As he starts a new job as Cabinet Office permanent secretary and civil service chief operating officer, Alex Chisholm talks to Suzannah Brecknell about his priorities for reform across government and what he’s learnt from an eventful stint leading the business department
When Alex Chisholm started his first perm sec job, the department he joined – energy and climate change – was abolished nine days later. Four years on, having helped to create and then lead the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, he has just changed job again. This time, he’s joined the Cabinet Office as its permanent secretary and as chief operating officer of the civil service. And while there are no signs of the department being abolished yet, the relentless impact of Covid-19 has not made this an easy time to start leading the organisation that oversees government’s response to national emergencies and crises.
Speaking to Chisholm three weeks into his new job (via Google Meet since Chisholm, like most of the civil service, is working almost entirely from home) CSW points out his unenviable knack for being thrown in at the deep end of new jobs. “Lightning strikes twice, you could think,” he quips.
But it’s clear that although the circumstances are challenging, he’s excited to be leading the Cabinet Office team at such a crucial time and has had very positive first impressions: “Even amongst the torrent of work I have had a really warm welcome and full support from my new colleagues.” He adds that he doesn’t think these two demanding job starts are just bad luck or a coincidence. Instead, it reflects the nature of modern society, with constant change and mini-crises for government, and this is the context in which he is developing his thoughts about the next stages of civil service reform. He says that psychologically, people have this idea about what normal life is – “a steady state type situation”. But over the last 20 years government has faced several major challenges, from the dotcom crash in 2000 through the 2008 financial crisis, the climate emergency and EU exit to Covid-19.
“That’s telling you something: the times we live in are constantly changing around us and the magnitude of the challenges is very significant [so] the civil service has got to take another leap forward in terms of its capabilities to be able to deal with that constant change successfully.”
As civil service COO, Chisholm must oversee the reforms to bring about that leap forward. This is technically a new role, as he takes over from Sir John Manzoni who was the chief executive of the civil service alongside being Cabinet Office perm sec. But this is, as Institute for Government programme director and former Cabinet Office insider Alex Thomas put it in April’s CSW, “distinction without a difference”. The structure of government, with perm secs leading their own autonomous departments, meant Manzoni was never able to act as a chief executive in the way most businesses would understand the role.
Asked how he would describe his new position to civil servants in a tax or benefits office, Chisholm starts by pointing out that he thinks of himself as working for these frontline colleagues. Three weeks into the new job, he continues, it splits pretty naturally into four quarters. The first two relate to his permanent secretary duties. Firstly, leading a department which employs nearly 8,000 people who “have a right to expect from me… strong and effective leadership and support for the development of the department as a great place to work,” and secondly, working with ministers to deliver the policy agenda of that department. “Right now we’re obviously very focused on coping with Covid-19 and how we recover from that. Our other top priorities are completing the EU exit transition on time, preserving the union, and constitutional reform.”
“I don’t believe that change in the civil service comes from marching around issuing orders to people – it is absolutely about persuasion”
Alongside this already large agenda, the COO title brings two more elements to his job – driving a programme of reform across the civil service and finally “engaging across the civil service” and externally to understand the aspirations of colleagues across government and “what our customers want from us”.
“[The civil service] is very diverse and disparate,” he says. “I will be trying to get my arms around that diversity and difference to understand: what are the things that really define us as civil servants? And what do those civil servants expect of the senior management – including me – to support them to be effective in their day-to-day working lives?”
John Manzoni was appointed to the CEO role just a year after joining the civil service and after a long career in oil and gas. But Chisholm is more of an insider – he first joined government as a fast streamer in what was then the Office for Fair Trading some 30 years ago, and has been meeting other perm secs around the table at Wednesday Morning Colleagues for four years. One former coworker describes him “energetic and reforming” and suggests that although Chisholm has a pleasant style, he will be a “good enough operator to keep the egos [around the perm sec table] in check”. But Chisholm has not had the usual policy and private office career track that many perm secs do; nor is he really a career civil servant.
After his time in the OFT and the Department for Trade and Industry, Chisholm spent several years in the private sector, both in corporate roles and as an entrepreneur (starting up his company selling rare and historical plant bulbs). He spent six years at the Commission for Communications Regulation in Ireland – the final three as its chief executive – before being appointed the first chief exec of the Competition and Markets Authority in 2013.
His time as a regulator gives a sense of his approach to his new job, since regulators, like the Cabinet Office, must try to achieve government’s objectives using a mixture of formal powers and informal advocacy.
Soon after landing the top job at CMA, Chisholm told CSW that he wouldn’t be “bashing people over the head” in order to fulfil his advocacy role. To be influential, he said, one must “get in there early when ideas are still in the development phase” and use patience, partnerships, and persuasive analysis based on a strong evidence base to convince people to follow your agenda.
