Sarah Munby, perm sec of the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, shares her priorities for her new department, her experience of joining government as a director general, and the importance of not fretting
At the heart of what used to be just the Treasury’s building in London is an unusual circular court, known as The Drum. The sweeping lines of windows and the classical architecture make for a wonderful photoshoot backdrop, but Sarah Munby is a little worried.
Is this archetypal Whitehall building a bit too traditional for the head of a department with innovation and technology at its heart, she wonders, before joking that she should have brought a science-based prop with her. The permanent secretary is only half convinced by CSW’s reassurance that the courtyard was once used as a location for a James Bond film, and which crown servant has better tech than 007?
Munby is not setting out to equip officials with jet packs and exploding pens, however, so perhaps a better argument would have been that photographing her in The Drum illustrates the increasingly collaborative and location-agnostic work of the civil service. The building – once exclusively home to the Treasury – now houses civil servants from at least five departments, with Munby and her colleagues from the recently created Department for Science, Innovation and Technology among its newest residents.
Munby is in fact so new to the building that she nearly gets lost as we return to her airy, but temporary, office to wrap up a discussion covering her priorities for the new department, her optimism about how the civil service has changed and is changing, and the importance of tackling hierarchy to support innovation.
And although she’s yet to move into her permanent base (just up the road in another government building at the top of Whitehall), she’s personalised this space with a display of artwork made by her young children – or the “mini-Munbies”, as she memorably described them in an all-staff memo sent on the day the new department was announced.
“Well that was a call I didn’t expect,” the memo began. “One minute it’s packing the mini-Munbies off to school and the next minute, the boss wants to speak.”
As well as reflecting her down-to-earth style and dry humour, the message demonstrated the importance she places on the people she works with, and being as human as possible in the way she leads them. Her own reaction to the creation of a new department was enthusiasm tinged with sadness, and she was conscious that her staff would likely have similarly mixed feelings. “Most change is like that, isn’t it? There’s upsides and downsides,” she says. So, while the creation of DSIT has a “compelling logic”, she was keen to acknowledge her staff’s inevitable feelings of uncertainty and to reassure them about their jobs.
The need to be an honest, open leader was starkly apparent when she took up her first perm sec post at the now-disbanded Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
Munby had only been a civil servant for a year when she took on that role in the summer of 2020, having joined the department as a director general following a career with the consultancy firm McKinsey.
She would later tell a Women into Leadership conference that new jobs should be like children’s shoes “half a size too big, because you need space to develop”. But even with that wisdom in mind it must have been a shock to step into the perm sec role while she was still so new to government, and the country was navigating the early stages of Covid.
“It was a bit crazy,” she tells CSW with a smile, but then adds: “It seems weird to say it, but in many ways I think starting in the pandemic was really good for me.” It pushed her and other leaders across all sectors into “an even more open and human style of leadership,” she says.
“It was the homeschooling, the pets, the cooking, the seeing into people’s lives – and seeing into our leaders’ lives. I think it was really healthy to have it brought home to me early on just how important it is to allow everybody in the workplace to bring their whole self to work, to be authentically themselves.”
Taking on the permanent secretary role in a pandemic also highlighted the importance of looking after people in your team. “The challenges that people were going through, combined with what we were asking of them, which was enormous, made you – as a senior leader – constantly think about people, and about how they were feeling, what they needed, how you could support them.
“Of course, that feels obvious and we should have been doing it just as much before the pandemic as we were during the pandemic, but having that made absolutely front and centre from day one as a perm sec, I think it probably did me a lot of good and saved me from mistakes I might have otherwise made.”
Munby on... her reaction to the creation of DSIT
“Probably like most people, I felt a mixture of things. On the one hand, I’d been in BEIS for quite some time, and I really loved that department. So there’s a bit of sadness in there. But then also lots of excitement for the change and the new opportunities. Lots of bits of the DSIT portfolio have actually been on my dream list for a while. I’m delighted to get my hands on digital and technology policies – that area is absolutely fascinating and world-shaping, it’s exactly the kind of thing I get out of bed for.
