Public servants must work together to navigate turbulent times

By Graeme McDonald | 14 August 2019
  • Graeme McDonald

In both his leadership campaign and first few days in office, Boris Johnson has set a clear direction towards a ‘no ifs, no buts’ Brexit on 31 October with the value of sterling signalling the financial market’s belief that a ‘no-deal’ Brexit is likely. The civil service has stepped up preparations and a new system of governance has been established to keep senior ministers informed and decisions able to flow.

‘No-deal’ preparations to date have also seen civil servants and local government working more closely over recent months. While this joint working has improved preparations across local systems and communities, and improved Whitehall’s understanding of local challenges and needs, the process has demonstrated the value of a network of professional colleagues from councils and Government working collaboratively.

Public sector officials are not merely implementors of policy made by politicians. Decisions are often delegated to officers and managers. When politicians do make decisions they do so based on professional advice. So, a system-wide appreciation of policy and its impact is important to ensure the best decisions and advice is given both locally and nationally. Within their places, council staff play an important convening role with partners, and discussion with Whitehall is an extension of that.

The uncertain political waters in which local and central Government now sail places greater emphasis on public servants working in genuine collaboration and resisting the temptation to become entrenched in our organisational perspectives. This is challenging when we can’t forecast future storms or know if the prevailing wind will shift direction. It requires us to recognise that councils don’t have the monopoly on difficult choices and that all tiers of Government are managing their way through an unprecedented period of turbulence.

But with that comes an opportunity to build long-lasting relationships and a chance to re-think co-produced systems. It will only be with public servants working together that we will all successfully navigate these turbulent times.

Graeme McDonald is managing director of Solace

The Solace Summit will take place at the Hilton Birmingham Metropole on 16-18 October. For details see

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