‘Next year shouldn’t be back to normal’

BEIS perm sec Sarah Munby discusses a year of securing millions of vaccines, delivering business loans, and providing guides to safer working

Credit: Louise Haywood-Schiefer

In a year unlike any other, senior figures from across the civil service took part in PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World’s annual perm secs round-up to discuss how the unprecedented 12 months affected them and their organisation, and look ahead to 2021. 

Click here to read more from a wide selection of government leaders.

The Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy – whose policy and programme agenda includes a range of tech-related areas, including research and innovation and government’s AI and data ‘grand challenge’ – has overseen an enormous variety of essential programmes this year, according to permanent secretary Sarah Munby.

What are you proudest of your department or agency achieving in 2020? 
Like many bits of government, BEIS has had a busy year. And much of our activity was things we would never have imagined doing if you had asked us in January: we’ve secured 357m vaccine doses for the UK, supported business with over £65bn in loans (across the Bounce Back Loans and other various loan guarantee schemes), written nine industry guides to safer working, and worked with Local Authorities to give 999,735 grants and counting to small businesses. That’s before you get to our work on science, climate change, reform of the energy system and so on (I have to give a shout out to the publication of the government’s Ten Point Plan for a green industrial revolution). But across all of that what I’m proudest of is that we managed to do it all without losing who we are: a group of diverse, collaborative colleagues who really look after each other. 

What was the hardest part of being a leader in 2020? 
For me, it’s been managing the hard professional stuff alongside the hard personal stuff, both for me and my team. I’ve got three kids in primary school so we had our own rocky moments to deal with in lockdown, and of course some of my colleagues have been dealing with far more difficult personal circumstances. We’ve asked a lot of each other this year, and I think one of the hardest leadership tricks to pull off has been knowing when (and how) to push the pedal to the floor and when (and how) to let people (including yourself) breathe and recuperate.  Of course, that’s not a new balancing act, but the tightrope has felt rather thinner in 2020! 

What are the main challenges facing your organisation in the coming year?
We’ve got some pretty huge work going on for 2021. We are working on greener energy, homes and businesses in the run up to COP26 (next year’s UN climate talks, hosted in Glasgow). We are answering the question “what next” for the country’s industrial strategy after the end of the Transition period. We have got some chunky legislation coming down the pipe too. So I think we will have plenty of interesting challenges to keep us busy. I also want to make sure we keep having the important conversations 2020 has triggered: on diversity and inclusion (especially as it applies to black people); on new ways of working in and out of the office; and on delivering brilliantly for the whole of the UK. As so many wise people have said, 2021 will hopefully feel more straightforward than 2020, but it isn’t and shouldn’t be “back to normal”.  

People will have to be more creative about celebrating this year. How will you make the festive period on Zoom special? 
I’m a bit of a festive-fanatic personally, and not really seasonally satisfied unless in the presence of mince pies, Santa hats, baubles, multi-coloured tinsel, mulled wine and LOTS of fairy lights. I am being restrained by my wiser and better colleagues from inflicting this too extensively on the department so hopefully we will end up with something both inclusive and maybe even tasteful, but I will definitely be sneaking the odd sleigh bell in to Teams calls….


Sam Trendall

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