By Matt Ross

22 Dec 2014

For the last five years, Civil Service World has rounded off December by publishing a set of articles written by permanent secretaries and other key figures. This year, Matt Ross finds perm secs focusing on skills, Scotland, global threats – and the creeping advance of Xmas

Over the Christmas period we will be publishing the 2014 series of articles by 31 of the UK’s most senior civil servants: the cabinet secretary and civil service chief executive, 17 permanent secretaries, six chief executives and six heads of profession. Each of them explains how they’ve tackled their priorities this year, and sets out their objectives for the five short months until the general election – and their answers, viewed collectively, reveal how thinking has shifted on Whitehall during the year since we last published a Permanent Secretaries’ Round-Up.

Throughout 2009-‘12, civil service leaders focused on cutting spending, shedding staff and reforming their organisations. But by last year, most contributors were turning their attention to rebuilding civil service capabilities, with much talk of skills development – particularly in project management and commercial – and enthusiasm about the digital agenda.

These themes persist in 2014, along with the desire for greater interdepartmental collaboration. And the professions agenda appears to have taken off: barely mentioned last year, functional leadership and professional development are regularly cited as priorities during both 2014 and the Parliament’s remaining months. 

Interestingly, there is much greater consensus around the government’s policy challenges than we’ve seen in previous years. Several officials cite work on the Scottish referendum as an over-arching priority during 2014, and there’s one further unifying topic: 10 people mention overseas work and crisis management as a key challenge during the past year. Small wonder: it’s been a turbulent 12 months on the international stage, with the ebola outbreak; the rise of Isis in Iraq and Syria; wrangles over policing, appointments and budgets with the EU; Russia’s assault on Ukraine; and the ugly conflict in Gaza. Unfortunately, this stream of battles and disasters looks unlikely to slow down anytime soon.  

Nonetheless, civil service leaders must find the time to look inwards: as the election creeps closer, departments are rushing to complete delivery of the coalition’s policy programme. Sir Jeremy Heywood points out on the facing page that five-sixths of these policies have now been signed off, but that still leaves some fairly chunky pieces of work to wrap up.

Perhaps, though, there’s still time to deliver one additional new policy. Asked to name what makes them go “Bah, humbug!” at Christmas, half a dozen top officials name the season’s ever-earlier onset – with decorations and presents marketed from late autumn. There seems to be strong support for a law banning Christmas from starting too early. Could we, just this once, secure an exemption from the Red Tape Challenge?

The full 26-page spread can be found in our December issue of Civil Service World. We will be uploading each Perm Sec Round-Up individually over the Christmas period. 

Read the most recent articles written by Matt Ross - Civil service social mobility vision bags top prize

Share this page