On a crisp January morning in 2018, Peter Schofield walked along Downing Street on his way to meet the prime minister. Theresa May had asked to interview candidates for the role of permanent secretary at the Department for Work and Pensions, and Schofield had made the shortlist.
“I was pinching myself, thinking: ‘Take this in because this is never going to happen again’,” Schofield recalls. “It was just me, her and her private secretary in her study – it was a pretty conventional interview. But then she asked me a question I wasn’t really expecting.
“She said, ‘I’ve looked at your CV, Peter, and you’ve been in the Treasury, you’re currently finance director general, you’re all about economics, money, finance, numbers. Why should you be the DWP permanent secretary because, for me, DWP is all about people?’”
He told the prime minister that his motivation for almost all the jobs he had done was the impact they had on people. “So although in the Treasury I was doing things like saying no to transport projects, it was really about choosing how to invest people’s money in transport. Working on business policy was to create jobs for people. The housing role was about creating places for people to live. Even in the finance job in DWP, it was about providing the resources to enable people to feel supported.”
The answer must have reassured May because later that day cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood let him know he had the job. With it came the chance to “play on the biggest canvas of all” and, with the help of over 80,000 colleagues, to have an impact on the lives of some 23 million customers.
Six years on, it’s clear from the admiration Schofield inspires among those who work for him at DWP that Theresa May needn’t have worried. One senior DWP official – when contacted by CSW for their verdict on the perm sec – even inadvertently responds to May’s question, describing Schofield as “a class act…he’s had a serious economic and commercially focused career but somehow pulls great leadership out of the bag, setting a really positive and can-do culture across DWP”.
Asked which roles or moments in his career shaped his approach to leadership, Schofield talks about a journey of three stages.
“Letting go was probably the first part of the leadership challenge for me,” he says. “In my early days of the Treasury, I was learning to empower, to give a structure and set of objectives and to let colleagues fill in the gaps.”
The second element was recognising that success went beyond his own personal achievements.
“It’s quite a big step to take pride in the success of your teams when you haven’t directly been responsible for it, but you’ve appointed the people to roles and nurtured them, supported them and given them some direction,” he says.
The third part of Schofield’s leadership journey has been learning the role of “potentially boring things” like process and governance, and also “how to set a culture using things like values” (see box, below).
“In an organisation with over 80,000 colleagues you don’t know what every person does. You don’t know what every team leader or manager does. Often you don’t even know what every director is doing. But you can set structures and frameworks that enable what you want to see delivered – both by empowering people but also giving people the right accountability system.”
Schofield on... DWP values
“Our five values as a department are: we care, we deliver, we adapt, we work together, we value everybody. We set them during the pandemic. It had been such an extraordinary period for us, in terms of the demand on our services. Millions of people were coming to DWP for the first time and we rose to the challenge – staff felt really empowered and proud of what they’d done. And so we thought: how do we bottle that? How do we describe what the DWP is like when we are at our best? And that’s where the values came from.”
Being perm sec also brings very particular leadership challenges, including moments where you must step forward with your views, take risks and then unequivocally be the person with whom the buck stops. Schofield can pinpoint a specific moment where he experienced this: 18 March 2020. Two days before, government had issued guidance encouraging people to stop non-essential contact and telling clinically vulnerable people to begin shielding. The first national Covid lockdown, however, was still a few days away. The DWP executive team had its usual Wednesday meeting, and was presented with data showing a huge spike in new Universal Credit claims the previous day.
The department had a number of business-continuity plans – one designed for pandemic flu, for example, and another preparing for a large economic downturn. These set out what Schofield describes as “a stately, step-by-step withdrawal from the things which are important but not immediately vital, to the things which you just have to do as an organisation”, with the final stage to focus on paying new claims for income-related benefits, particularly Universal Credit.
“We looked at the spike in claims and thought, if this is the first indication of the impact of a future lockdown, we’re going to have to do something very dramatic. So we decided – as an executive, but ultimately it was my decision chairing the meeting – that instead of that stately stepping back, we would go straight to the endpoint.
