The problem with obtaining data is often not excessive bureaucracy but issues of ownership and privacy, or commercial sensitivity.
Ratings from the UK were among the lowest, and senior civil servants were particularly pessimistic around bureaucracy, budgets, technology, human resources and collaboration.
Only 12% of the leadership group agreed that there is very little unnecessary bureaucracy in their organisation, with 85% disagreeing.
However, the UK cohort recorded the strongest agreement among Five Eyes nations that adapting to change has helped to develop significant capabilities that were not present three years before the Covid pandemic, with 83% of the core group and 96% of leaders agreeing.
James Brereton, a deputy director at the Department for Transport (DfT), says crisis management is well developed in some departments. These functions had been strengthened by Operation Yellowhammer, an initiative to prepare for disruption after the UK left the EU.
Brereton adds that some departments, such as the Ministry of Justice and HM Revenue & Customs, rarely have to deal with emergencies so are less well prepared and had a tougher time during the pandemic, although they have “caught up”.
In the survey, fewer than one in three (31%) UK leaders strongly agreed that we have, or can quickly source, the required data, information and intelligence for our decision-making – with the same proportion strongly disagreeing.
But Brereton says one result of the pandemic has been better data sourcing for decision-making. Ministers demanded real-time data and a lot of work was done across the government to speed up access to information.
In Brereton’s experience, the problem with obtaining data is often not excessive bureaucracy but issues of ownership, privacy or commercial sensitivity.
He led the government’s response to the collapse of airline and travel company Thomas Cook in 2019, and recalls how his team could not access passenger data to help plan repatriations until the Official Receiver had been sent into the company. For months, they relied on predictions, some of which were wide of the mark.
The DfT has since established a crisis data unit with analysts whose remit is to “think about those complicated data pieces before they happen”, says Brereton. “As we do scenario planning for the big risks, they are doing the thinking about what kind of questions ministers might ask, where we can get that data from, what’s available and what’s not, and what we can invest in.”
Regarding ability to hire new talent to support change, 46% of UK civil servants agreed they can do this as and when required but, in the leadership groups, only 19% agreed compared with 62% who disagreed.
These results reflect UK leaders’ glum views on budgetary capabilities: just 23% agreed that they had sufficient dedicated budget for pursuing change against 58% who disagreed.
Philip Oliver, public sector strategy expert, PA Consulting, attributes these low levels to a combination of factors, including long-term austerity and underinvestment in IT and data, inflexible pay structures that deter talent, and a perception that the service has become more politicised.
“The separation between the executive and the civil service, which has been held strongly in the UK for many years, has become more blurred recently,” says Oliver.
“The civil service is there to provide balanced, impartial advice to ministers. It’s also there to land what are ostensibly very difficult messages that sometimes prevent a government from fully implementing what they want to implement. And, while I’m not saying that work isn’t still being done to build out the propositions and proposals fully, there is a much greater emphasis now by civil servants on the political implications of decisions and advice.”
Neil Amos, policing and justice lead for PA Consulting, highlights the proliferation of special advisers and non-executive members from the private sector on departmental boards: “There’s this sense that the government feels that, if they want to get anything done, they’ll bring people in to shake things up. I think the impact of that may be to undermine confidence and optimism among civil servants about the job.”
But Amos is not surprised that UK respondents were positive about their Covid response and suggests the pandemic has been “galvanizing” for the civil service.
“In a way, people have been liberated from their bureaucratic shackles, because things had to get done – the vaccination programme, ventilators, the furlough scheme. On a psychological level, there is something about the fact that it is only government that can do these things.
“After they had been beaten over the head for so many years and told ‘public sector bad, private sector good’, the pandemic re-established to civil servants that it’s the public sector who has to respond to this – in partnership with industry, sure, but it’s got to be led by government.”
He notes that reacting to a crisis can be relatively easy: “In a crisis, people can get a real sense of pride and urgency because the problem is obvious and staring them in the face, and they have to solve it so they all come together and do something about it.
“The bit that’s hard – and where government struggles – is the really important but non-urgent work. It’s building that data capability. It’s changing IT systems. It’s creating a new set of behaviours and culture within the organisation. These things are much harder because there isn’t that sense of urgency.”
Stranded: responding to the collapse of an airline
When travel company Thomas Cook looked like it would collapse in 2019, one might have thought the Department for Transport would have a plan ready. After all, Monarch Airlines had gone bust only 18 months earlier.
But James Brereton, a deputy director at the department, says that nobody wrote anything down after Monarch, so much of the institutional memory was lost.
Brereton says such a commercially sensitive case is complex: officials must be careful not to inadvertently create a collapse by scaring off investors. But maintaining high levels of secrecy makes it difficult to obtain the data needed to plan the response, and means information cannot be shared between agencies until very late on.
From spring 2019, at least nine departments were working on their own plans for the possible insolvency, but many staff had signed non-disclosure agreements. The first cross-government ministerial meeting was not called until 17 September. At this meeting, the prime minister approved the repatriation of passengers and months of preparation were turned into action.
Between 23 September and 7 October, more than 154,000 customers were repatriated from 54 airports in 18 countries – 94% on their original scheduled date.
As well as leasing a commercial travel company to manage flight booking, the DfT bid for the assistance of 150 civil servants from the Surge and Rapid Response Team, a 700-strong section based in HM Revenue & Customs.
“We had them deployed around the world within a few days, trained, kitted out with iPads, and sent overseas to help passengers. It was a monumental effort,” recalls Brereton.
“A lot of the customers were of a demographic that isn’t very IT literate – they still go into a high-street store to book their package holiday. So, even though we had set up a microsite and a call centre, a lot of people were just turning up at airports, not even knowing what had happened.
“So we sent all these civil servants around the world who stood at airports and took the brunt of angry package holidaymakers who were not very happy that their company had gone bust.”
Brereton’s team is now writing a playbook to record and share lessons. The operation was, he says, a success: “We brought everyone back and a lot of passengers didn’t even notice any difference.”