The last couple of weeks before Christmas are always busy for the civil service. For those on the frontline, there is the inevitable battle to get as much done as possible before offices close for a few brief hours. In policy land, those publications with an ‘autumn’ deadline can be put off no longer with a straight face.
It is also a time for reflection, and taking stock. For many civil servants, 2017 has been the most bruising and exhausting year of their careers. Those at the top of the food chain have enjoyed unprecedented levels of public abuse. The Daily Mail began the year delighting in the resignation of “arrogant merchant of gloom” Sir Ivan Rogers, and since then the tar and feathers have barely gone back in the cupboard.
Lower down the greasy pole, at the levels where actual work has to take place, conditions have proved unusually choppy too. With firm ministerial leadership a much-missed memory in some departments, the only option available to conscientious officials has been to prepare for every possible eventuality in the very broadest of strokes. This is leading to the creation of documents that are truly punishing, even by the standards of government. The Industrial Strategy, for example, is 256 pages. As far as I can tell – because I only looked at the pictures – the UK’s economic revival largely rests on turning the country into a Pink Floyd laser show. And this is the stuff that makes it into the public domain. I can only imagine the arcana currently piling up in red boxes. The opportunity cost of civil servants spending thousands of hours writing fictional position papers when they could instead be help out with real-life pilot versions of, say, border controls, seems huge to me.
Still, it’s nearly Christmas, and having spent most of the year complaining I’d rather take this opportunity to focus on some areas of hope and goodwill. Because there are reasons to be cheerful.
The first is that the recent People Survey results are genuinely impressive. There’s lots to do of course – the non-movement in bullying and harassment figures is especially depressing – and you can argue the toss over the significance of a few points increase here and there. Nevertheless, the trend line is good on everything except pay. That is no mean feat in a year like 2017.
The second is that there are now hundreds, if not thousands, of civil servants all over the country that care enough about making this organisation work better to do something about it. The OneTeamGov group that has provided a focal point for this is not a bunch of hippies in T-shirts with post-its. It is smart officials quietly tugging at the fraying threads of an organisation model that was mostly built in the middle of the 19th century. They are serious about designing a civil service that works better for citizens and civil servants. If you are too, you should talk to them.
The third is that there is now an emerging group of permanent secretaries and directors general – I won’t name them, because my endorsement counts for nothing, at best – that are fully aware that the long-term deficit of authentic leadership has hurt the civil service as an institution. More importantly, this group of leaders is quietly providing the top cover for bold new ways of getting things delivered in government. May they prosper in 2018 and beyond.
Those leaders will be crucial, because 2018 is going to be a horrific year for British politics. There is no version of reality I can imagine where this will not be the case, however the cards fall. For civil servants to thrive over the next 12 months, one of the more important qualities will surely be self-confidence. That will mean taking positions that are uncomfortable but objective, impartial and honest. Choosing well-calculated risks over comfort blanket precedents. It will also mean speaking truth to power in its many forms, and sometimes doing so out in the open, where it really matters. Civil servants should back themselves on this. No-one else is will be more qualified, and no-one is going to do it for them.
If the civil service emerges from next year bloodied but with unbowed integrity, that should be considered an excellent outcome. If the organisation emerges without a scratch or bruise, that should not automatically be perceived a success. Next year is going to be ugly. Sublime equanimity risks abdicating responsibility from one of the most important years of modern British politics. That’s no platform for whatever the future holds. The real source of Christmas cheer this year, for me at least, is that there a growing number of civil servants knows it.