Exclusive interview: the woman managing Brexit

07 February 2018 -

EUFlagBusiness leaders anticipate a tough 2018, with Brexit topping their concerns, according to CMI’s Future Forecast survey. In an exclusive interview, we talked to Sarah Healey, director general at the Department for Exiting the European Union, one of the key people running ‘Operation Brexit’

Charles Orton-Jones

Poor David Cameron’s adieu to Number 10 got lost behind the pound plunging and the victory for Leave. It’s hard to conjure up the sheer uncertainty of those days. The unpredictability of the news, hour to hour, made the nation giddy.

When Theresa May emerged as the new prime minister a fortnight later, her first act was to create two new government departments to handle Brexit. The Department for International Trade would roam the globe looking for trade deals. The Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU, pronounced ‘decks-eyoo’) would handle the process logistics of withdrawal and negotiating the future relationship with the EU.

All sides of the debate can surely agree on this: what a job. Top civil servant Sir Jeremy Heywood admits leaving the EU is “probably the biggest and most complex challenge the civil service has faced in our peacetime history”.

How do you set about an enterprise of this magnitude?

When the Canadians did a trade deal with the EU, they identified 20,000 items to talk about in the domain of business services alone. Brexit comes with far more angles. So how do you create a brand-spanking-new department to master something this complex, to complete something that no-one’s done before?

The woman who knows is Sarah Healey. She’s the director general in charge of planning at DExEU. She granted an interview to Professional Manager to talk about the mechanics of managing Operation Brexit. We meet in the DExEU headquarters at 70 Whitehall, which juts onto Downing Street. It’s an ideal site for keeping secrets secret, although, as Healey will explain, it’s not the most luxurious office environment.

Healey’s reputation is formidable. A graduate of Magdalen College, Oxford, her CV includes a triumph in University Challenge in 1998 – plus two ‘celebrity’ returns to the show. She is very much the civil service high-flyer.

Brexit begins...

We start with a trip in the time machine back to the chaos of summer 2016. The order was given to create a new department. Healey, with the permanent secretary, got the job of making it happen.

She punctures the myth of a department built from scratch. “We were fortunate in that the department was created out of a structure that existed. There was the European and Global Issues Secretariat in the Cabinet Office, a section of the Foreign Office and other organisations to draw on.”

The new department started with a skeleton staff of 50 people, and has built steadily since. What lessons does she draw from that experience of recruitment? Hire enthusiasts. “I think the number-one thing in our approach to hiring people was to say: ‘Come and work on the most high-profile thing that the civil service has embarked on in a generation.’”

Whether candidates voted Leave or Remain was, and is, irrelevant. Civil servants are trained to impose whatever policy their masters decree. What DExEU needed was high-energy individuals with the will to adapt as needed.

Self-selection helped her get the right cultural fit: “We didn’t have a lot of time to vet applications. What we did rely on was that many of the people who came to work for us were the sort of people who, given a brief like that, leapt at the chance and actually wanted to be part of something difficult, something experimental and high-profile.”

Healey highlighted this by framing DExEU as something out of the ordinary: “We said: ‘This isn’t a normal government department. It’s a big project and it’s time-limited, and that makes a difference to how we do things.’”

There are echoes with the way Steve Jobs ran Apple in its early days. He’d push programmers to new heights with rhetoric about putting a dent in the world. People respond to challenges.

That said, Healey still needs to focus on keeping her troops happy. As the direction of Brexit bobbed and weaved, the department reshuffled to keep up to speed. Even the most willing of staff members can be disheartened by yet another reassignment.

Healey says process needs a watchful eye: “You have to engage people in those changes, and explain what they are. I always feel people are prepared to accept change if they understand the rationale for it. As long as you can maintain really good management and communication during change, you can get those things done without people getting too bothered by it.”

Managing Brexit

Staff numbers grew to 300 by March 2017, and have reached just over 500 now. As the headcount grows, so does the job of coordinating the people. So here’s the $64,000, or rather €64bn, question: how does Healey keep track of everything?

The scope is breathtaking, affecting industries from architecture and pharmaceuticals to fisheries and fintech. How is it possible to find out who’s up to what?

Step one. Chop up the job. An organigram sketches out the responsibilities of each section of the department.

There are three divisions, with three buckets in each. The first division is Healey’s, with a focus on the domestic issues of withdrawal. Her three deputies look at the legislation needed for the EU exit, the policy and delivery (liaising with devolved administrations), and the logistics of the negotiations, among other things.

A fellow director general, Susannah Storey, oversees the future economic partnerships arising from Brexit. Her team looks at science funding, and customs tariffs and related fields.

A third director general, Alex Ellis, looks at international affairs and security. He works closely with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Trade, particularly Liam Fox’s team on future trade deals.

