System shock: How the civil service responded to Covid-19

Written by Ann Francke OBE Tuesday 08 December 2020
The government’s chief people officer speaks to CMI about pivoting in the civil service and how to cut through noise to find signals of change
Ann Francke OBE, CMI's CEO

The civil service is no stranger to systemic shocks: public service reforms for the past ten years, the effects of the EU referendum and the pressure to automate on every level have caused ripples of change. For the most recent Better Managers Briefing I spoke to Rupert McNeil, the government chief people officer, about how the civil service is adapting through the pandemic, and what shifts he’s noticed in management and leadership.

Covid – accelerating collaboration

The drive towards better collaboration between departments already under way in the public sector has been accelerated by the pandemic. Since 2010, the civil service has been focused on automation and increasing integration between functional areas, and this has helped prepare it for the shock of Covid, Rupert says.

“It has been a massive accelerant to increasing collaboration,” Rupert explains. “About 16 years’ worth of change in how we think about the workplace has happened in about six months.” That’s meant revisiting all sorts of assumptions on everything from office occupancy levels to productivity and the kind of support people need.

The critical role of middle management

In a speech to the Ditchley Foundation, UK government Cabinet minister Michael Gove talked about the importance of people at all levels in the civil service having the skills they need. “We're at a point where there is very high alignment – partly generated by the process of leaving the European Union, but accelerated by Covid – about what we need skills-wise and capability-wise,” Rupert says, saying that a new curriculum approach is key to achieving that vision.

“What we're talking about is a virtual campus with different professions in government linked to their professional bodies outside government dotted around this metaphorical space – security, digital, HR, finance, policy, operations – all linked together using the same language describing what we expect in terms of development to career pathways,” he explains.

Tensions in the system

Rupert also refers to the relentless focus on outcomes at a system level and the challenges of translating those to what happens at the business unit level. He admits to being fascinated by the tension at different levels in the system, from those on the frontline to those in the top job: “The tension between those two places is held by the managers in the middle of the organisation. That's a really pressured place to be. You've got to be really good at distinguishing the signal from the noise.”

Boosting wellbeing

The issue of resilience is a subject close to Rupert’s heart, not least because in 2014 he was forced to take time off work due to a nervous breakdown. The focus on individual resilience puts the burden onto the individual when actually it’s changes in the system that may be needed, he warns: “You can break your system very quickly if you're putting too much strain on any component, including the people in it. that's something that we should all be very aware of.”

Rupert says we have much to learn from organisations and structures such as the emergency services, hospital emergency rooms, the armed forces, security services, where there are mechanisms to help individuals deal with pressure – for example by rotating people out of shifts to make sure they're not exposed for too long. “You’ve got to give people time and space to look after themselves.”.

It’s important to make sure the pressures we face – from work, our community and our families – are in sync. “I know it sounds like a bit of a cliché but be kind to yourself. Put your oxygen mask on first, otherwise you won’t be able to help us in the seat next to you,” Rupert says, and adds that it’s important to have a sense of how much you can control in your external environment.

Keeping staff motivated and mentally well

Interactions via video conferencing tend to make the organisation appear less naturally hierarchical. “We should embrace that we’re all in the same-size box,” Rupert says. Speaking to employees more frequently is key and making sure people are getting together, not just to talk about tasks, but to reflect on how it's going. “The creativity will emerge from that.”

Diversity and inclusion – be intolerant of the bad things

Addressing diversity and inclusion is about good management, having fair processes and removing bias wherever possible. But, says Rupert, it’s also about recognising where things are not effective. “For example, the global evidence is that a lot of unconscious bias training as an intervention has not worked. We want to keep doing the great things, but also be very intolerant of the bad things.”

It comes back to empowered line managers. “If you've got people who are skilled in dealing with people in the workplace, these problems get removed,” Rupert says. There is also an element of being alert and aware of failings, “so if a process is generating a disproportionate weighting to white middle-aged males, clearly something isn't right.”

You want the lived experience in the organisation to be great for everybody, so look for those where it's less great and try and address them, Rupert says. “It's about fairness and making sure people feel that they are part of the collective identity of the organisation.”

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