14 July 2016 was a busy morning for me – I was the lucky FDA negotiator who gained two departments overnight when, after a few restless weeks, our new prime minister announced the creation of the Department for International Trade and the Department for Exiting the European Union. I’m not sure who I’d upset that week, but the challenge has been an interesting one.
Working with DExEU, I’ve seen first-hand the high level, strategic thinking that is going on, very much behind the scenes, to deliver a successful Brexit for the UK. In the early days, the internal bones of a government department emerged more quickly than the plaque on the door outside. Resources and expertise were pooled and borrowed from across government to get things set up as quickly and efficiently as possible, using the best and brightest from across Whitehall to get the department off to a running start.
It’s not a surprise that 120 staff left DExEU last year – a number of staff were brought in temporarily to set things up, and a large proportion would have been fast streamers on a six-month placement. The core numbers working in DExEU mean it is a lean department anyway – it was created to act as a channel between other departments and the prime minister’s office. Whether there are sufficient resources for Brexit in other government departments is a whole other kettle of fish.
When the first civil servants joined DExEU last summer they set the wheels in motion to deliver the biggest project Whitehall has ever taken on. The fact that the civil service has the experience and capability to create a functioning department overnight shouldn’t be dismissed on the basis of some out-of-context statistics on departures for another doom-and-gloom Brexit story.
That’s not to say there aren’t challenges. This is unchartered territory for all of us and one of political uncertainty. I’m sure over the next few months and years that will continue as we consider the increasingly likely option of a transitional deal.
The nature of the work has been a huge draw for talent, but the time-limited nature of the department will inevitably become an increasingly prominent feature in career plans for staff. The uncertainty over any transitional deal and what, if any, future role the department would have in this period, only adds to this uncertainty.
From day one, DExEU has prioritised thinking strategically about resourcing and has invested in its staff to make sure they have the talent they need as a department. The learning offer is broad and inclusive, with a great focus on coaching and career planning, and the wellbeing work they’re doing is leading the way for other departments. And it’s paying off – 70% of staff say that DExEU is a great place to work within their latest internal pulse survey.
Like most large organisations it is already evolving to cope with the different phases of the challenge. As negotiations with the EU have begun in earnest, former permanent secretary Oliver Robbins has moved to No.10 to lead the negotiations rather than the department, recognising the increased demands of both those roles. It’s a similar model to DIT, where there is a lead trade negotiator, Crawford Falconer, and separate perm sec Antonia Romeo running the administration. Philip Rycroft has been managing the department’s overall policy and legislative agenda as second perm sec since April and now steps in to Oliver’s shoes as Departmental head.
An early decision on the future of the department, in its current form, or otherwise, will help both staff and the department make sensible plans. The civil servants working in Whitehall are experienced, dedicated professionals – not careerists adding something to their CV as they scramble up a ladder. Brexit is such a polarising political topic that at times, commentators are blinded to the incredible work the civil service has done in such a short time. Give credit where credit is due, and look at how far DExEU has come.