‘The duty to be calm and the need to be capable’: Alex Chisholm on the Cabinet Office’s crucial role

The permanent secretary for the Cabinet Office looks back on 2023, and discusses handing over his job in April
Alex Chisholm plans to walk the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Credit: Alamy

By CSW staff

06 Dec 2023


Tell us three words that sum up your 2023...  

I am going for calm, capable and confident. 

...and why you chose those words   

Not because we always were, or are, but because we always need to be. 

The Cabinet Office as the nerve centre of government has to deal with a constant flow of conflicting demands and changing priorities, interrupted several times a year by real crises. We are the centre of political power in the shape of the prime minister,  deputy prime minister and their teams.  

We are responsible for coordinating across government in support of the Cabinet and between departments. We are the corporate centre where functional expertise helps set standards and drive value across government. And we have special responsibilities with the Crown, parliament and the devolved governments. 

With these responsibilities comes the duty to be calm and the need to be capable. 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. 

In 2024, we will almost certainly have an election. We need to make sure we maintain the highest standards of commitment and performance on either side of that. We need to be ready to flex but also to maintain what is of enduring value. Leading our people through this and making the experience a good one will be the key challenge for the organisation’s leadership. 

We should feel confident we can cope with whatever tomorrow asks of us

What are your organisational and personal priorities for 2024?   

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. 

What’s your favourite festive treat, and what makes you say: ‘Bah, humbug’? 

Festive treat? I think the State Treasurer of Alabama is onto it… 

This is part of CSW's annual perm secs roundup. Read all the entries to the 2023 roundup here

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