By Jonathan Owen

14 Aug 2017

In the wake of the Brexit vote, there is a pressing need for government organisations to work together to drive international trade. Jonathan Owen reports on a round table where some of Britain’s most senior civil servants gathered to discuss how this could best be achieved 

When it comes to the fiendishly difficult task of finding common ground with other countries in order to reach trade agreements, presenting a united front is vital. But getting government departments and other bodies to truly collaborate can be, as the saying goes, like herding cats. A cocktail of personality politics, silo mentality and territorial attitudes to working areas can all be obstacles to getting people to work together.

Yet it is vital for differences to be put aside in the national interest, according to Louis Taylor, chief executive, UK Export Finance. “The government sees trade as disproportionately important relative to how it’s been perceived in the past,” he said.

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Taylor’s remarks came during a round table discussion – organised by CSW and global law firm Linklaters – of which the UKEF chief was the chair. He continued: “There has to be a cross-governmental effort to identify and understand and respond to all the perceived and actual barriers to trade and investment to ensure that we overcome them, and that we achieve what we want to by way of export trade and inward investment.”

The creation of a culture of exporting and helping businesses exploit foreign trade opportunities by encouraging them to work together as consortia are responsibilities for the whole of government, Taylor said. He cited the words of John Manzoni, chief executive of the civil service, who has said: “Little people protect, big people collaborate.”

But people should not expect ways of working to change overnight, warned Jonathan Jones, Treasury solicitor and head of the government legal service. Commenting on collaboration among legal professionals, he said: “It’s been a long process, and has taken years to do it. Even among lawyers with common professional standards and a common professional identity, we still had the idea of silos and inward-looking teams who very probably owed their loyalty to particular departments and particular ministers – and [for whom] it wasn’t always second nature to collaborate. So it’s taken time to do that.”

Concern over the issue of institutional divisions as a barrier to collaboration was also raised by Sir Christopher Bellamy QC, chairman of Linklaters’ Global Competition Practice. “Our main problem is how to break down silos and the only way to do it is to put people together and keep them talking,” he said.

In the wake of last year’s EU referendum, there have been some seismic changes in the way in which the government approaches trade. The creation of the Department for International Trade (DIT) has established a “trade profession in government” according to Rupert McNeil, the civil service’s chief people officer. 

Examples of collaborative work did, of course, already exist across government, and some pre-existing initiatives have been adapted in the wake of the Brexit vote. One of these is the Great British Food Unit, “which is a joint DIT/Defra initiative but working very closely with industry,” according to Nick Joicey, director general, strategy, EU exit and finance, at the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra). Paul Walters, deputy director, trade policy unit, Department for International Development (DfID) [check], pointed to another instance of joint working: he leads a team which reports to ministers from DIT and Dfid and which focuses on trade relationships between Britain and developing countries.

Perhaps there should be a “single unified government sector team” rather than various departments having their own sector teams, suggested Taylor. He explained: “There was an idea under Francis Maude, as trade minister about a year and a half ago, that maybe the DIT sector teams would actually be co-located in their relevant department of state, so the food team would be in Defra and the transport team would be in DfT [the Department for Transport] and that kind of got swept away. But are we proliferating functions in a way that discourages collaboration where we could centralise things and collaborate more?”

During the past year DIT, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU), Defra and others have worked together to create a business intelligence system, said Rannia Leontaridi, director of business growth, BEIS. The approach was prompted by the realisation that “very many voices” in government had been talking to businesses. “We started by looking at 18 sector clusters and within those created senior responsible owners that look after the sectors, but also collaborate more broadly to bring in intelligence from what we are hearing from inside Whitehall,” she said.

The need for collaboration in the business of drumming up trade does not rest with government alone, pointed out John Hill, managing director, volume group, DIT. It is also about getting the private sector “to pick up a significant part of the baton in driving exports forward,” and for companies to come together as consortia in order to “go after bigger deals that are more ambitious,” he said.

John Parkinson, director, international and regulatory reform, DfT, summarised the end product of the free trade agreements being sought: “We want the UK to be as prosperous as possible because that’s to the benefit of UK citizens.” Structures needed to be geared around making this happen, he said, but he pointed out that “although you’ve got different teams in different departments working with different industry sectors, I’m not sure that they are necessarily overlapping in terms of what they are doing with those sectors”. In his own department, a new team has been set up “looking at the transport supply chain’s capability for export”. Parkinson continued: “This is an area that the department has never got into before but one that I think is complementary to what DIT is doing and hopefully supports that theme of looking to collaborate more effectively as we go forward.”

“We want the UK to be as prosperous as possible because that’s to the benefit of UK citizens” - John Parkinson, director, international and regulatory reform, DfT

The challenge of having the right mindset was also discussed. Charlotte Morgan, partner and co-head of trade law, Linklaters, described having recently trained around 100 UK government officials in trade law. She revealed how the results of a simulated trade negotiation exercise were best when people sought the most ambitious free trade agreement they could come up with, rather than being limited by focusing on policy objectives or economic growth alone.

In terms of future success through collaboration, Britain needed a policy that looks at where it has “comparative advantage”, as well as one that will “jump start” the economy, Morgan added. Working closely with business to really understand how to remove the barriers to trade was vital, and a “combination of listening and encouragement with business is the secret to success,” she said.

Summing up the discussion, Taylor described collaboration as being “as much a cultural thing as it is an organisational thing for us to work on”. There was no lack of willingness to collaborate, he said – but he stressed: “We do need to coordinate it rather better” and that “even though we are dealing in an incredibly complex environment, we have to be very clear about what it is we are trying to achieve.”

To find out more about Linklaters' work on international trade, visit
Linklaters is a legal supplier to the Crown Commercial Service (CCS) under the following frameworks: General Legal Services (Tier 1) and Rail Legal Services

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