Sarah Munby runs the rule over an unrelenting 12 months
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.
The permanent secretary of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Sarah Munby, reflects on COP26, the Spending Review – and Mary Poppins
What was your highlight of 2021?
2021 has certainly felt like a long year with so much to pick from. We’ve been juggling the continuing impact of Covid with really pushing our feet to the floor on the secretary of state’s long-term priorities – so never a dull day.
The thing I would pick out is the Net Zero Strategy, the plan we published before Cop26 on how the UK will reach the target of net zero emissions by 2050. I don’t just pick it because it set us up for a fantastic Cop26 in Glasgow and puts us among the world leaders in tackling climate change, but also because it brought together lots of the things I love about our work in BEIS: insightful analysis brilliantly explained; partnerships right across Whitehall and beyond; the opportunity to think truly long term about one of the world’s most challenging problems. We are shaping an extraordinary transformation of the UK economy, and BEIS are right at the heart of it. Very exciting.
It’s been wonderful to see the work come together over the last year, building on the foundations that went before, and I am immensely proud by the reception that the strategy has had with stakeholders – not least with the private investors who need to help us deliver £90bn of new investment to drive the change!
If I can sneak in a second highlight, it would be opening our new office in Salford and seeing several hundred people move in. It’s brilliant to see BEIS folk – existing and new – flourishing in a completely new location, headed up by our first director general outside London, and to see the partnerships they are building with local businesses and talent.
How did you tackle the biggest challenges facing your organisation in 2021?
I think the biggest challenge we have had in BEIS this year has been a long and sometimes unpredictable to-do list. On top of our long-term priorities around net zero, innovation and enterprise, we have been handling a lot of nearer-term challenges: whether that’s year two of Covid’s impact on business; the emerging challenges to supply chains across the economy; or a surge in global gas prices and what that means for the energy market. We have all needed to be able to roll with the punches and even to enjoy doing so.
For me, much of the last year has been spent thinking about how we hold each other strong in times of change to bring out the positives and the growth. That means communicating really well and taking advantage of new technology. It also means remembering that people come first if you want to deliver great results – so a focus on building inclusive and trusting teams that let us react fast and be flexible. I feel very proud of the collaborative approach we have in the department, and I think it has let us go from strength to strength during a challenging period.
What is your number one priority for 2022?
2021 was a huge year – not least because we now have a three-year settlement following the Spending Review.
We have been given very large amounts of taxpayers’ money to deliver against our ambitious goals – whether that’s driving more innovation from business or building a new hydrogen economy.
It’s a huge responsibility – and my number one priority is to deliver, to put the money and plans into action, and to drive real impact on the ground. That’s not easy, and we know all sorts of slings and arrows will be thrown at us, but I feel immensely positive.
Look out for a heat pump coming into a home near you, a small business receiving leadership training through Help to Grow, a scientist friend who starts working in the UK space industry or someone you know taking a new job working in a gigafactory. That’s BEIS in action, and we have so much more to do.
Which historical, mythical, or contemporary figure would you most like to join you for a New Year’s Eve celebration?
I’m afraid I am not a big celebrator of New Year’s Eve anymore – my six-year-old daughter’s birthday is on New Year’s Day, so I spend the evening before wrapping presents, putting up decorations to replace the Christmas ones and attempting to get three over-excited children to sleep. So, on that basis, I think it would have to be Mary Poppins.