“As a result, we pivoted the whole organisation into paying Universal Credit claims first and foremost. If we hadn’t done it, looking back, we would have been overwhelmed. But at the time, it felt like a massive, dramatic step – and, with a supertanker-type organisation like DWP, once you pull the rudder, the ship will turn and it will turn inexorably.”
Schofield describes colleagues across DWP as “unsung heroes” for ensuring that benefits continued to be paid in spring 2020, amid demand that just kept rising after that first dramatic spike. But as the department was responding to those challenges, its perm sec was also dealing with another, much more personal shock. In mid-April he was told that he had Parkinson’s disease.
He had first noticed symptoms in early 2019 – a stiffness in his left arm that he initially thought was repetitive strain injury but which didn’t improve despite “all sorts of adjustments” provided by DWP’s occupational health team.
Receiving the life-changing news at the height of the first lockdown while steering the DWP supertanker through uncharted waters was, he recalls, “a really difficult time”.
“You discover that everyone’s experience of Parkinson’s is varied,” he says. “There’s no one, obvious model. It will get worse, there is no cure, but at the same time, it’s one of those things where the rate of progression varies between people. There are symptoms when I’m under pressure or when there’s emotional tension. It might happen when I’m standing in front of a big group of people, slightly out of my comfort zone, or a select committee. But it can also happen when I’m watching a sporting event that I care about.”
Telling people about his diagnosis has been a gradual process, starting with family, friends and close colleagues.
“These things should be talked about. I don’t want people, when they get a diagnosis like the one I’ve had, to have a sense that you can’t carry on doing a big job”
“To begin with, I really didn’t tell many people at all. People didn’t really need to know,” he says. “But I do think there are benefits to sharing it more widely, so I told directors in DWP a few months ago at an event. And I had overwhelming support. People want to hear how you are, but also I think people need senior folk to be role models sometimes with this sort of thing.”
Now he wants to get the word out more widely. “These things should be talked about,” he says. “I don’t want people, when they get a diagnosis like the one I’ve had, to have a sense that you can’t carry on doing a big job. It is something you’ll have forever and it will get worse, but it can be managed. And I think we do need to have people in big, significant jobs who have this experience as well.
“A silver lining is that I’ve got my own personal experience of leading an organisation when I’ve got a health condition and trying to manage that. I think it’s important for DWP, it’s important for the civil service, but it’s also important more broadly for us as a society, in terms of how we encourage other employers to help people stay in work when they develop a health condition. Because it matters – there are many talented people who otherwise are not benefiting the economy, and also aren’t achieving their own potential in our society.”
Another silver lining: it has spurred him to get fitter than ever.
“The one way that they think you can potentially slow the progression of Parkinson’s is exercise,” Schofield says. “So I find myself working on a quite intense exercise regime every week. I do a long run at the weekend, I try to do eight or nine miles. And I do some intensive interval training during the week as well.
“If you said to me three, four, five years ago, I’d be running eight or nine miles regularly, I’d have looked at you slightly critically and wondered what on earth had happened. There’s this bizarre thing of having a movement disorder, and yet I’ve never felt fitter.”
Despite this, Schofield admits with a smile that the diagnosis has given him a “good excuse” to stand down from climbing and zipwire activities at GoApe which he used to do with his kids. “You’re about 10 to 15 metres off the ground – not great if you’re afraid of heights,” he says. “I wouldn’t do that again.”
Alongside his impressive exercise regimen, Schofield’s home life is spent with his wife and three teenage children, the eldest of whom has just started university. GoApe may be off the agenda these days but there are plenty of his kids’ rugby and hockey games to attend. His wife is a big fan of open-water swimming and, while he might remain on the shore (“it’s never been for me,” he says), learning more about the hobby has given Schofield a useful metaphor for the kind of leadership he tries to practise at DWP.
“When you’re in the waves and you’re ploughing through as best you can, at times you look up and around – it’s called spotting – and work out: where am I going? Am I still getting where I need to?”