“On a practical level I wanted to give people reassurance and positivity as quickly as possible. My brain immediately went to those questions of who to tell what when, and how. Because lots of people were going to be affected by the change, and you want people to find out in the right way.
“Ultimately, machinery of government changes have their challenges, but we know how to do them. And this one, I think, had a pretty compelling logic. But you need to say fast what’s going on, and that people’s jobs are safe and that their career opportunities are there, and that it’s going to be all right. So I think that was top of mind for me.”
Munby says she was drawn to the civil service because of “the impact: the scale and the scope of the problems that we get to work on”, and she certainly got scale and scope when she joined. In less than four years she has worked on problems which she describes as “not even once-in-a-lifetime things, they’re once-in-five-lifetimes things”.
These include supporting businesses during Covid, developing the net-zero strategy – “that is country-changing, world-changing, it feels like you’re holding the future in your hands” – and supporting households through the energy crisis.
“Any one of those would be something you’d look back on and say, ‘Wow, that was the achievement of a career’,” she says. “To be able to just do a sequence, one after another is just… I’m a fangirl of the whole thing. The privilege, the opportunity is, I think, completely unrivalled.”
That privilege and opportunity, though, come with a fair amount of pressure. CSW wonders how Munby unwinds from those once-in-five-lifetimes projects. Her answer returns to the mini-Munbies whose art brightens her office.
“I’ve got three kids under 10. They are not as interested as perhaps they should be in the intricacies of science, innovation and technology policy,” she says. “But they are very interested in practical matters like what’s for tea, and whether they can watch more television. I find that very grounding.”
The ability to switch off at home is also something Munby has developed across her career – she sees it as vital to performing at her best. “One of the things I often talk about is how confidence is a really important enabler of performance: you do your best work when you feel confident. And anxiety is really damaging both to you as an individual and to your ability to have impact,” she says.
“You need to care about things, you need to be committed to things, but fretting and worrying in your downtime, doesn’t help. I have got much better at this. At the end of the day, I stop, I’m done. I don’t play the movies in my brain again and again, nearly as much as I did when I was more junior in the workplace.”
Munby on... joining government from the private sector
“I joined the civil service for the impact, but I stayed for the people. The talent of the people I get to work with is extraordinary. And it’s a whole combination of different things: it’s the dedication and the commitment to service, and the willingness to go above and beyond. That’s partly to do with the scale of the problems that we’re working on. I mean, it’s hard stuff and people really show up. But also the level of expertise, the skills, the ability to handle complexity… I often say every day’s a school day – the opportunity to learn from people around me is immense.
“Something else that really matters to me is that, by and large, this is a really positive, inclusive place to work. People are collaborative, fun, nice. So I was drawn in by these really, really big problems. I love a big problem. I want to make a real difference. But then the lived experience is: wow, I get to do that and I get to work alongside really incredible people.”
...and expectations of government vs. reality
“The biggest surprise is how completely inaccurate a lot of the labels are. I think a really good example is about speed. You often hear chatter from the outside about the civil service being slow. And then you arrive and a lot of the time you think ‘Oh my God, we’re operating at warp speed’. In general, the vast majority of the surprise has been on the upside.”
As we talk, Munby gives her answers slowly, weighing up her responses and taking time to find the right phrases and words. It’s not clear if this is a skill she’s built over a career in consultancy and government, or one that she had already developed in a shorter stint as a world-class debater. In 1999 Munby and three schoolmates reached the finals of the World School Debating Championships.
When asked if those debating skills come in more handy as a civil servant or as a mother-of-three, Munby is quick to draw a distinction between an orderly government department and a young family.
“I’m always a little bit suspicious of the suggestion that the skills that you build in the workplace are helpful at home. I like to think that structure, rationality and respect for personal space are powerful forces in the workplace, but they don’t appear to apply in my chaotic home,” she says.
