Jeremy Heywood: Civil service must get better at championing its achievements

Cabinet secretary says Civil Service Awards provide rare opportunity for “boasting” about achievements

By Civil Service World

23 Jun 2015

The civil service must get better at “blowing our own trumpet”, Sir Jeremy Heywood has said, as he joined senior officials and previous winners at an event to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Civil Service Awards.

The cabinet secretary and head of the civil service told attendees at the Lancaster House gathering last night that the awards - run in collaboration with Civil Service World’s parent company Dods - had gone from “strength to strength” since their launch in 2006. But he said officials were still overly modest about their own achievements.

“The civil service is really good at some things,” he said. “We’ve saved shed loads of money for the government. I think we’ve managed to achieve 93% - at the last count - of the coalition’s commitments from the last parliament. We’re brilliant at handling crises, we do summits, we plan the general election very well even if we don’t predict the outcomes correctly! We do scenario planning. 

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“We do everything brilliantly, except one thing: we’re terrible at blowing our own trumpet. We are terrible at recognising the success of our colleagues, our own successes. We’re terrible at boasting about it. It’s what I like about the civil service actually. But I think once a year it is the right thing to do to celebrate our success. 

“And what has been so great about the Civil Service Awards which my predecessor Gus O’Donnell kicked off in 2005 is it does give us that annual excuse to let our hair down and actually just talk a little bit about the brilliant work that’s going on in the civil service and recognising some of our colleagues that have made the service perform so well in the year behind us.”

The cabinet secretary was joined by Matt Hancock, the newly-appointed minister for the Cabinet Office, who said the civil service and wider public sector could expect to face “huge challenges” over the next five years.

Hancock said: "We’re going to face challenges as a country. We’re going to face challenges as a civil service, as a government, and across public services. And the challenges are from a combination of very tight budgets at the same time as the whole world is reforming and reforming fast. And we need to make sure that with those twin challenges we prosper and the civil service prospers and is successful."

But he heaped praise on the service for its professionalism, and said past award winners provided strong examples of what could be achieved when officials were trusted to innovate.

He said: “My experience of being in government is that we have the finest civil service in the world and I’m an enormous supporter and enthusiast for the work that the civil service - properly led by legitimately accountable ministers - does. 

“It is full of brilliant people who are striving to make their country a better place. Now we need to make it even better. The civil service needs to be open to all, it needs to truly reflect the nation that it exists to serve. It needs to be a byword for social mobility. It needs to attract the best. It then needs to challenge them and support them to become even better. And also, I think, it needs to trust more. 

“[We should] trust at every level civil servants to work out the best solution to a problem - from a job centre in Macclesfield through to the echelons of Jeremy’s private office - it needs the support and the challenge and trust through the line to be able to deliver as well as possible. 

“So for me these awards aren’t only about individual achievement. Of course they’re about individual achievement. But they’re also about finding exemplars that others can learn from, so that from across the large organisation we can make sure that we’re constantly striving to improve and to be the best, all in the service of our great nation. That is what being a first-rate and award-winning civil servant is all about.”

This year’s Civil Service Awards will take place at Buckingham Palace, with categories set to include project and programme management; diversity and inclusion; analysis and use of evidence; and supporting growth and productivity. According to the event’s organisers, they aim to “recognise and celebrate the wealth of inspirational individuals and innovative projects within the civil service and help spread best practice right across government”.

Sir Jeremy joked that civil servants had “better get our skates on” to nominate colleagues before the August 7 deadline, and said 2014’s awards had seen an “amazing” 699 nominations from across the civil service. 

“Behind each and every one of those is a unique story, some unique quality a team or an individual brought,” he said. 

“But I think there were lots of general things [that stood out] as well. The professionalism of the civil service, the humility of the winners always touches me. The teamwork, the dedication, the passion. And the inspiration and creativity that comes behind a lot of the award winners. We have some truly fantastic civil service colleagues.”

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