'No return to normal': civil service must take risks and become more creative, cab sec and COO say

Message to officials says "using data smarter" and adopting fresh ideas should also be among civil service's focuses post-pandemic
Photo: REUTERS/Simon Dawson/Alamy Stock Photo

There will be no “return to normal” after the coronavirus pandemic, civil service chiefs have said, as they set out a vision for a government that is more efficient, more data-driven and more willing to take risks.

In a message to civil servants to mark one year since the first lockdown came into effect, cabinet secretary Simon Case and civil service chief operating officer Alex Chisholm said today marked a “moment to reflect”.

“The last twelve months have tested the resilience of the country and the civil service as rarely before. Many of us will be mourning lost relations or friends, or recovering from the virus ourselves, or will have had to support others through what has been a uniquely challenging time,” the internal memo, seen by CSW, read.

After a difficult year of adapting to new ways of living and working – particularly for those who are vulnerable, are carers and for parents whose children’s schooling has been affected – the civil service bosses said they hoped officials “will feel pride in the spirit we have shown across the civil service – in the steadfast way we have coped with the many challenges of Covid-19 and our willingness to find ways to carry on, for the good of the communities we serve”.

“We have pushed our technology to the maximum to stand up public services. We have built virtual teams to support and protect those who needed us the most. And even while we have further to go, there is now real hope,” Case and Chisholm said.

They said that as the vaccination programme rolls out and lockdown measures begin to lift, “our thoughts must turn now to helping get the country back on its feet”.

The civil service must become “even more creative, effective and efficient” in the way it delivers public services and helps rebuild the economy, they urged.

“Using data smarter; being prepared to take risks; seeking out additional skills; adopting new methods; harnessing fresh ideas from novel sources – these will be the focus for the civil service,” they wrote.

“The work of the civil service is never done: and our role in renewal and recovery is significant. We are not going back to normal; the government’s goal is to build back better, greener, fairer and stronger.”

Tackling 'gaps, overlaps and inconsistencies'

As Case and Chisholm delivered their memo to civil servants,  the Institute for Government think tank published 10 lessons government should take from the pandemic.

Like the civil service top brass, the IfG recommended the experience of adapting to new ways of working over the last year should spur government and civil service reforms to be more ambitious in future. It noted that in several government departments, more than 90% of staff were working from home by May 2020.

In its report, published today, the think tank also called for clearer lines of accountability between civil servants and ministers. It said rows over decisions by the Department for Education over school closures exams, the accountability of government tsars and the role of Public Health England had all "highlighted gaps, overlaps and inconsistencies".

Two concrete changes it called for were a strengthening of the National Risk Register, to identify how inform how departments plan for risk before crises hit, as well as more civil contingency exercises; and the creation of an "authoritative" policy-brokering and co-ordination team in the Cabinet Office at the start of a crisis to ensure policy is coherent across government.

The think tank also called for a government "playbook" for crisis communications to improve understanding of how to communicate in a crisis; strengthened mechanisms for scrutiny and holding the government to account over contracts, legislation and adherence to the ministerial code; and for relationships between central and local government to be repaired.

“It’s not too soon to learn lessons from the huge issues governments have had to grapple with in recent years. The pandemic hit ministers, public servants and institutions already under strain by the task of leaving the EU," report author and IfG programme director Alex Thomas said.

“Many of those directly involved, while recognising that some things worked well, know that the effectiveness of future governments depends on getting better at anticipating and responding to shocks, improving departmental organisation, and strengthening checks and balances on power.”

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