Structure, reason and respect for personal space seem like a pretty good start for a new department, but Munby’s priorities for DSIT extend beyond these basics. Her first priority is around the role and influence the department will wield – she has “high ambitions” that once the new department finds its place in the structure of government its voice will be a strong one. Secondly she’s focused on ensuring DSIT can “attract and retain the best [people]” to deliver on ministers’ priorities. Finally , she wants it to be the most innovative department in government – “given what we do, it sort of goes without saying”.
“We must be the most innovative department in government. Given what we do, it sort of goes without saying”
The creation of a department which brings together science and technology policy from across government was broadly welcomed – save for a few raised eyebrows at the disruption which machinery of government changes always bring – but one observer CSW spoke to did raise a concern about how to ensure these policy areas would retain influence in the centre of government now that the Government Office for Science no longer sits in Cabinet Office. Will DSIT have enough “purchase” to really affect change?
Munby rejects the premise of this concern, noting that “a secretary of state is good purchase”, but she also suggests it’s no longer possible to think of working across government as something only some departments need to worry about. “Almost all of the big challenges that government now faces are entirely cross-departmental, so if our solution [to a problem] is ‘We need more coordination in the Cabinet Office’...well, actually that cannot be the answer to these really substantial problems,” she says. “So I’m quite optimistic about our ability to work with others across the system to deliver change, because that is what modern government requires of us.”
The first policy outputs from DSIT certainly support this – among them was a Science and Technology Framework which is filled with references to cross-government strategies and working groups. In its first three months the department produced several of these ambitious policy documents, such as the blueprint for regulation of AI. This is a good start to show the department means business, but how does Munby think about balancing this need for working at pace with longer-term thinking and working? “One of the strengths of creating the department is, while we have lots going on, and it’s very lively, there is – at least if I compare it to BEIS – less immediate short-term crisis handling,” Munby reflects. “That creates more leadership space to really think about long-term issues.”
This capability to think long term is already there in government, she adds, it just needs to be strengthened. Over the last few years, she suggests, “we’ve had a lot of very, very urgent challenges, and the right thing to do has been to fix those challenges”.
“That means those muscles [around urgent work] are really well honed and drilled, so in lots of areas of government making more space for long term, strategic thinking is going to be really important,” Munby says. “We know the civil service and government can be really great at that. But it’s not the muscle that we have drilled most heavily in the very recent past.”
This approach – start by looking for strengths we can build on – is apparent right through CSW’s discussion with Munby, and she sums it up neatly when asked if she has any final thoughts for our readers before we head off to The Drum for her prop-less photoshoot. “We should celebrate and build on the things that make [the civil service] great, as much as we look for weaknesses and try to correct them,” she says. “There’s been a huge amount of research on how people develop based on their strengths, and sometimes we need to apply that to the civil service. We need to value and appreciate – and communicate – what’s great about the civil service as a tool to help us improve.”
... whether the civil service is good at accepting outsiders
“I’ve found the system and the people to be immensely welcoming, interested in me, just as I am interested in them – a kind of two-way curiosity. I felt I was able to get stuck in quickly and I’ve made really strong personal connections across the system.
“So my personal experience has been really positive. But the numbers and the data show that it clearly isn’t always like that. And we’ve got more to do. I’m pretty optimistic about porosity, for a few reasons. One is that I think that Places for Growth is a massive opportunity. It’s forcing the civil service to tap into talent pools that we haven’t gone after, and giving amazing people from outside an opportunity to come and join us that hasn’t existed at that scale before. So that feels like somewhere we’re making really good progress. And it’s completely complementary to the porosity agenda.
“I also think the rise of more functional and more focused roles really helps bring in external talent. People don’t just want to know that there’s impact in general, they want to know that they personally are going to be able to make a difference and use their skills. And so a greater variety of different types of senior roles is really helpful.”
...and keeping up the momentum around Places for Growth
“In large part, this goes back to culture, just constantly avoiding the gravitational pull of the people who are closest to you in terms of physical proximity. So, for example, it’s every time you find yourself discussing any corporate issues, starting with: ‘What does this mean outside London?’ and ‘Have we thought about your perspectives?’
“And we should be honest, by the way, that this change has been enormously technologically enabled by the fact that people can really participate at the highest level, and that ministers are prepared to participate in conversations over video. That is why I truly believe this change is going to stick, when changes that we’ve made in the past haven’t.”
