By Civil Service World

22 Jan 2024

CSW’s perm secs round-up for 2023 provided yet another vintage year of insight from departmental leaders. Tevye Markson unwraps some takeaways

Civil service leaders have become accustomed to life in “permacrisis” in recent years, and 2023 was no different. 

From cross-sector pay strikes and crumbling concrete to the escalating Israel-Palestine conflict, last year was relentless for officials. But there are also signs that civil servants are becoming battle-hardened through this collective experience, as illustrated by the latest CSW perm secs round-up.

In what will be his last round-up entry before leaving the civil service, Cabinet Office permanent secretary Alex Chisholm said civil servants have a duty to be “calm and capable” and that the “myriad” challenges they have had to handle should make everyone “confident that we can cope with whatever tomorrow asks of us”. 

The determination to overcome challenges in government was, perhaps, best exemplified by Jayne Brady, head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service. She faced one of the toughest tasks of any civil service leader, with officials continuing to take charge of affairs in the absence of a Northern Ireland Executive – and having to find huge cuts to address Stormont’s budget deficit. Brady said NI civil servants “demonstrated incredible professional resilience” in 2023 “against a backdrop of global conflict, cost-of-living issues, stretched public services, the absence of our governing institutions and a very challenging financial position”. 

The sense that the civil service has strengthened through adversity is also reflected in answers to our  prompt: “Tell us three words that sum up your 2023...”, with “resilience” among the most popular picks.

Last year was also a time when perm secs had to adapt to significant machinery of government changes, with a rejig in February splitting up the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy into three new departments. Perm secs for the new organisations reflected on a “non-stop” year of “immense complexity”. 

Other themes that emerged include transformation, progress in relocating civil service jobs across the country and the exploration of AI. 

Conversely, another big topic – the looming general election, which must take place by next January – didn’t get much attention in the round-up, with only Chisholm bringing it up. He urged officials to “maintain the highest standards of commitment and performance” on either side of the vote and said it would be the “key challenge” for Cabinet Office leadership. 

Meanwhile, our traditional fun Christmas question – which this year was: “What’s your favourite festive treat, and what makes you say: ‘Bah, humbug’?” – revealed some very strong opinions about Christmas, including when decorations should go up, when present-buying should start, and the abbreviation “Xmas”. Many leaders had nothing but love for the season, with a quarter not having a single thing bad thing to say about the festive period.

There was, however, a divide on mince pies, with plenty indicating their love for the festive treat but two leaders admitting they are not fans, and one even suggesting they should go in the bin.

The answers also gave an insight into how the UK’s most senior civil servants like to unwind during the festive holidays, including sitting back and watching films with the family, playing Trivial Pursuit, and even refereeing a football match. If you ask us, never was a break so well deserved.

A call to be bold in 2024
“One of our central conclusions is that government must make faster decisions and ambitious goals must be backed up by policies of sufficient scale to move the dial. There are no perfect solutions and inaction – as well as action – has costs.” James Heath, chief executive, National Infrastructure Commission


New departments and new faces
“It’s been absolutely brilliant getting to know a whole load of new colleagues, and building a new department that covers some of the most important and interesting areas of policy in government… I’ve seen people do really amazing things this year.” Sarah Munby, permanent secretary, Department for Science, Innovation and Technology

“I was excited and honoured to be asked to lead the new department at the start of the year. I grew up in Liverpool in the ‘80s and saw firsthand what happened to communities when investment dries up, businesses close and people lose their jobs. It’s been rewarding to see the impact we’ve had over the last year. But most of all, it’s felt non-stop!” Gareth Davies, permanent secretary, Department for Business and Trade

“Moving from the banking sector to Whitehall has been eye-opening, but UKEF’s uniqueness for feeling, like you’ve got one foot in the civil service and the other in the private sector, has helped quite a bit. It’s been a busy, demanding year but incredibly enjoyable.” Tim Reid, chief executive, UK Export Finance


The tools you need
“The GOV.UK team’s new approach, combining social media, generative AI and short-form video, will help us to build trust in democracy and tackle misinformation.” Tom Read, chief executive, Government Digital Service

“What truly astonished me in 2023 was the ingenuity and innovation of many of my colleagues in quickly incorporating new tools into their work.” Fiona Ryland, chief people officer


So long, farewell 
“My personal priorities before I finish my term in April are threefold. First, to help pull together a compelling reform and productivity plan for the next era. Secondly, to manage a smooth handover to my successor. And thirdly, to get ready to walk the Camino.” Alex Chisholm, civil service COO

“The commission has existed for over 170 years, and I’m aware that my time as CEO has been just another chapter in that long history. I am very proud of what we have achieved over the years that I have been here.” Helen Stephenson, chief executive, Charity Commission

“2023 is my last full calendar year at the National Archives as my term will conclude by next summer. Having had the privilege of being chief executive and keeper since 2014, the organisation I will leave is very different from the one I joined.” Jeff James, chief executive, National Archives


It never rains but it pours…
“2023 has been a year when NI civil servants have again demonstrated incredible professional resilience. We commenced the year with optimism and a focus on rebuilding post-pandemic. The reality was quite different as we entered 2023 against a backdrop of global conflict, cost-of-living issues, stretched public services, the absence of our governing institutions and a very challenging financial position. Despite – or perhaps because of – these tests, we asked even more of our people, who continued to deliver their best for those we serve.” Jayne Brady, head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service

“Nothing ever goes exactly to plan […] so the autumn started off dominated by our work to manage RAAC [an aerated concrete used in schools and other buildings, now coming to the end of its lifespan]. I’m proud of how quickly we moved, and how few schools saw significant disruption – and that we’ve got a clear path to removing it all.” Susan Acland-Hood, permanent secretary, Department for Education

“Brexit, Covid, Cop26, Russia/Ukraine and now Israel/Gaza: these and the myriad other challenges of this era have made us more agile, imaginative and resourceful in our approach. We have greatly enhanced our expertise in digital, data and delivery. We should feel confident we can cope with whatever tomorrow asks of us.” Alex Chisholm, civil service COO and Cabinet Office permanent secretary


On being brave 
“We need to be bold and innovative, which can mean making brave choices. Over the summer we switched our self-assessment service to online, webchat and chatbot support... we’re evaluating the lessons from that trial and they’re really encouraging.” Angela MacDonald, second perm sec, HMRC


“Outside work, my personal priority is to spend as much time as possible with my teenage girls. I can suddenly see the moment coming when they’ll spread their wings – and though that’s wonderful, I’m realising how much I’ll miss them.” Susan Acland-Hood, DfE

“The real treat for me will be spending lots of time with my kids, who are now both teenagers, watching classic Christmas movies. My 13-year-old thinks he’s old enough for Die Hard, but honestly the jury is out on that one.” Tom Read, GDS

“I would have to say my favourite festive ‘treat’ is starting Christmas morning with a (sometimes rather chilly) run followed by watching my son play football on Boxing Day. I might even end up refereeing a match” Sir Ian Diamond, national statistician


And finally...
“I am reminded of the words of Seamus Heaney: ‘Hope is not optimism, which expects things to turn out well, but something rooted in the conviction that there is good worth working for.’” Jayne Brady, NICS 


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