‘The innovation came singing through at every level’: Shona Dunn on this year's Civil Service Awards

As the 2021 Civil Service Award winners celebrate their achievement, Suzannah Brecknell speaks to awards champion Shona Dunn to find out what set them apart from a strong field of nominations
The Prime Minister’s Award for Exceptional Public Service, which is new for 2021. Photo: Civil Service Awards

By Suzannah Brecknell

21 Dec 2021

The lyrics of a 1939 jazz song – which would be reimagined to become a hit again in the 1980s – may not seem like an obvious source of inspiration for civil servants. But it’s that song which springs to mind when talking to Civil Service Awards champion Shona Dunn about the 2021 winners. When civil servants across the country are achieving amazing things, then if you want to be a winner it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.

This year saw a record number of nominations for the Civil Service Awards, with 1,481 nominations across 14 categories. Whittling these down to a shortlist of 38, and then a final list of winners led to some “tough judging decisions”, according to Dunn, since the quality was also particularly high.

She attributes the quantity of nominations in part to a complete refresh of the categories – based around the “A Modern Civil Service” pillars of skilled, innovative and ambitious – which helped to make the awards more inclusive.

But it was also, she believes, because civil servants wanted to recognise their colleagues who were doing extraordinary work in an especially challenging year. Writing on the civil service blog as the shortlist was announced, Dunn said: “Given the various issues civil servants faced in the midst of the pandemic, I think people just wanted to show their appreciation for their colleagues by nominating them.”

Speaking to CSW as the winners were announced, Dunn adds: “The skill, innovation and ambition demonstrated by some of these winners and our other nominations is extraordinary. And we never give ourselves enough credit for the extraordinary levels of skill and creativity that we bring to incredibly challenging tasks day in and day out.”

Encouraging civil servants to be better at celebrating their own success is a passion of Dunn’s. “We are no good at trumpeting our achievements,” she says. “In a way, that humility is a characteristic of the civil service that many of us – and many in society – value.” 

But, she adds, taking time to celebrate success is not just about showing appreciation – it has a wider impact on teams. 

“The appreciation is important, but equally as important for me is the extraordinary effect it has on the motivation of everyone,” Dunn says.

“Seeing the extraordinary things your colleagues do gives everybody a boost, just a little bit more fuel in the tank and an ability to carry on in challenging circumstances.” 

Inevitably, many of the nominations and eventual winners related directly or indirectly to the Covid response. But, Dunn says, “we were really pleased still to see a very large number of nominations coming forward on issues that were unrelated to Covid”.

She continues: “I think the dominance of Covid during the year of course meant that, where other teams were doing really critical activities to serve the public, they were doing that in a more challenging context.” 

One result of that context is that for the second year running winners have been unable to receive their awards in person, as the ceremony – planned to take place in London last week – was cancelled due to rising Covid cases. 

“We were really sad not to be able to go ahead with the event, but we were determined not to lose the opportunity of celebration”

“The most important thing,” Dunn says, “is that the cancelling of the event was not a postponing of the celebration.”

Winners were announced on 16 December as planned, and a series of articles and videos will be released to celebrate their success. 

“We were really sad not to be able to go ahead with the event, but it's definitely not the right time to do that. And we were determined not to lose the opportunity of celebration,” Dunn says. 

There will also be a celebratory event next year “when the time is right,” Dunn says. She is determined that people will receive their trophies together but – like so many of us – wary about making concrete plans as the pandemic continues to bring new challenges.

There is also, of course, the fact that many of those who will be celebrating together next year when the time is right are, in the meantime, returning to their desks (or spare rooms) to yet again provide the guidance, services and support which the government and public need.

So in a year when the unique role of public servants and government was made obvious to so many, what lifted the 19 overall Civil Service Award winners above the impressive work of so many of their colleagues? Here we come back to that classic lyric – it wasn’t just what they did, but the way that they did it. 

“What we were looking for in the round was how people had done things as well as what people had done,” Dunn says. The winners showed “fantastic individual and team leadership at every grade and level,” she says, as well as “an extraordinary level of personal commitment and personal resilience,” whether as individuals or as team members supporting each other. Another strong theme was collaboration: “breaking down boundaries to support each other, across sectors, across departments, and across functions.”

Having explored the qualities which made the winning entries stand out, Dunn reflects again on the breadth and standard of the work which civil servants do. In a challenging year, people across government have achieved amazing things, and that quality of work, the skills, ambition and innovation, “came singing through, at every level”.

Newcomers

Two new categories were introduced as part of the awards revamp this year. Both these awards, Dunn says, open up the opportunity to celebrate the whole range civil servants’ achievements, rather than focusing on work within particular functions or types of role.

The Lifetime Achievement Award – given to six individuals this year – honours people who have been in the civil service for longer than 30 years. In some cases, Dunn notes, their civil service careers have been much longer than this. “We've had some nominations, when people joined us in their teens and are still here in their 60s and even 70s, and have done incredible things,” she says. Although the Lifetime Achievement Award has six winners there were a further 69 recipients, so in total it went to 75 people but effectively in two tiers.

The Prime Minister’s Award for Exceptional Public Service was introduced “to celebrate someone not in senior civil service, who has done something extraordinary and, as a consequence of whom the public have seen and benefitted from the very best of the civil service”. This year, the inaugural Prime Minister’s award was given to Rizwan Ahmad who oversees over 1,990 colleagues across 16 Jobcentres and one Service Centre in East London. Ahmad’s work – including opening six new job centres and reintroducing face to face services – has resulted in the best performance at district level anywhere in the UK.

Read the most recent articles written by Suzannah Brecknell - Red light, green light: examining the government's progress on improving its performance

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