Reflecting now on how he’ll approach the new role, he says: “I don’t believe that change [in the civil service] comes from marching around issuing orders to people.” With this group of “brilliantly talented, capable, committed group of people”, he says, change is “absolutely about persuasion”.
“Of course you have authority and you have control systems, but that is really reinforcing a direction that people willingly want to go,” he continues, adding that: “The other thing that you get from regulatory life is that [as a regulator] what you want to do is try and create frameworks in which people can do the right thing. That mindset is very characteristic for me about what I think about how to bring about change.”
Although no formal plans have been announced yet, Chisholm outlines three broad areas he wants to focus on as he develops a reform agenda for the civil service. The first is “making sure that we have the best people with the skills and the knowledge that they need to do this very demanding and important work, and to make sure that we’re using all the skills of the UK population – every walk of life, every social, academic and professional discipline and every part of the country.”
To achieve this, he will be drawing on lessons from his time at BEIS, where he led a concerted effort to improve diversity among senior teams in particular. That work paid off – the proportion of women in SCS rose to 46%, and seven of nine directors general in the department are now women. Its gender pay gap also shrank, BAME participation rose, and People Survey scores on D&I improved significantly, with 82% of BEIS staff now saying they see the department as committed to creating a diverse and inclusive workforce.
“It requires strong leadership, but it also requires massive engagement across the whole organisation. And at BEIS we had absolutely brilliant staff networks, a really strong and effective HR department, and any number of individuals and teams who were prepared to go the extra mile to create an excellent working environment. Happily, I am seeing this again in my first few weeks in the Cabinet Office.”
One observer who watched Chisholm develop reforms in BEIS – though not from within the department – notes that the perm sec helped to create a culture which genuinely focused on welcoming and supporting individuals to do their best. Chisholm himself describes trying to create a “spirit of being very focused on the mission, very supportive and collaborative”, adding that this is a culture he wants to promote across the civil service.
Government should be “absolutely results-oriented, delivering on the objectives of government and the requirements of our citizens”, he says. But he adds that the way to do that “is actually to make the best of all the talents we have, working in a really collaborative way with a sense of common purpose.”
Chisholm’s focus on creating a common purpose fits neatly with the focus on cross-government strategies set out in Mark Sedwill’s Fusion agenda. Both talk about the need to establish broad understanding of government’s aims and mission in order to facilitate better partnerships and a clear focus on outcomes. Chisholm says that at BEIS, this common purpose was built through sustained leadership attention and careful use of data to establish the need for change. Or, as he puts it, the “power of the mirror”. “If people feel that they’re comfortable with the way things are, then show them what [the status quo] is and people often say, ‘Oh really, is that actually the case?’”
He also wants to see civil servants change the way they describe their jobs as they build this common purpose. “One of the things that is quite characteristic of civil servants – and it’s partly a modesty thing, which I know is in our culture – is if you ask people what they do, they usually describe where they work and, within that, what broad areas of responsibility that they occupy. But in a way, most of our work could be defined by outcomes: what are we trying to achieve, and what have we achieved? Being very, very clear about what we’re trying to achieve through our day-to-day activities – I think it is very important to that sense of mission and our value that we want to bring.”
He is conscious that creating this culture in which a common purpose stimulates better outcomes and greater diversity will need more than warm words. He cites the concrete progress in BEIS as evidence of real change – not just the increasing gender diversity but also the growing proportion of BAME colleagues at director and director general level.
Of course, pretty much all senior leaders in government will readily discuss the importance of diversity. But Chisholm’s commitment to change runs deep and he is not complacent about how much more work is needed. In BEIS, he says, “I was very influenced talking with mentors, my reverse mentors and the diversity networks about the experience that people have from different communities. I could see how the status quo wasn’t acceptable; that this was a big change requirement and that as a leader, it was not just my opportunity, but really my responsibility to bring about that change.”
In his new role, he is making the same commitment, emphasising the importance not just of gender and racial diversity but of cognitive, social and professional diversity as well. “I take my responsibilities as the new COO of the civil service very seriously: that it is a change agenda, not a ‘carry on as we are’ agenda.”
“Diversity is a change agenda. It’s not a ‘carry on as we are’ agenda”
When Chisholm mentions harnessing the skills of the whole UK, he means both by working with people from across the public and private sectors, but also being less London-centric as an organisation. There is already momentum behind this agenda from both officials – through the hubs programme – and politicians through the levelling-up agenda. But unions have criticised efforts so far, saying that not enough thought has been put into building locations with a critical mass of organisations and roles that would allow civil servants to develop their careers in one part of the country without feeling the pull of London to further their ambitions. Chisholm says he “absolutely” sees the need to be more strategic about moving work out of London, and points to the Next Steps reform programme – which coincided with his early years as a civil servant – as an example of what can be achieved.
