'At times like this people want to feel a sense of belonging': Welsh Government perm sec Dame Shan Morgan on 2020

2020 was a year unlike any other, with the coronavirus pandemic upending the work of government and changing how we live our daily lives. Senior figures from across the civil service tell us how the unprecedented 12 months affected them, and look ahead to 2021
Welsh Government permanent secretary Shan Morgan. Photo: Louise Haywood-Schiefer

By Civil Service World

22 Dec 2020


What are you proudest of your organisation achieving in 2020?

That’s easy – I’m proudest of the extraordinary response by staff throughout the Welsh Government to the Covid 19-crisis, and their willingness to switch rapidly to entirely new priority policy and operational roles. Almost overnight, we became an organisation working successfully from home thanks to our fantastic new ICT system and kit.

We’ll keep the best of the new ways of working for the long term as it means we can maintain the reduced private-transport carbon emissions from commuting, and spread jobs more equitably across Wales.

What was the hardest part of being a leader in 2020?

I think remote leadership is hard. Although remote working has been essential and has many advantages, it tends to be more transactional and less engaging. Conveying energy and a sense of purpose via a laptop screen requires a whole new skillset!

"Remote working tends to be more transactional and less engaging. Conveying energy and a sense of purpose via a laptop screen requires a whole new skillset!"

I’m lucky to have a brilliant comms team who have put a lot of creativity into staff communications and events. We hold regular all-staff interactive meetings by Teams (2,200 participants at a time is our current record), and I record frequent video messages to staff. My favourite showed me in front of my traditional Welsh dresser – a family heirloom.

What has come across very strongly is that at times like this people really want to feel a sense of belonging and being part of something bigger. So that’s my leadership challenge.

What are the main challenges facing your organisation in the coming year?

The big challenge will be dealing effectively with the compound impact of Covid 19 and Brexit on our economy and communities.

The UK’s transition from the EU also brings a raft of important new devolved powers and tasks at a time when our organisation is already severely stretched by the Covid 19 crisis. Like the Scottish Government, we have elections in Wales next May which will bring new challenges and excitement! And I’m very conscious that at some point we’ll all be held publicly accountable for the complex and difficult decisions taken throughout the pandemic.

People will have to be more creative about celebrating this year. How will you make the festive period on Zoom special?

I’ve heard of some great ideas for livening up the festive season including a digital advent calendar, festive backdrops for Teams/Zoom meetings and I can guarantee there’ll be fierce competition, as always, to wear the craziest festive jumper.

I’ve already ordered my own “Hooded Elf Jacket-style Novelty Xmas Sweater” and an assortment of sparkly headbands for each day of the week...

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