. We expect a significant increase in open recruitment, and we want our regulatory model to enable departments where recruitment practice is strong and the commission’s recruitment principles are well embedded, whilst maintaining enduring standards.  

And personally, as a leader? 

Making sure that everyone involved in recruitment – HR officials, vacancy holders, panel members, departmental non-executives, search agencies, applicants – are aware of the commission’s recruitment principles and the civil service code from the outset. If they are understood and complied with, there is less work for the commission and we will have a more resilient civil service.  

It’s not only Santa who works at Christmas, what is your best, worst or weirdest experience of working in the festive season? 

Probably having responsibility for civil contingencies as a minister in the Department of Health in 2000. We anticipated the millennium bug causing havoc across all government IT systems. There was a collective sigh of relief when only one NHS printer went wrong as 1999 ended and a new millennium began. At the first cabinet meeting of the year 2000, at 7.30 in the morning, Westminster City Council reported that they had collected 37 tonnes of rubbish overnight, 32 tonnes of which was champagne bottles!

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