The creation of the new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy was a "cathartic" moment for staff, the organisation's top civil servant has said, as he responded to concerns over the department's direction raised by officials in the recent Whitehall-wide People Survey.
BEIS was formed last year as part of an expansive shake-up of Whitehall ordered by Theresa May, and involved the merger of the existing Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
The move brought responsibility for business, industrial strategy, science, and energy policy under one roof for the first time in more than a decade.
Interview: BEIS perm sec Alex Chisholm on merging DECC and BIS, the Industrial Strategy, and the Brexit challenge
BEIS budget not yet settled, says perm sec Alex Chisholm
Here's why the scrapping of DECC could actually be good for climate change policy
But, according to the most recent civil service people survey, the move also prompted some concern among staff over the direction of their new organisation.
The latest figures put BEIS at the bottom of the pile in Whitehall for satisfaction with "organisational objectives and purpose", with the department gaining a satisfaction rating of just 52% on this front.
That compares to a civil service-wide average of 83%, and is a far cry from the 2015 scores logged by both the Department for Energy and Climate Change (76%) and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (78%).
Speaking to CSW as part of a wide-ranging interview on the work of BEIS, the department's permanent secretary, Alex Chisholm attributed the low ranking to the initial disruption of the merger, and predicted a turnaround in the next batch of figures.
“I think it’s mainly to do with the timing,” he said. “It was done in October and we were in the process of bringing the department together, chiefly in August and September. It’s pretty inevitable that at that time you’re going to have a group of people who were reasonably well-focused on what their previous departments did, which they’ve been doing most of the year, to then [be] coming to terms with what the new department would do.
"It’s also the case that although we moved pretty rapidly to develop a departmental vision and priorities and how we want to work together and all of that, that was actually launched in November.”
Chisholm – who spent just nine days as perm sec of DECC before it was merged with BIS – acknowledged that government restructures presented a "particular challenge" compared to the private sector, but he claimed that a re-run of the people survey would now yield "a much better result", and said the department was “absolutely” on track to conclude the transition phase of its merger by the end of the current financial year.
"It’s very important that as we transition into the new department… that people don’t just see themselves as having a change of location and leadership and name to the department, but they also see there’s an opportunity to build something better and bigger and stronger here," he said.
"And that in the sum of the parts in adding DECC and BIS together, or most of BIS, we actually get something which is one plus one makes three, rather than a number less than two.”
BEIS has existed in several forms over the decades, with the department responsible of leading on business policy subject to successive machinery of government change at the whim of ministers.
Before it was known as BIS, the department was dubbed BERR – including Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, and was briefly known as the the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills.
Its most longstanding incarnation was as the DTI – the Department for Trade and Industry – and Chisholm told CSW that, for some long-serving staff, the latest configuration had been "quite an exciting and, in a way, cathartic moment".
“For quite a number of people working both in DECC, as it was then, and BIS, there was a sense of a kind of almost a reunification," he said.
"I’m not comparing it to the Berlin Wall… but quite a lot of people, including myself many years ago, had worked in the Department of Trade and Industry which included energy, so there was a sense in which there was a recombination or reunification.”
Chisholm also rejected suggestions that the scrapping of a dedicated energy department signalled a downgrade in the government's commitment to tackling climate change.
The move was criticised at the time by former DECC secretary Ed Miliband as "plain stupid" but the BEIS perm sec said climate change remained "a core part of what we do”.