‘Reform is top of the list for 2022’ – Whitehall COO Chisholm

Civil service operations chief discusses his priorities for the year ahead

Credit: Crown Copyright/Open Government Licence v3.0


As government moved into its second year of leading the country’s response to the coronavirus crisis – while also managing the UK’s ultimate exit from the European Union, delivering a potentially planet-saving global climate conference, and progressing major reform ambitions – civil servants were likely busier in 2021 than in any other year on record.

In its annual perm secs round-up, PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World heard form scores of Whitehall leaders about their experiences of the past 12 months and their plans for 2022.

Civil service chief operating officer and Cabinet Office permanent secretary Alex Chisholm discusses reform, levelling up and the possibility of a “return to a semblance of a normal life”.


What was your highlight of 2021?
This has to be our world-leading vaccine rollout, brilliantly executed by public servants and volunteers across the UK, enabling us to return to a semblance of normal life.

On a more personal note, one of my top priorities since I took up this role has been to use this time to make government work better for people. So I am proud of the Declaration on Government Reform, setting out an ambitious programme of improvement and signed by the PM and the cabinet secretary on behalf of the whole UK government.

I hope it’s not cheeky to add in a third, as I can’t fail to mention the monumental Cop26 summit and the historic agreement between 197 countries to reduce carbon emissions and to help fund adaptation.

How did you tackle the biggest challenges facing your organisation in 2021?
In the Cabinet Office, we always need to be able to flex to respond to the latest priority challenge. And we’ve certainly had to prove ourselves in this regard over the course of the year.

In the spring we mobilised to support elections in the face of Covid. The summer required a huge cross-government effort to undertake the Afghanistan evacuation and subsequent resettlement programme. Come the autumn and the Cabinet Office was standing up a new supply chain unit and a taskforce on illegal immigration across the channel, as well as surging to support the Cop26 team to stage the summit in Glasgow. It has been just great to see colleagues responding so readily and so well to such challenges.

What is your number one priority for 2022?
If 2021 was about designing the reform effort and publishing our plans in the reform declaration, 2022 is about delivering on our promises, so that’s got to be top of the list. We must also support the government’s levelling up agenda wherever we can, whether that’s through moving civil service roles out of London or by improving our digital and data services.

Which historical, mythical or contemporary figure would you most like to join you for a New Year’s Eve celebration?
I’m really enjoying watching Succession at the moment, so I’d love to meet the cast, and maybe even get a sneaky preview of Series 4!

Visit Civil Service World to read more entries into this year’s perm secs round-up


Sam Trendall

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