The 2012 Permanent Secretaries' Round-Up
Analysis and Introduction
Every year, we ask a swathe of top civil servants to write 500 words for us, setting out the achievements and challenges of the year past, examining the agendas and tasks facing them in the year to come - and answering a lighter seasonal question (this year, we've gathered a set of cracker jokes!). You can access our 24 contributions via this page, including the pieces by the cabinet secretary, the head of the civil service, 14 departmental chiefs and a set of agency bosses.
It’s always fascinating reading the contributions to our Permanent Secretaries’ Round-Up – and not just to learn about individual officials’ views and priorities, but also for what can be gleaned from their articles in aggregate. The common themes paint a clear picture of people’s main concerns and priorities, offering a snapshot of Whitehall opinion that can be usefully compared with the answers given in previous years’ Round-Ups.
As usual, we have asked our permanent secretaries two questions about their priorities and achievements in the year just gone; two about their challenges and objectives for the year ahead; and a daft seasonal question, which this year has elicited a set of jokes whose impact is likely to range from the groan to the guffaw. Some 24 top officials have submitted articles, including the cabinet secretary and the head of the civil service, 14 department of state perm secs and three heads of key professions, plus a handful of the most interesting and important agency chiefs. The combined results blend the reassuringly predictable, the encouragingly enlightened, and the surprisingly absent.
Starting with those findings that confirm our expectations, contributors told us that the issues most commonly dominating their attention during 2012 have been the Olympics, economic growth and policy delivery – neatly matching the priorities that, a year ago, they told us they’d be focusing on. Each of these themes was named by about half a dozen contributors, with departmental reorganisations coming close behind.
This latter topic was rather less predictable: last year, most people seemed to think that they’d already achieved most of the restructuring that would be required. However, as many civil service leaders have realised, these are times of perpetual revolution: five people told us that organisational reforms have dominated their attention during 2012, and a similar number anticipate further upheavals ahead.
These are, at least, changes with a purpose: there’s little of the sense of frustration that permeated our 2008 Round-Up, when so many perm secs focused on the repeated machinery of government changes. But the uplifting flavour of 2010’s Round-Up has also long gone. Back then, the talk was of how well civil servants had responded to the hung parliament and the coalition’s agenda, and of the need for staff engagement and excellent leadership. Now, it’s all about delivering policies to help stimulate the economy, while enduring the constant buffeting of budget cuts and the organisational changes that flow from them.
A few other key themes emerged this year. A number of contributors talked about settling into their new jobs – reflecting the high levels of churn we’ve seen this year – and the autumn reshuffle has left some perm secs with a lot of new policy work. More generally, almost half of our authors cited *skills and training* as a key area for development, and digital capabilities gathered a lot of attention. Strategic ‘horizon-scanning’, better performance management, and the use of management information also picked up a fair number of mentions.
On the other hand, a few topics were notable by their absence. The environment is out of favour, with just two mentions; while open public services, open data and localism received surprisingly few references. These are big, cross-cutting themes – but they are not yet, it seems, cutting very deep.
Comparing Permanent Secretaries’ Round-Ups always reveals changing priorities; but in 2012, the common themes have shifted less than in any year since the start of the credit crunch in 2008. The Olympics has moved into the past – marked up as a big success, rather than a big challenge – but the focus remains firmly on policy delivery, departmental reorganisation and, above all, economic growth. Given the coalition’s limited progress in getting its policies enacted on the ground, the new round of administration budget cuts, and our continuing economic malaise, it is likely to stay there for some time to come.
For more on skills and training see our Editorial.
Permanent Secretary round-ups:
Head of the Civil Service
Ministry of Justice
Chief Procurement Officer
Department for Work and Pensions
Department for Business, Innovation and Skills
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
First Parliamentay Counsel, Cabinet Office
Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Chief Executive, Met Office
Chief Executive, HM Revenue and Customs
HM Procurator-General, Treasury Solicitor and Head of the Government Legal Service, Treasury Solicitor's Department
Permanent Secretary, Welsh Assembly Government
Permanent Secretary, Department for International Development
Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service
Ministry of Justice CIO and Chief Information Officer, Government
Permanent Secretary, Department of Health
Executive Director, Major Projects Authority
Director General, Government Equalities Office
Permanent Secretary, Department for Transport
UK Open Data Adviser; Chairman and Co-Founder of the Open Data Institute
Permanent Secretary, Department for Culture, Media and Sport
Permanent Secretary. Ministry of Defence
Permanent Secretary, Department for Education