'Relentless' policy shifts have hit civil servants' faith in leadership, Chisholm says

Officials have been "discombobulated" by non-stop change in policy and ministers, COO says
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By Tevye Markson

19 May 2023

"Relentless" shifts in policy focus and political leadership over the last few years are to blame for a dip in civil servants’ faith in management, Alex Chisholm has told MPs.

Overall satisfaction with leadership and the management of change dropped significantly in this year’s  Civil Service People Survey. This was particularly noticeable in London-based policy departments, the civil service chief operating officer told the Public Accounts and Constitutional Affairs Committee.

Asked what had driven the drop in confidence, Chisholm told MPs the “sheer rate of change” in policy focus had “discombobulated” civil servants, particularly in the Cabinet Office.

The Cabinet Office had lower people survey scores for leadership and managing change than any other departmen. Just 38% of its staff who filled out the survey said they were satisfied with this aspect of their jobs (down from 49% in 2021), compared to the civil service-wide average of 54% (down from 58% in 2021).

The department's lowest scores in this area were on questions asking whether change is managed well (21% said yes) and if changes are usually made for the better (16% agreed). These were down by 10 and 13 percentage points respectively, compared to the year before, compared to 3 and 4 percentage-point drops across all government organisations.

Chisholm pointed to the pressures of going from being the leading department for Brexit to running the Covid Task Force, as well as dealing with the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and running the Cop26 climate summit.

“It has felt quite relentless, the pace of change,” he told MPs.

“And obviously we've had changes in political leadership as well as part of that,” Chisholm added.

The government has been run by three prime ministers in the last year, while there have been several significant ministerial shake-ups, including the dozens of resignations in protest at Boris Johnson’s leadership.

The people survey was conducted from 22 September to 31 October, the period during which Liz Truss's chaotic term in No.10 quickly fell apart.

As well as the amount of change, Chisholm said another issue has been that officials have not always been sufficiently involved in change.

“This is a very strong message from our workforce saying that they hadn't felt sufficiently involved in [the management of change] and they have felt discombobulated, I suppose, by the rate of change.

“There are planned and well-coordinated changes where you tell people beforehand, why and how it's going to be done, and you continue to communicate before and you ask their views, and you tell them afterwards as well. In that process people feel ‘I’m morphed into that change’,” he said.

“When you read on the front page of the newspaper about a new government statement, which seems to affect you personally, that obviously is less positive for the change process.”

Chisholm said Boris Johnson’s announcement via the press of plans to cut 91,000 civil service jobs last year would have been “fresh in the memory” of civil servants when the survey was carried out.

Civil servants have also been subject to regular criticism in the media over remote working, with Jacob Rees-Mogg – a Cabinet Office minister for much of 2022 – one of the leading exponents of these attacks.

Low people survey scores are more often down to leadership within individual teams than than management at the top of organisations within the civil service, according to Chisholm.

“The reason I say that is because you can look across an organisation – in the Cabinet Office, we've got 40 different business units – and you see there are some areas where we knock it out of the park, fantastic results, and others [where we are] absolutely bottom of the table,” he said.

“I’m perfectly modest about my own influence,” Chisholm added.

The survey also showed civil servants in the Cabinet Office feel less attached to their organisation than officials in any other government organisation. 

“[Their feeling of connection] was strong to their teams and to their work, but the wider Cabinet Office was not something that they related to as strongly," Chisholm said.

This lack of attachment is “partly always a feature” of the Cabinet Office’s central role but has been particularly marked in recent years, Chisholm. 

Civil servants had to “roll with” the department’s dominant priority changing from Brexit to Covid, for example. “We moved from having no specialist Covid staff to having several hundred people working in the Covid taskforce,” he told the committee.

And he said it would make sense that staff who were focused on achieving particular goals, such as running Cop26, might not have a strong sense of attachment given the survey was conducted as they were completing work on the presidency year and the unit was a few months away from being disbanded.

The non-stop nature of recent events has also hindered the government’s efforts to get officials to go on secondments outside the civil service, Chisholm told CSW, in an interview published today.

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