In these early weeks after the UK’s ‘Brexit’ decision, most of the attention has understandably been focused on the chaotically unfolding political scene. Beneath these swirling mists, however, discussions are beginning to surface about the role and importance of the civil service in implementing this historic decision. This huge task – of working out how this agenda is going to be implemented and then putting in place the means to achieve it – has been made even more intriguing and urgent by the fact that the civil service was apparently expressly instructed not to embark on contingency planning to prepare for the outcome of the referendum.
Against this turbulent background it will be vital that the next steps are “clear, honest and considered” as Rob Whiteman, Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, has noted.
What, then, are the key challenges that the civil service will face?
First, there is the structural issue of working out who will do this work, and in what relationship with the rest of the government machinery. A new central unit, located in the Cabinet Office, is now established to lead the work involved in withdrawal, but questions to consider here will include to what extent this unit will be undertaking some of the heavy lifting itself, or undertaking more of a coordinating role across departments. This will in turn help to shape where resources are targeted.
Secondly, there will be an issue of ensuring that the necessary skills are in place, and particularly with respect to negotiation and contract management skills. There is a long-standing concern, voiced by the NAO (2014) among others, about the extent to which Whitehall is equipped in this respect. As the former Permanent Secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office put it very recently in the context of Brexit: "I doubt there are more than between a dozen and 20 serving British officials who have real experience of trade negotiations."
Alongside these issues of structures and skills, though, ways of working are likely to be just as important. As Melanie Dawes, Permanent Secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government, pointed out at a recent Institute for Government seminar about the implications of Brexit for Whitehall, we now need a collective approach in which resources and skills are shared across departments. Yet the history of Whitehall demonstrates the strength of the pull in precisely the opposite direction, with the culture of departmental competition for resources firmly embedded in the DNA. Now is the time to make a collaborative approach a reality, however hard that may be. Lessons about collaborative partnership working seem useful here, including the importance of setting a framework for the management of governance, for performance measurement, for escalation and for communication.
Then there are the leadership skills to drive this work forward. Political leadership will of course be fundamental. For leaders within Whitehall, though, there will also be a host of challenges. One such will be how to manage priorities. Civil service staffing is currently at its lowest level since the Second World War, with a reduction of 15% since 2010, and yet it will now be necessary, somehow, to take forward this huge programme of change while at the same time not losing sight of other domestic priorities.
Another fundamental challenge for the leadership in Whitehall will be working out a way to take these changes forward while the overall sense of direction is still emerging. The mission is clear (Brexit) , but the sense of direction – exactly what form of change we are working towards and what shape it will take on – is still opaque, and there are some big questions to tackle. For example, as powers and resources are handed back by Brussels, how far will they feed into greater devolution, or to increased centralisation? There are opportunities for the former certainly, harnessed to the important work that is needed to rebuild trust within local communities. Taking devolution further forward will however require considerable input from the civil service, at a time when they have their hands extremely full on other fronts. Fashioning a way forward while the big picture slowly unfolds is likely to call for particularly sensitive and finely-judged leadership. In an emergent situation of this kind, a collaborative style of working is likely to be particular relevant.
Two of the most successful teams in the early stages of the European Cup – Iceland and Wales – voiced strikingly similar and simple views about the ‘recipe’ for their success: have a plan and be a team. Both of these messages seem highly relevant to the current post-Referendum situation, and should be taken very much to heart in Whitehall.