They stood up to be counted, now let's stand up to clap for them: Leigh Lewis on the extraordinary work of civil servants tackling coronavirus

"All over government, people are being asked to deliver the totally impossible at unimaginable speed."

Photo: PA

By Sir Leigh Lewis

06 Apr 2020

I have written for Civil Service World over recent years on an eclectic range of subjects. But I have always avoided writing about my former department, the Department for Work and Pensions. I’ve taken the view that once you’re gone, you should stay gone. The last thing your successors need is pontificating by a former permanent secretary.

Today I’m breaking that rule. I am motivated to do so by the quite herculean efforts that the department has made over the past three weeks to cope with an influx of new claims to Universal Credit on a scale that is quite simply unimaginable. 

In my time – during the financial crisis of 2008 – claims to the then Jobseeker’s Allowance rose three-fold over a three-month period. We coped but at the time we thought that we had reached the absolute limit of our ability to scale up the system at pace. Over the last two weeks claims to Universal Credit have risen ten-fold. As I write, they are still coming in at an enormous rate. No system in the world could be expected to cope with that. 


Except that the DWP has done so. There have, of course, been bottlenecks. Some people have struggled to get through to the department by phone. Not every claim has yet been dealt with. But the system has not fallen over. Not only that but it has got its head above the water. Claims are now being dealt with at a hitherto unheard-of pace and scale.

How has the DWP achieved that? I’m, sadly, not there to see it personally but essentially by putting the whole organisation on to a war footing. More than 10,000 staff have been moved from corporate and other roles onto front-line claims processing. Every Jobcentre has been turned into a mini benefit processing centre. Some 70% of the department’s entire staff are now taking, assessing and paying claims. And the much maligned and criticised Universal Credit IT system has not only stood up but has also allowed hundreds of staff who are themselves self-isolating to work on claims from home and contribute to this massive effort. I am told that, despite the huge challenges, morale is good. And the department’s senior staff are becoming daily more confident of their ability to see this through, however long the coronavirus crisis lasts. 

Of course, the DWP is only one of the departments and non-departmental public bodies whose staff are being faced with challenges on a quite unimaginable scale. I can only begin to imagine the pressures being faced by staff in the Department of Health and Social Care, Public Health England, the Treasury, HMRC and many, many more. All over government, people are being asked to deliver the totally impossible at unimaginable speed. 

So next Thursday, are we are invited to go on to our doorsteps once again to clap the amazing staff of the NHS, and other people doing remarkable things in our essential services, let us also clap our civil servants. And when this is over let us banish forever the ridiculous stereotypes of civil servants so beloved of parts of our media. When we needed our civil servants like never before in my lifetime, they have stood up to be counted. Let us show them our appreciation. 

Read the most recent articles written by Sir Leigh Lewis - 'There will be many tougher days than this': an ex-perm sec's open letter to Simon Case

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