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How Brexit is shaping the Civil Service

6 September 2019

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Reported by Bekki Parrish, NERC-funded intern (May – July 2019) and Kate McNeil, CSaP Communications Coordinator

The day after the Brexit referendum, Clare Moriarty, then Permanent Secretary at Defra, told her staff that “we all crave certainty, but it’s not coming along anytime soon.” At CSaP's annual conference, Ms Moriarty – now the Permanent Secretary of the Department for Exiting the European Union – shared her experience as a leader in the civil service during this transition period.
Over the course of her address, she categorised the effects that Brexit has had on the civil service over the last three years into five key points:

I. “It’s okay to feel what you feel”

In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, Ms Moriarty recognised that it would bring “change on a scale we’ve never seen before”, creating a challenging work environment and fostering uncertainty. Recognising that “you get much more leadership impact by saying the unexpected things”, and that civil servants would automatically maintain their professionalism, she showed them that this professionalism did not need to be so "dominant.” In doing so, she created space for civil servants to safely process their emotional reactions to the referendum.

II. “You don’t know what you don’t know”

Government departments are built for stability and designed to develop through processes which are iterative and incremental. The challenges and opportunities presented by exiting the European Union has placed pressure on departments to develop new capabilities rapidly. While in any organisation there will be some “well-developed muscles and some less developed muscles”, recognising organisational weak spots or areas where you require additional expertise, can be challenging when there are not already people internal to the organisation with the subject-matter expertise to see the gaps.

III. “Culture, who’s culture?”

The creation of the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) resulted in the rapid hiring of 750 people, along with extensive staff flux across and within other departments. This sudden scaling up of the workforce reached a point where people were no longer being assimilated into an existing work culture in a ‘gradualist’ way. Instead, a culture shift became a continual process of cultural adaptation as employees joined from other sectors. Here too, there were opportunities for learning. Ms Moriarty emphasised that the influx of new hires from backgrounds outside the civil service brought fresh eyes and new perspectives to issues and practices within departments that long-time staff had stopped seeing.

IV. “Putting on the virtual reality headset”

The shifting environment in which Brexit preparations are occurring has meant that there have always been multiple scenarios running within departments. Keeping these scenarios separate within the minds of those preparing for multiple possible outcomes can be difficult. Overcoming this required "bounding uncertainty" to let people get on and do things. Ms Moriarty described this bounding of uncertainty as choosing to operate within a series of virtual realities in which, after having forecasted the range of possible outcome scenarios, specific scenarios could be isolated and prepared for separately as if they were the certain outcome.

In the case of Defra, this has thus far meant choosing to " trigger all of our contingency plans” and focusing preparations on the outcome which would generate the most short-term practical issues concerning food and water supply – a no deal scenario.

V. “Just another two weeks”

As timelines have shifted throughout the Brexit negotiation process, and as departments experienced the constant framing and reframing of issues involved in this process, civil servants have developed strategies for short-term planning. While prolonged periods of very high uncertainty have the capacity to be "anxiety-producing", departments have sought to make uncertainty manageable by asking “what will the next two weeks look like?” and working according to the answers in a continuous fashion.

These lessons have allowed the civil service to operate flexibly in the highly uncertain environment and has created an environment focused on reducing anxiety and increasing dynamism for workers in departments experiencing constant change.

Listen to the full lecture here.

Clare Moriarty

Department for Exiting the European Union

  • 26 June 2019, 9:30am

    CSaP Annual Conference 2019

    CSaP's Annual Conference will bring together members of our network from government, academia and elsewhere to discuss some of the policy challenges we have worked on over the past year.