Lurching between short term crises takes its toll on civil servants

Written by Jo Clift on 12 September 2017 in Opinion
Opinion

From the Manchester bombing to the Grenfell Tower fire, Whitehall faces constant unprecedented demands and must focus on building resilience

Many of the civil servants preparing for Margaret Thatcher's funeral got very little sleep in the days​ leading up to it. Credit: Christopher Furlong/PA

Ten years ago, Britain was experiencing a series of terror attacks, including two car bombs that had been safely detonated in central London. Gordon Brown had just moved into No. 10 with his team who were keen to exert their influence across Whitehall. One of his inner circle has since recalled watching the coverage of the terror attacks at home on television and wondering how the government was going to respond to this, at which point he suddenly realised that he was the government that needed to react – and quickly. 

There is often a fast pace in Whitehall and many a cunning strategic plan has been pushed down the agenda by unforeseen events. At the 2010 election, Francis (now Lord) Maude and Philip Hammond had been expecting to be appointed as Cabinet Office minister and chief secretary to the Treasury (CST) respectively. They had a carefully choreographed plan prepared for their first 50 days in office, including many joint announcements. But there was no majority for the Conservative Party, and under the coalition agreement Liberal Democrat Danny Alexander took the Treasury role. This necessitated a hastily formed relationship between the CST and Maude at Cabinet Office, and a new plan.


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Politics is a febrile game and many civil servants relish the speed and the adrenaline of a crisis. Generally, civil servants really enjoy being close to power – on reshuffle days you can feel a tangible excitement. But what happens when the fast pace and ever-changing set of priorities become the new normal? I remember a period in 2011 when my role in the Efficiency and Reform Group morphed pretty much every day, bringing a constantly changing set of priorities, deliverables, stakeholders and risks.

There is a question about how much change Whitehall, government, parliament and even ministers can take. Does the day job suffer? Does the individual health of civil servants and ministers suffer? What happens to the overarching strategy when departments are lurching from one short term crisis to the next?

In recent months, the government and the civil service have faced the challenges of the Manchester bombing, the London Bridge attack and the Grenfell Tower fire. And all this is on top of an unstable political situation in Westminster, plus of course the spectre of Brexit looming large over our institutions. Civil servants have already been through tough times. Some politicians within the coalition government arrived in office with a deep distrust of the service and set about reducing it and dismantling some of the foundations the civil service had relied upon.

Of course we all need to deal with the unexpected. Following the death of Margaret Thatcher, a group of us were moved from Cabinet Office to support the preparations for her funeral. It was a complicated operation – clearly with a tight timescale, plus security issues to consider and guests to invite from all over the world. Many of the team got very little sleep for the five-to-six days before the event. The funeral was a one-off, but what happens if you or your team find that you need to change direction on a regular basis to respond to shifting priorities and events? 

I suspect that most civil servants know a handful of talented, experienced colleagues who have left government because they could not take the strain of the workload or deal with the dysfunctional office environment. I certainly remember this happening with some key delivery posts in the Department for Work and Pensions during the coalition era. There is a danger when this happens that the blame gets laid at the door of the individual rather than looking at whether it is the organisation that is being run ragged. Often in the process of trying to do “more for less” it is the people that bear the cost. 

Recent studies bear this out. A poll by PWC indicated that more than a third of the general UK workforce was experiencing anxiety, depression or stress. The survey found that 39% of employees had taken time off work or reduced their responsibilities due to their health. Previous research by mental health charity Mind found that nearly half of all public sector workers had been forced to take time off because of problems with their mental health. 

Being a good manager and leader in these torrid times can be tough and there are high expectations of senior leaders in the public sphere. It can be difficult to see how the demands of the job can be satisfied, particularly when combined with trying to balance a home or family life. On top of difficult and demanding roles, there is the relentless email mountain plus the regular need for evening and weekend work. One ex-Whitehall director, now a senior manager in the city, told me he feels much less pressured away from Westminster because he is not permanently “on-call” – he relishes the fact that he no longer deals with panic work calls at weekends, asking him to resolve the latest crisis.

I also hear from civil service leaders (particularly female ones) that they would like to be able to absorb pressure from their teams, especially when the teams are inexperienced or young, and when the workload is really high. However, there is also a cost for leaders in taking on even more of the load themselves – rather than sharing the burden.

Resilient for the long haul

So what does a resilient organisation look like? It is easy to think of the civil service as resilient because of its size and its concrete structures. Surely the world of Yes Minister, of Humphrey the cat and ministerial red boxes is resilient? The reality is that the resilient organisation needs to be sophisticated enough to respond to frequent change in an agile way and this entails having both resilient teams and managers. It is vital to support those who might otherwise struggle with the pressures in silence. Resilience isn’t just about people pushing themselves, it’s about the need to share the pressures, re-group and bounce back to ‘fight’ another day. In a healthy organisation, people at all levels need to be open about the strain that they experience, as this gives permission for others to share their concerns.

And let’s not forget ministers in all this. The prime minister, as an example, had just come out of the election campaign when the Grenfell fire took place. This is a punishing schedule by any measure. We don’t tend to discuss the pressures on our politicians, but these pressures certainly exist. The relentless hours and media scrutiny, combined with the need to balance a personal and professional life is a tall order. In addition to all this, some politicians face daily hounding via social media.

There is also parliament. Arguably, Whitehall has treated parliament a bit like an inconvenient relative for the past few years, listening but not always acting on its advice or views. But with no party able to command an overall majority, parliament now has a key role in creating and removing policies. This also comes at a price – because MPs will be working long, hard hours. There will be a punishing schedule of legislation and committee work and there is already talk of all-night sittings returning to the House of Commons. How will that work for a Commons which has attempted in recent years to become more family friendly?

There have always been stresses and strains across our public sector. As is often pointed out, we are good at this stuff. We have won wars, set up a National Health Service and dealt with huge challenges both at home and abroad. But let’s not rest on our laurels: We need Whitehall and our public institutions to be resilient for the long haul, so we had better start preparing now.

About the author

Jo Clift is an independent consultant and former senior civil servant

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