Revealing personal info to your colleagues will make you a better civil servant, says Defra perm sec Clare Moriarty

The environment department’s top official calls on staff to confide in each other as a way of boosting morale in one of the government’s unhappiest departments

By Jonathan Owen

21 Jun 2016

Civil servants should share details of their private lives to get the respect of their colleagues and become better at their jobs, according to the permanent secretary of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Clare Moriarty.

In a new blog by Moriarty on the GOV.UK website, she wrote: “Connectedness is one of the elements of trust, and to connect with people we need to see them as whole people, not just people who perform particular tasks at work.” 

Interview: Defra permanent secretary Clare Moriarty on flooding, Extended Ministerial Offices and modernising her department
Addressing the challenges posed by compliance with the Freedom of Information Act 2000 

This means officials sharing personal details about their lives. “Knowing more about someone makes us more likely to respect them. It also helps us to stand in their shoes. That is the essence of empathy, which is as important for how we serve the public as it is for creating 'a great place to work',” she said.

Moriarty admitted that exposing vulnerabilities and opening up to others is “a risk” and added: “As a leader I’m better placed to take that risk and model the behaviour that I think will make us the best we can be.”

By way of example, recent days have seen her tweet about the state of her garden, going to see the Kaiser Chiefs in concert, and being a fan of books published by Penguin.

Moriarty’s renewed call for civil servants to be more open with each other was prompted by the mixed reaction the perm sec received to her recent blogpost, “In praise of vulnerability”, where she first raised the issue. 

Revealing what might be considered weaknesses are “signs of humanity” that “enable people to empathise and work with us,” she said.

Some welcomed Moriarty’s call for openness. One comment posted by “Kath” said: “How refreshing that a very senior leader appreciates that we are a whole person, not just an employee. Hopefully this approach will eventually permeate across the whole of the civil service.”

But others were opposed. A posting by “Kem” said: “I did declare that I have a learning disability on top of another disability. The support was to hand me an early retirement package.”

Another comment, by Stephen Walsh, said: “I am tired of this 'sharing' garbage where everyone has to talk endlessly about their lives, feelings, hopes and dreams for the future…I have no intention of revealing anything about my personal life in the workplace and have zero interest in listening to details of anyone else's.”

Defra is one of the unhappiest departments in government, with just 58% of staff rating their happiness at seven out of 10 or higher, according to the latest Civil Service People Survey. When it comes to employee engagement, the rating given for morale, the picture is even worse – with Defra scoring just 50%.

Moriarty’s efforts to improve engagement within her own department will inform how her performance as permanent secretary is judged, with tackling low morale and leading a “sustained people engagement campaign in order to drive up People Survey engagement scores” one of the objectives which has been set for her by Sir Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary.

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