Next Steps, which Chisholm remembers as an “exciting programme”, took what were then seen as core parts of departmental work and moved them into free standing agencies which were mostly located outside London. As examples of its success he points to Companies House and the Intellectual Property Office – now located in Cardiff and Newport respectively, and doing work which was previously done by DTI civil servants in Victoria Street. So the time may be right for “a more ambitious programme of thinking about where and how work is best done,” he says.
Chisholm on... responding to Covid-19
Government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been “amazingly impressive”, and has required “an absolutely extraordinary effort” from the public and private sectors, as well as academia, Chisholm says.
“The level of commitment required of people to [respond] has been so intense that you wouldn’t want us to have to try and operate in that way, ceaselessly.” Nor, he adds, would you want to experience again a crisis which will have “the biggest economic impact we’ve seen for 300 years. Or so the economic historians are telling us…you wouldn’t want that to happen more than once in your lifetime, in fact ideally not even once.”
But putting those two things aside, he says, “there are actually elements of our response to this crisis that you would want to keep a hold of”. These include the ability to take good decisions quickly using available data and evidence, making use of skills from multiple disciplines and professions including those outside of government. “I think that is very, very healthy and very, very important in my vision for the civil service.”
Then there is the ability to develop new policies and systems. “People tend to say the civil service is very good at improvising, but not very good at systematic innovation,” he says. The Covid-19 response has included “impressive improvisation”, he says, but “we’re also beginning to see what I regard as really innovative thinking that has gone into, for example, thinking about how we can learn to live with the virus with more effective use of these track and trace systems using technology [and] applying what we know from behavioural science.”
Covid-19 has shown that even the most minister-facing roles can be location-neutral, so that in 30 years we may look back and wonder why we ever thought certain jobs had to be done from London. “Historically, we sometimes had ministers who said “I don’t mind where you work, but I need you to be in my office at half an hour’s notice,’” Chisholm quips. Meanwhile ministers themselves – “especially in the last government” needed to be within a few minutes of the Palace of Westminster so they could rush back for votes.
“Now, given that both parliament and ministers have had, along with all of us as civil servants, the experience of working more from home more and using digital platforms for cabinet meetings and even parliamentary hearings, we don’t want to go back to saying that face to face is the only way of doing business.”
Chisholm’s second category of change is to “continue the adaptation to being more flexible, more digital, and more data-based in our working.” The Covid-19 response has shown what government can do, he says, citing both the use of data science to help drive good and rapid decisions, and the proliferation of vital digital services: GOV.UK currently has 57 live digital services and tools related to Covid-19, with up to 158 million weekly views at peak. But the pandemic response has also “lit up the path ahead in terms of our being more agile and much better supported by technology, freeing us from the constraints of location and organisational boundaries.”
This applies to both citizen-facing services and the systems with which civil servants interact – legacy systems, “many of which were designed years ago and are not smooth, seamless, cloud-based and easy to use but rather are actually pretty clunky and expensive to use. That is not a good experience either for the civil servants using them or for the citizens at the other end of the delivery chain”.
It is not until his final category of change that Chisholm mentions the reform with which his predecessor was synonymous – the functions – and he mentions them as a supporting role to the objective of “getting good at the delivery of better outcomes.”
“If you look at our reputation, we’re seen as being outstanding for our ethos and our work, but our ability to deliver programmes on time to budget is pretty poor. We need to accept that and change it”
“If you look at the record and reputation of the civil service, it’s rightly seen as being outstanding for its integrity and its level of public service commitment: the service ethos and work ethic of civil servants,” he says.
“In contrast, our ability to deliver programmes on time and to budget is pretty poor. That is seen and noted by our fellow citizens who depend on the services we provide: we need to accept that and change it because successful delivery of projects and services is really critical to people’s experience of the state and public services.”
Achieving this will mean “further strengthening of skills and methods, clarity about people’s roles, and clarity about the support that comes from the centre”. The central functions have been “successfully developed” over the last five years, he says, but are at different levels of maturity. “We need to bring them all to the same level of excellence and maturity,” he says, mentioning the commercial and property functions as well as the IPA as exemplars. Alongside this, he wants to take “the same mission of professionalisation” into other, more traditional, parts of the civil service: policy and operational delivery. He says he is already working on this agenda with Jonathan Slater, Department for Education perm sec and head of the policy profession, and the heads of the two big operational departments, DWP and HMRC. Together, he says, they will work to bring the same “investment in skills, capabilities and support systems” to operational and policy staff as we have seen in the centralised functions.
