Over many years interviewing leaders from across government, we have gleaned pearls of wisdom from these sage and Whitehall-hardened people.
Standing out this month is a gem from Home Office perm sec Matthew Rycroft, who tells us in his contribution for the 2021 permanent secretaries round up that: “The lesson of the past few years is that it’s very dangerous to set out your number one priority at the start of the year.”
Indeed there are times when it feels dangerous to set a priority for your week, never mind your year.
As we were putting the final touches to the round up, our newsfeeds filled with civil service-related stories.
From whistleblower revelations about the Afghanistan evacuation to the Schrödinger’s Christmas party (or parties) in No.10 that both did and did not take place last year, and the subsequent cabinet secretary-led inquiry into said parties which may report as early as this week, the news was moving at a thundering pace.
Then, amid all of this, Boris Johnson and the two gentlemen of corona – Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance – once again took to their podiums to warn about the dangers of the new Covid variant Omicron.
Even since the announcement of Plan B measures, the Omicron situation seems to be escalating and, over the coming weeks, perhaps even days, some of our perm secs’ entries may – alas – feel like a hostage to fortune. Particularly those which cautiously welcome a return to normality.
Nevertheless, the perm secs’ round up is an opportunity to record and celebrate the incredible work going on across government despite the upheaval of the last year.
In the most trying circumstances, officials have delivered Covid support schemes, an international climate summit, a multi-year Spending Review and a myriad of business-as-usual policies and projects.
They have worked from home, moved to new offices across the country, supported each other through a pandemic, continued to push forward with diversity and inclusion work and tried to ignore the many anonymous and not-so-anonymous briefings which undermine their hard work.
It’s not surprising that when asked for their highlight of 2021, almost all of our contributors mention the people they work with.
When asked about their priorities for 2021, many included the word “delivery” – whether in relation to delivering on strategies and white papers written this year, or on outcomes agreed in the Spending Review. Like the rest of us, top officials are keen to move out of crisis-response mode and focus on the issues which matter most to ministers and citizens.
In our final, light-hearted question, we asked contributors to tell us their dream New Year’s Eve guest. Two of them – including Chris Whitty – chose someone who could help them see into the future to get a better sense of what 2022 might hold.
Wouldn’t it be nice to have a clear idea of when that much-longed-for “normal” might return? To tell ourselves, and our teams: “This really is the last push, it won’t be long now.” But of course, we can’t know that.
What we do know is that the civil service is filled with hard working and highly-skilled people, committed to serving the country, whatever may come. And as the future again looks tough, we want to end 2021 with a simple message from our team to yours: thank you.
The December issue of CSW will be published this week