How civil servants have learnt at pace during Covid-19

Two former directors general – now leadership coaches – share their observations about civil servants seizing opportunities to innovate


Thank You' banners in the colours of the National Health Service (NHS), and Union Jacks, stretched across a near-deserted Oxford Street in London

Photo: PA

In our coaching work and non-executive director roles, we have had the privilege of talking to a cross-section of leaders across civil society about their contribution to the pandemic, and its economic and social consequences. There are huge challenges to face, not least in sustaining energies for the longer term, but we’ve also seen people seizing opportunities to do things differently, and feeling exhilarated by the results.

Working with civil servants, we’ve seen departments questioning whether old ways of working are still serving them. The Office for National Statistics planned and implemented a new national survey in five days which might previously have taken them at least six months, and they presented the first results only a week later to inform the lockdown decisions. NHS Digital got new data systems operating effectively in days rather than months. Directorates in HMRC transformed themselves from collecting taxes to devising ways of paying out grants for furloughed workers. The Parole Board moved all their hearings from face-to-face to virtual within three weeks, ensuring the parole system could continue to release prisoners.

There are countless other examples of departments and agencies rapidly moving operations and services online, and creating systems to allow people to work securely from home. The constant refrain is that changes introduced in three weeks would previously have taken three years.


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There’s always an imperative to act fast in a crisis, and that gives people permission to question accepted norms – but it’s still a big challenge to drive change through. We’ve seen teams moving quickly to define the outcome that’s needed, identify the skills mix that will get them there, and draw on those skills to design the product. These teams have not been daunted by siloes or hierarchies, often finding that their best source of practical advice is from the front line. Their leaders have worked with key stakeholders to find out what will win their support and to build alignment with decision-makers. All of this has happened with teams working remotely, and with team members often managing big challenges in their personal lives.

Not every innovation has worked – it never does, and most leaders are facing situations they have never known before. In our conversations, we hear leaders say that people need the confidence to surface problems quickly without worrying about recriminations. That means creating an atmosphere of trust, and setting a tone of deliberate calm, whatever the pressures. Leaders want to be told when things aren’t working, so they can pause, reflect on the insights they’ve gained, and regroup. Lessons are learned and applied in real time. Setbacks are seen as a part of life, and experiences to learn from. No-one is too proud to borrow good ideas from other organisations. Agility becomes the watchword.

We’ve had the privilege of coaching conversations with leaders in the midst of these transformations, enabling them to stand back briefly to see the bigger picture, encouraging them to back their insights, and emboldening them to push the boundaries about what is possible. We sometimes suggest they imagine looking back from the perspective of a year’s time, and ask themselves whether they had been as bold as they could have been.

Nobody would have wanted the current crisis to happen. But it’s the reality we face, and there’s plenty of research to show that a positive outlook helps our resilience. We’re noticing a determination amongst many leaders to bottle the positives, whilst being clear-eyed about the road to be travelled. This isn’t about excessive confidence, but “bounded optimism” that a way forward can be found. We haven’t heard anyone say they would want to go back to working exactly as they did before March 2020, even if they could.

Read the most recent articles written by Hilary Douglas and Peter Shaw - What it takes to be a civil service leader in a time of Covid-19

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