As part of an annual survey of Whitehall chiefs, civil service COO Alex Chisholm reflects on a busy 2023 and the challenges of the months ahead – his last in government
The yearly Permanent Secretaries Roundup published by PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World sees government’s senior leaders discuss the experiences of the past year – as well as shedding light on their plans for festive season. Cabinet Office permanent secretary and civil service chief operating officer Alex Chisholm (pictured above) discusses his priorities for his last few months in post
Tell us three words that sum up your 2023…
I am going for calm, capable and confident.
…and why you chose those words
Not because we always were, or are, but because we always need to be.
The Cabinet Office as the nerve centre of government has to deal with a constant flow of conflicting demands and changing priorities, interrupted several times a year by real crises. We are the centre of political power in the shape of the prime minister, deputy prime minister and their teams.
We are responsible for coordinating across government in support of the Cabinet and between departments. We are the corporate centre where functional expertise helps set standards and drive value across government. And we have special responsibilities with the Crown, parliament and the devolved governments.
With these responsibilities comes the duty to be calm and the need to be capable. Brexit, Covid, Cop26, Russia/Ukraine and now Israel/Gaza: these and the myriad other challenges of this era have made us more agile, imaginative and resourceful in our approach. We have greatly enhanced our expertise in digital, data and delivery. We should feel confident we can cope with whatever tomorrow asks of us.
In 2024, we will almost certainly have an election. We need to make sure we maintain the highest standards of commitment and performance on either side of that. We need to be ready to flex but also to maintain what is of enduring value. Leading our people through this and making the experience a good one will be the key challenge for the organisation’s leadership.
We should feel confident we can cope with whatever tomorrow asks of us
What are your organisational and personal priorities for 2024?
My personal priorities before I finish my term in April are threefold. First, to help pull together a compelling reform and productivity plan for the next era. Secondly, to manage a smooth handover to my successor. And thirdly, to get ready to walk the Camino.
What’s your favourite festive treat, and what makes you say: ‘Bah, humbug’?
Festive treat? I think the State Treasurer of Alabama is onto it…
All entries in Civil Service World’s 2023 Permanent Secretaries Roundup can be read here