Each big issue gets its own heading on the organigram. The Irish border issue – a real conundrum for negotiators – is given its own title.

Step two is keeping the teams talking to other teams, both inside and outside. Each government department has its own Brexit team. Some, such as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, are hugely affected by the EU exit. Others, such as the Department for Education, are less so.

There’s no single formula for keeping teams in touch. They must use the full gamut of project-management skills. “We use a whole range of techniques, visual and otherwise,” says Healey. “We discuss things within regular touchpoint meetings. We occasionally do a stocktake and say: ‘Right. Where is everyone on all this? And can we compare and contrast?’”

Is there a single war room, as with some big projects? No. The structure is closer to the Silicon Valley idea of a holacracy, where autonomous teams decide what they need, and act and collaborate as they see fit. Teams can be merged. “We’ve done that many times,” says Healey. “I don’t apologise for it at all because any great project responds to the circumstances around it.” There was a shake-up after Article 50 was invoked in March. “I don’t think of those as difficult reshuffles,” she says, “because we have a culture of flexibility and of adapting to circumstances.”

I’m curious about the role technology will play in Brexit.

A professor of computer science at Ulster recently explained to me that blockchain (the tech behind Bitcoin) could be the secret to the Northern Irish border problem, offering a way to track goods across a supply chain without the need for customs checks. Does DExEU have a secret unit working on stuff like that? Not exactly.

“We don’t have a single skunkworks-y sort of thing, because I think that we actually demand that of everybody. So everybody has to work imaginatively in this organisation, because everybody is co-creating something new,” says Healey.

How to maximise performance

A great manager knows how to get the most out of their team. Tips from DExEU? Healey offers two big ones. The first is around the pace of work. The danger of running something like the Brexit department is that staff will work themselves into a nervous breakdown.

“I wrote an internal memo around holidays,” says Healey. “We had four and a half weeks of setting up the department in which

there were seismic changes. And then I had three weeks of holiday booked. I wondered if I could realistically go on that, considering how intense the work was. I reflected that it’s unbelievably important if you are in a high-pressured job to take time away from that environment. If you don’t, you lose perspective, and you need the ability to recharge. There aren’t going to be any lulls in Brexit.”

A cynical observer might suggest that a few politicians could do with more holiday too. A clear mind producing clear policies can save months, or years, of labour.

The second tip is that a good manager trains staff. DExEU has the same requirement. The vocabulary of Brexit demands a thorough education for newcomers to the scene. Technical stuff, such as the Rules of Origin and the Cassis de Dijon interpretation of mutual recognition agreements, is on the curriculum. New faces at the civil service are given tutelage in the workings of government. Staff at DExEU can educate themselves through face-to-face tutorials, online lessons and group sessions: “We try to keep it responsive, fluid and flexible to circumstance, while understanding what the base level of things that everybody will need is.”

Healey herself benefited from moving around the civil service, from one tough job to the next. She handled the complex issue of pensions auto-enrolment. In 2007, she had a central role in setting up the Department for Children, Schools and Families – now merged back into the department it came out of. (“It’s curious how these things change,” she notes dryly.) In retrospect, her career path looks like the perfect preparation for setting up DExEU.

Which courses did Healey find useful?

“I did the Major Projects Leadership Academy in 2013, which covers how to manage a big project, which I went on when running automatic enrolment.” Offered by Oxford University’s Saïd Business School and consultancy Deloitte, the course accepts two cohorts of 25 a year, and takes 30 days of work. “It has been really valuable here in thinking through balanced scorecards and how you use that information to inform your work,” says Healey.

“I’ve also been on two civil service talent programmes, one of which was going on when I was doing this job. I found the network and personal support of the people whom I was on the programme with really valuable in addressing difficult or unexpected problems that we’ve had to deal with.”

The toughest thing about the job? The offices, apparently. The lodgings in Whitehall are historic and secure, but the offices are tiny, with slender corridors. “We are quite squeezed for space,” she says, adding with a laugh: “The ludicrous stories in summer 2016 of everyone working in Starbucks are not true!”

Healey tells her tale with enthusiasm. It feels like tremendous fun working in the department. There’s even travel thrown in, with trips to Brussels every few weeks to meet the EU’s opposite team, where Healey has a direct shadow: “Our personal relationship is good,” she says, believably.

It’s tempting to end the interview with a plea for a personal view: “What do you think will be the outcome of Brexit?” But Healey is too professional to comment, even off the record, so I depart with the question unasked.

The civil service has a reputation for attracting the brightest minds. Healey has the University Challenge medal to prove it. But it is yet to be seen whether her department can guide the nation out of the EU smoothly and peacefully…

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