Overnight, the pandemic transformed workplaces and left no sector immune from change. The civil service is no stranger to systemic shocks, the past few years have been spent getting to grips with Brexit for example, but the pandemic presented significant obstacles.
Leaders in the civil service had to respond quickly to change, and management skills have continued to adapt. We’ve unpicked a few of the most important leadership skills across the civil service for managing post-change.
Civil service departments had to adapt quickly as they were met with huge increases in demand. The Department for Work and Pensions redeployed staff to create capacity as COVID-19 placed pressure on existing services. Managers had to become familiar with modifying their entire department to reorientate it around the pandemic response. Leaders had to react pragmatically and quickly to these changes.
But, with change comes opportunity, and the pandemic has been no exception; HMRC alone developed three new services, the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme and the Coronavirus Statutory Sick Pay Rebate Scheme. Indeed, leaders reacted so efficiently, that the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme was able to be designed and launched in less than five weeks. Leaders’ willingness to embrace change in their management style was key to this success.
The pandemic broke down technical barriers between departments and enabled them to collaborate more easily. Some departments will have faced complete reorganisation, with team members moving between departments to support those most in need or to take on new interim projects.
We know that collaboration is what functional working is all about and sharing good practice can only make for a stronger and more unified organisation. Civil service leaders’ willingness to collaborate enabled data to be shared quickly so tasks could be completed more efficiently.
Departments across the civil service had to rapidly adapt to remote working while also managing the effects of the crisis across the UK. Before the pandemic, remote working was uncommon in the civil service, but by May 2020, all but one department responded that at least 90 per cent of their staff were working from home. This huge shift in working style forced leadership management to adapt quickly. Projects now needed to work for both remote and in-office teams.
The civil service successfully transitioned to remote working practices and the future of work in the civil service is set to be a hybrid model. 82 per cent of civil servants now want to continue working from home more often in the future, suggesting a shift in civil service culture. Leaders will need to continue focusing on keeping their teams connected and well supported.
The pandemic accelerated digital transformation across government and fundamentally altered the role technology plays within the civil service. Digital technology has made it possible for departments to radically change the nature of the services they provide. Leaders’ management style has adapted to support this digital transformation.
Before COVID-19, civil services leaders had pursued five years of a ‘functional agenda’. This focused on strengthening the skills of civil servants such as digital, data and technology and put the civil service in good stead for dealing with the pandemic. Management has embraced upskilling and offered opportunities for growth to keep skills relevant. HMRC was able to successfully develop the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme within three weeks due to the digital skills of officials.
The pandemic has fundamentally changed how the civil service works and signalled a shift in mindset throughout the civil service. Leaders’ management style successfully adapted to support this new outlook, creating not just solutions for the present, but excellent foundations for the future.