It’s the role of a perm sec, he says, to be clear on where an organisation is going and give a sense of direction to teams who are bobbing up and down in the waves. Leaders need to keep an eye on spending controls, headcounts and day-to-day policy challenges, he says, “but you also need to be the person who’s saying: ‘This is the vision’, and keep connecting people with that future so that they move towards it”.
For DWP, he says, that vision is the opportunity to transform the way business is done, to change the support provided to deliver services more efficiently, “using machines to do things that machines do best, and people to do things people do best” – namely helping the department’s most vulnerable customers.
Universal Credit is a “classic” example of the opportunities that transformation programmes present, he says.
“We streamlined the number of benefits,” he says. “We took six benefits and took complexity out and had one benefit, Universal Credit. We’ve put it on a digital platform – that’s taken out the need for so many people to do processing work. We’ve reinvested the savings, so we’ve now got more people in work coach roles helping people into work.”
The department is also exploring the use of artificial intelligence, for example using a machine which scans incoming letters to identify anything that might suggest the writer needs immediate support. Instead of being dealt with weeks later, concerns are flagged up straight away.
CSW asks Schofield how he feels when he reads articles in the press about DWP staff who allegedly take a ‘tick box’ approach to deny people benefits.
Such stories affect him profoundly, he says before adding that while “you cannot fix each and every case that goes wrong in such a vast organisation” you can change the processes, the structures and the values. He points to the Serious Case Panel as one of the ways the department has been responding to tales of the benefits sanctions regime.
While the panel – which has evolved since its creation in 2019 to include the whole of DWP’s executive team – doesn’t take on every individual case, it looks at the themes raised by particular types of problem to try to get ahead of those problems in the future.
“One of the earliest things we talked about on the panel was those situations where someone might have made a claim and then we lose contact with them,” Schofield says. “Or they may have been in payment but we needed to check something and we can’t get hold of them. You get to a point where you’ve got to protect taxpayers’ money, so ultimately there is a point where you switch off the benefits. But how do you make absolutely sure, before you do that, that someone is not vulnerable and the reason that they haven’t been in touch is because of a situation in their own lives which they need care and support for, rather than just that they weren’t entitled to the benefit?
“So, as a result, we’ve created advanced customer senior support leads whose job is to check what we know about that individual, or what other agencies know about them, as a way of understanding their vulnerabilities. It’s about double checking that you don’t end up making a decision that you may wish that you hadn’t made further down the track.”
A key part of how Schofield has been trying to shape the department during his tenure has been to ensure DWP sees its role as part of “a wider set of systems that involves other players, particularly other government departments”.
“Often in DWP, you’re trying to address an issue, but it’s arisen because of something that needs to be fixed further up the stream,” he says. The department’s Back to Work plan, which includes proposals to get long-term sick and disabled benefits claimants back into employment, is one example of this, with DWP working jointly with the Department of Health and Social Care on the proposals.
Another principle of “Schofieldism” is developing multidisciplinary teams. “Having policy and delivery together in one place is a great strength of the department,” he says. “So when we’re developing a new policy, we do it through the lens of how we’re going to make it happen.”
Schofield says a “brilliant” example of this was the one-off cost-of-living payments announced by then-chancellor Rishi Sunak in May 2022, “a whole new benefit we’d never really done before”, he explains. As the scheme was developed with the Treasury, Schofield ensured policy, delivery and digital officials were all together in the room. He says this meant the department could make the first payments just six weeks after the policy was announced.
Indeed, Schofield had a unique opportunity to understand the value of connecting across the organisation in the early months of the pandemic. With non-essential travel limited, he began to work from his local jobcentre, joining its staff meeting each morning.
“That is part of the power of an integrated department like DWP. There are not many organisations at this scale that link big policy through to on-the-ground delivery”
It really hammered home the importance of listening to colleagues on the frontline of customer service, Schofield says. “That is part of the power of an integrated department like DWP,” he adds. “There are not many organisations at this scale that link big policy through to on-the-ground delivery.”