What about how the functions work with the other parts of the civil service? Having come to the centre from one of the so-called departmental baronies, how does he think central teams can better support peers across the civil service?
He responds by rejecting the idea of departmental baronies, saying that over recent years, tackling various challenging and cross-cutting agendas from EU exit to net zero, “I just haven’t seen this mythical interdepartmental wrangling and baronial style.”
And when it comes to working with central teams, he paints a similar collaborative picture. On recent calls with heads of departments, he says, “people have been rightly effusive in their praise for the support they’ve been getting from commercial, from digital, from the IPA.” Alongside those 14 new services set up with support from GDS, he points to the fact that 500 people were brought in from commercial bodies across government such as Defence Equipment and Support to help buy PPE and other supplies for the health service from across the world. “Five years ago we just could not have done that,” he says. “We didn’t have these cross-cutting functions with that level of capability and flexibility.”
But the acquisition of PPE does not look – from the outside – like a success story, with reports of shortages and criticism levelled at government from all sides. Is he arguing that without the functional system, things could have been even worse?
“No question. I mean the amount of PPE that you would need normally, compared to the amount that we’ve needed now, bear almost no recognition to each other,” he says. “We’ve had to buy two billion items of PPE in the last five weeks. There’s no way that you’d have an idle capacity for buying that amount of stuff on a ‘just in case’ basis: what you need is to have the ability across the system to flow expert help where it’s needed, when it’s needed. That’s what we’ve been able to do.”
All three of these reform agendas – people, digital, better outcomes – fit closely within the existing “Brilliant Civil Service” framework. And Chisholm’s emphasis on persuasion and shared values suggests something more like the collaborative approach of recent years, rather than a return to the mandation and disruption which took place under Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude’s time reforming government.
So what is new about Chisholm’s agenda? There’s the emphasis on a common, outcome-focused purpose – the desire for civil servants to describe their jobs in terms of what they are trying to achieve rather than the department and directorate they work in. But in Chisholm’s words – before he rushes to his next remote meeting – “it is all about change: the willingness and ability of the civil service not just to cope with change but actually to drive change, to bring public services to the next level”. This is something he feels well-versed in after many years in business and economic regulation before rejoining the business department: “At BEIS, which was formed from a merger, many people initially saw change as being quite disruptive and potentially even threatening. But they became very used to change, good at change and accepting of it.” As proof, he points out that in the 2019 Civil Service People Survey, BEIS was eight percentage points ahead of the overall benchmark in the area of leading and managing change, and 16 percentage points ahead of where it started in 2016. “That kind of change-orientation and confidence in our ability to undertake change, is something that I really want to be the watchwords in the new job.”
Chisholm on... pay challenges
In 2017, BEIS was one of the departments given some limited flexibility by the Treasury to reform its pay system, which it used to do things like lifting pay minima to address areas of low pay as well as some particularly wide pay bands. The changes, alongside reforms to performance management systems, have been welcomed by unions as positive reforms within the limits of the existing system.
In his new role as COO, the questions around civil service pay “are very high on my list of priorities to get into, as you would expect,” Chisholm says.
“I’d hardly be the only civil servant to feel that civil servants have experienced a very low level of pay progression over the last decade as a whole, and that clearly has brought its stresses and strains,” he continues, though he adds that “it would also be fair to recognise” that civil servants still have “relative job security”, and are in a “small minority in the wider economy in terms of having defined benefits for pension and relatively good terms around annual leave, parental leave and sick leave”.
“All of which said, I think that there are some pretty serious issues to engage with the workforce and with the unions and with leadership across the civil service to try and make sure pay is as fair as it needs to be and that it’s well aligned with strategic objectives.
“If you’re saying that you want a better delivery of projects, and you’re not seeing it, that might be an indication that there’s a problem there with incentives and what we’re expecting of people,” he says. Greater adoption of technology, he adds, probably means we can “expect a smaller civil service, but a better trained civil service, and I would certainly hope it will be a better paid civil service.”
Before allowing anyone to get too excited, he adds that “like anybody else in a leadership position. I’m incredibly conscious of the overall parameters in which we have to operate.” The huge spending in response to Covid-19 is going to lead to some “real questions of affordability across the public service”.
Given all these big and important questions, does he think it’s time for some radical thinking and reforming of pay across the whole civil service? Is it time to reconsider the use of delegated pay, which means that change happens in a piecemeal and fragmented way across government? His answer is short but, given the controversy of pay reform in general, holds some small encouragement for those who think this is the way forward: “Maybe.”