Coronavirus has shown Whitehall can avoid getting 'bogged down' in bureaucracy – civil service chief

Written by Sam Trendall on 15 July 2020 in News
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Chief operating officer Alex Chisholm calls for 'experimentation and innovation'​

Credit: Lilly M/CC BY-SA 2.0

Responding to the coronavirus crisis has demonstrated that government can avoid getting "bogged down" in the bureaucracy that stymies innovation and problem-solving, according to civil service chief operating officer Alex Chisholm.

Speaking at the virtual Civil Service Live event this week, Chisholm – who is also permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office – said that Michael Gove's recently outlined vision to reform the civil service via "inventiveness and bold experimentation... is an idea that has found its time in the era of coronavirus". 

The efforts of recent months have shown that government can break down the barriers that prevent departments working together, according to the Whitehall operations chief.


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"The complexity and urgency of the response, and the need for sophisticated modelling and real-time data, has made a powerful case for more experimentation and innovation, and increased awareness of the value of data and of science," he said.  "And it adds renewed weight to our need to tackle the other, frustrating, side of the civil service – where we get bogged down in costly, inefficient processes, and teams on the ground see problems only too clearly, but their proposed solutions go nowhere."

The current crisis has demonstrated the benefits of enabling collaborations, and of adopting new tech and processes.

Chisholm said: "The speed at which we had to scramble a response has underlined the merits of breaking down any barriers that stop us working together, of embracing new technology and of making sure all our people have had the necessary training and support to do the best possible job – even when having to operate ‘at the edge of deliverability’, as one of my most hard-pressed perm-sec colleagues put it last week."

Elsewhere in his speech, the Cabinet Ofice head said that he shared his colleagues' "pride and wonder" at the achievements of civil servants in recent months, and namechecked digital professionals for praise.

"We have built new hospitals in weeks, set up digital services for the vulnerable in days, established new grant schemes in hours, and learnt to process Universal Credit claims in minutes," he added. "This must give us all great hope – confidence even – that we can rise to the challenge that lies before us."

 

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Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology

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