I joined the Civil Service back in 1985 with a relatively short-term horizon, choosing the Fast Stream over other public service options because it offered variety, responsibility and an opportunity to work on stuff that really mattered. It delivered in spades, with early involvement in drafting White Papers, developing financial monitoring systems, delivering international conferences and leading major change programmes.
I stayed – far longer than I expected – because the Civil Service is an amazing institution. Dedicated to serving the government of the day, made up of people who get up in the morning to make the world a better place and work long and hard to deliver for citizens and communities. During my career I’ve seen the Civil Service constantly changing and evolving as we have professionalised our functions, adopted structured approaches to project delivery and embraced digital transformation.
And, close to my heart, we’ve thought increasingly deeply about what it means to lead in the Civil Service. That’s a question that’s preoccupied me for the last 15 years, since my days as Constitution Director. I learnt then that the leader doesn’t have to have all the answers, but does need to be single-mindedly focused on making it possible for others to do their best work. That necessarily requires diverse teams in which people feel heard, respected for who they are and valued for the perspectives that they bring.
Those insights shaped my practice as a director general in the Department for Transport and, latterly, as Permanent Secretary of two brilliant departments, Defra and DExEU. I couldn’t be more proud of the teams I’ve worked with. It’s been a privilege to support the development of leaders in all three departments, in my senior teams and throughout the organisation, seeking out and giving encouragement to people who see opportunities to change things for the better.
In my cross-government roles I’ve also had the pleasure of working with imaginative and committed teams on faith and belief, leadership and talent, and Civil Service Local in Yorkshire, Humber and the North East. I’m particularly proud of the work we have done in the Leadership & Talent Board to distil the experience of fantastic leaders in the Civil Service, at every level, into a simple description that will be of practical use to people.
For me, the last few years have been about leadership and Brexit – getting stuff done, and helping to shape and grow the Civil Service for its future role. Defra grew hugely in size and also in capability, developing project delivery muscles and finding new ways to work through uncertainty while developing a reputation as a department where people care. DExEU was a young, vibrant, try-anything department: a project in itself, the ultimate task-and-finish group, and 31 January for us marked not just the UK’s departure from the EU but also the conclusion of our work as a department.
Closing a government department is an unusual and emotional process, inevitably prompting reflection, and marks the closing of a chapter for me. The last year has included breast cancer as well as Brexit, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to recharge my batteries and reflect on how I can put all my experience gained in the Civil Service to good use. I’ve been a civil servant all my career, a change-maker all my life, so I can’t help being energised by the thought of making a difference somewhere, but I will hugely miss the Civil Service.
My greatest fulfilment in the last few years has come from nurturing future generations of Civil Service leaders, and I feel very confident in the strength of the pipeline. The Civil Service needs leaders who are kind, inclusive, rigorous, creative, innovative, empathetic, respectful and self-aware. I know you are out there. I’ve met you in cohorts that I’ve sponsored, from the early days of the Future Leaders Scheme to the new DG development programme; in groups I’ve talked to, from the Individual Development Programme to immersive learning events; in self-organising initiatives, from the Directors’ Network to the fabulous One Team Gov; and in conversation in meetings, town halls, lifts and via Twitter. You are leaders at every level and you will continue to make the UK Civil Service the best there is.