Case study 2023: Cat Little

Second Permanent Secretary, HM Treasury

Cat Little is Second Permanent Secretary in the Treasury, where she is responsible for policy on public spending and international finance. Here she describes the benefits of CSaP’s Policy Leaders Fellowship and the importance of being exposed to different thinking, new ideas, and diverse experiences.

My role in the treasury includes being responsible for public services policy at the Treasury, which is aimed at designing and reforming the state to achieve better outcomes and the better use of public money. I am also head of the Government Finance Function, a team of around 10,000 people that sets the standards for financial management across the whole of government and oversees all the major appointments to finance leadership roles in government.

My job is to make sure that our ambitions in how we respond to international and domestic crises are possible within a very tight budgeting constraint. This means locating the holy grail that lies in the distinction between the very important and the important. There is nothing that government does that is not important, so this is a fundamental challenge and privilege of my role.

"CSaP allows you to take a day or two out of Whitehall and just completely un-constrain your thinking, placing you in an academic world that is entirely about the art of curiosity and the exploration of ideas."

The more I have engaged with CSaP, the more I have realised that I typically operate within a very tight bubble. Much of what we do at the Treasury is commercially sensitive, has tight security, and operates within highly secure buildings. This makes it difficult to escape the shackles of the physical and intangible world of government. I passionately believe that you cannot develop great policy unless you are getting diverse experiences, testing your approaches, and exposing yourself to new ideas and innovation. Otherwise, you end up perpetuating the discussions you are having within the walls of the day-to-day.

What I have found most exciting, stimulating, and important about my Fellowship is that I have been able to break out of that bubble. This has exposed me to different thinking, new ideas, and much more diversity. We obviously do this to some extent in the Treasury, but it is more constrained. When you are based in the centre of London, you are surrounded by a very physical embodiment of what it means to be in government.

Throughout my Fellowship I have had a wide-ranging set of discussions, and every single one has made me think differently or has told me something new.

I especially valued the day I spent in Cambridge testing ideas on productivity in the health service, which is the largest non-Annually Managed Expenditure front-line public service budget that we work with, and I am deeply interested in how you scale its efficiency and productivity. These discussions have had a tangible, direct impact on how we are thinking about a whole range of policy areas. We recently launched the Productivity Review for government and the public sector and the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan, which outlined our ambition on productivity. Many of the discussions I had through CSaP compelled me to believe these ambitions could be set at a higher level, and that there was more we could do across government to make that a reality.

I have also attended roundtables on a broad range of topics during my Fellowship. I especially enjoyed the roundtable on innovation in materials, as it is not something I would ever come across in my day-to-day role, but it made me realise that I really should think about it a lot more. Innovations in engineered timber and plant-based materials have the potential to be better for the environment, cheaper and more sustainable, and have a positive impact on working spaces and environments. It is an obvious policy area to look at, but I would never have thought about this issue if not for that roundtable subject.

"The Policy Leaders Fellowship has made me a better policy official in many different ways, particularly by reframing how we develop policy through different methodologies."

After every visit to Cambridge, I have reflected on the huge amount of agency that policy makers have in their fields, and I have walked away from every roundtable thinking about the privileged positions we operate in and recognising the need to take more research into our world and do something about it. Many academics also sent me evidence and research which has allowed me to make an even stronger case for policies in these areas.

There have been meetings where I have actively disagreed with academics. It is very easy to make massive assumptions about why government has decided to do something, and academics have often said that it has been helpful to gain insights on government decisions on why money has or has not been spent. CSaP provides a platform for mutual learning, and I would like to think that many of the academics I have met have taken something back into their work too.