Given his evident pride in his employees and their work, it’s unsurprising that Schofield says it hits him hard when he hears that a member of the public has come into a jobcentre and threatened staff. To support colleagues working in potentially volatile environments, he says the department tries to ensure that any employee who has “had a difficult conversation and is finding that challenging” is provided with immediate support.
Schofield’s personal drive to help those in need within the civil service community extends beyond DWP’s staff. As chair of the Charity for Civil Servants, he shares insight and advice with the charity – something which its CEO Graham Hooper says is “invaluable”. “Kindness is such an important, yet under-rated quality,” Hooper tells CSW over email, “but it’s something which Peter demonstrates so powerfully in everything he does.”
The charity’s work often involves providing current or former civil servants with financial assistance. As with colleagues in other departments, the last few years have been a real challenge for some DWP officials. They have had to deal with a cost-of-living crisis and a battle for better pay, with thousands going on strike. But they have also faced significant staff shortages which have led the PCS union to call for the department to recruit some 30,000 extra employees.
On the staffing crisis, he says the department is “making good progress” with its plans to recruit thousands of extra work coaches and officials to combat fraud and error in the benefits system. “It’s always a challenge, because as well as recruiting, you need to train and support people so that they are as effective as possible. But we’re doing that as fast as we can,” he says.
During CSW’s wide-ranging conversation with Schofield – which flits across decades, geographical locations and those who have inspired him – the discussion turns to the importance of one’s personal moral purpose during difficult periods. He speaks of a former permanent secretary who gave a talk about going through hard times and facing pressure to make unpalatable choices.
“He said, ‘You can always find another job but you can’t reinvent your values – something might feel like the easiest course of action in the short term but you need to remember the long term perspective, who you are as a person’.”
Schofield adds that while everyone has their own way of doing this, for him, his Christian faith has helped him “think about who I am as a person and what really matters to me”.
“I believe we’re put on this earth in order to hopefully make a difference and make life better for our fellow citizens,” he says.
It seems that the sudden curveball life threw at him in 2020 has only sharpened his sense of purpose, particularly when it comes to his work.
“You don’t know what lies ahead,” he says. “There’s one path where there’s a Parkinson’s cure between now and then, progression is limited and I manage through. There’s another where my period of being as active as I am is shorter. It’s that lack of knowledge about the future that is most difficult. But other than doing the exercise, there’s nothing I can do to affect that.
“It’s about making as much difference as you can in the here and now, and this is a role where I feel I can make a massive difference.”
Schofield on... The Late Alistair Darling
“Alistair and I had kept in touch a bit since I’d been his private secretary in 1997 and it was great to see him in action in the chancellor role when I returned to the Treasury as a director in 2008.
“I have very fond memories of him. He was a kind, gentle person, but at the same time, very clear-sighted about what needed to be done. He was wise, and very, very calm in what were unbelievably difficult circumstances. I don’t know what his emotions were underneath, but the importance of people in leadership roles keeping a calmness about them can’t be underestimated. Alistair role-modelled that brilliantly, and I think I absorbed a lot from watching how he did that.
“Then there was his wonderfully dry sense of humour. He always managed to lighten the mood at the times when that was needed. On his very first day as chief secretary to the Treasury in 1997 I was running his private office. Here was the first Labour chief secretary in 18 years. Everyone was very nervous. He and I sat down to work through a thick file of briefing papers while my private office colleagues went to make him some coffee. But in their nervousness, they poured the coffee into an empty sugar bowl, which looked exactly the same as the coffee cups except for the fact it didn’t have a handle.
“The coffee arrived on a saucer but I was too anxious to take my eyes off the new minister so I didn’t notice anything – until I finally realised that he was looking down at his ‘cup’ and trying to work out how to pick it up. And I thought ‘Oh, gosh’, but I kept talking. And eventually he said, ‘Peter, you’re going to have to stop. You’re telling me about the state of the public finances, but I can see it’s even worse than you say because the Treasury can’t even afford handles for your coffee cups.’”