... her priorities for DSIT
“I’m really ambitious for DSIT. Perhaps that goes without saying, but it’s a new department, and it’s got to find its place in the firmament. And I think given the critical importance of what we’re doing to shape tomorrow’s economy and people’s lives, we need to have a really high aspiration for our influence, our voice, and our role. That’s about how we behave, how we work with others, how we lead at a system level, in Whitehall, in the economy at large, with the private sector, and academia, and internationally.
“The second thing is people. In a department like this, you’ve got one strategic asset, which is your people: their expertise, their ideas, the work that they do. So quite apart from the fact that I want to lead an organisation that’s a great place to work, I think if we’re going to deliver ministers’ priorities, we have to be able to attract and retain the best. So all of the dimensions that go into being a great place to work, our culture of inclusivity, our learning and development, the career opportunities, that is all crucial for me. And I think we’ve got an opportunity to shape something really special and interesting here.
“The third thing is walking the walk on innovation. And I’m excited to use DSIT as a place where we can encourage experimentation, take a higher risk appetite, really listen to people at every level in the organisation and look for ways to streamline processes, make sure we’re really at the very front of the pack in how we use technology in the way that we work. We must be the most innovative department in government. Given what we do, it sort of goes without saying. But it’s worth saying I really think that’s about building on strength that we already have. So not just here, but in the civil service as a whole.”
...innovation in government
“I think too often we start with an assumption that this is a problem to be fixed, when I don’t recognise the portrayal of the civil service as not being innovative. I think if you look at what we have achieved over the last few years collectively, we’ve actually done a pretty incredible amount of innovation. The way civil servants responded to Covid – those major programmes like vaccines or furlough, or the grants and loans that we did in BEIS. Those were really huge interventions delivered at incredible pace.
“You might say, well we’re good at innovation in a crisis, but do we do it enough as business as usual? If I look at what teams in this department have done – we’ve set up Aria, which is a completely different funding model for research with a much higher risk tolerance. We’ve also just come out with a whole new framework for how AI should be regulated – it’s really quite different from what other countries around the world are doing, and we think it’s better. So that’s new policy thinking on cutting-edge issues: that is innovation. So we’re building from strength and we should start from that mindset. This is a positive opportunity for people to make even more difference, and for us to embrace even more good ideas: it’s not a deficiency to fix.”
...and on hierarchy
“Hierarchy is not a friend to innovation. The civil service can be a very hierarchical organisation. That’s partly because it’s large and complex, and large and complex organisations – of many types – have a tendency to become hierarchical. And it’s partly because of the way decision making is funnelled upwards to secretaries of state. It is completely correct that it is, but it inevitably creates a more centralised decision-making culture than you can get away with in a private sector organisation.
“One of the things that’s really struck me about being a permanent secretary is that hierarchy is really dangerous, because people start to think that you’re right about things. And you know, the more senior you are, the more you find that people agree with you. And that’s not because you get wiser – maybe you do a bit – but it’s the structure helping you. And in the context of innovation and wanting to build innovative organisations, that’s a real risk factor. Because innovation doesn’t come from the top down. It comes from being able to absorb, build on and scale really good ideas, wherever they come from.
“Innovation doesn’t come from the top down. It comes from being able to absorb, build on and scale really good ideas, wherever they come from”
“For me, the more senior you are, the more you need to actively fight against hierarchy and also make honesty an important value in both what you say and the way that you receive input. Demonstrate that you are an individual and a human and, like everyone, are fallible.
“To make an environment in which people feel comfortable to speak up and feel heard, you need to actively drive and encourage that. It’s not good enough to say, ‘Of course you can talk to me’. You need to create opportunities. You need to thank people for challenging you. It’s a cultural issue, and it needs role modelling by lots and lots of senior leadership. And doing that isn’t easy in an environment in which we also need to help people speak up to ministers in a way that ministers find hearable.”
This article first appeared in CSW's summer 2023 issue. Read the digital magazine here