Matt Ross speaks to Philip Rycroft, Permanent Secretary of the Department for Exiting the European Union, about dealing with the “unprecedented challenge” of Brexit, working alongside the devolved administrations and defending allegations of partisan civil servants.
Life is not straightforward in the cockpit of Brexit. “This is the most important issue facing the Government – an unprecedented challenge for the civil service,” says Philip Rycroft, Permanent Secretary of the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU). And that challenge lies not just in the scale and breadth of the tasks facing civil servants, but in their novelty. “We are into uncharted territory around a lot of this,” Rycroft explains. “We’re finding a way, trying to anticipate emerging issues, and people are having to learn very fast.”
At one level, many of those “emerging issues” are predictable – stemming from gaps between the UK Government’s stated goals and the EU’s position. But the tensions within Theresa May’s Cabinet and party, and the vituperative public debate around Brexit, make this a highly unstable operating environment for officials. As Rycroft says with masterly understatement, “the debate about the UK’s future is still very vivid, and that is part of the context in which the department has to operate.”
Does the Perm Sec have the most difficult job in the civil service? “I’ve got a difficult job, but there are quite a lot of difficult jobs in the civil service at the moment,” he replies, adding that he has “a great senior leadership team, and a brilliant team across DExEU. I couldn’t do an awful lot without the strength of that team behind me.”
In fact, he argues, the whole of the civil service “has demonstrated its deep capability in responding, essentially in real time, to this challenge. We have a good understanding of what is required across the piece, and I think ultimately the country as a whole will owe the civil service a vote of thanks for the quality of the work that has been done on Brexit.”
If Rycroft himself is able to respond rapidly across a broad brief, it is partly due to the skills he learned in previous roles. Working as the Director General of Nick Clegg’s office during the Coalition Government, he recalls, enabled him “to see the totality of government operations – understanding how decisions are taken, and how the structures of Whitehall operate – and stretched my experience well out of the domains I was familiar with”.
He’d previously spent a decade within the Scottish Government. There, he says, he was impressed by both civil servants’ ability to collaborate across different fields of policy, and their close connections to the wider public sector – both valuable capabilities for DExEU. In Scotland’s smaller civil service, he comments, “civil servants have a wider view of the policy waterfront, so they can make connections between policies; they can see the joins, and understand the whole.” Whitehall can, he adds, learn useful lessons from the Scottish Government “about how you connect with the policy community and the users of public services, and, critically, how you can understand the policy context as a whole system and not just see its disaggregated parts.”
Rycroft’s experience in Scotland underpinned his appointment as head of the Cabinet Office’s new UK Governance Group in June 2015, managing intergovernmental relations, devolution and constitutional issues across the UK. He retained this role when he joined DExEU in spring 2017 as Second Permanent Secretary, leaving him well-placed to smooth negotiations with the devolved administrations over the return of EU responsibilities and powers to the UK.
But experience and relationships can, of course, only get you so far – and in the Spring, the Scottish Parliament decisively rejected the UK Government’s plans for managing the return of those powers to Scotland. Wary of divergence in regulations, laws and subsidies within the UK’s own single market, and determined to retain their ability to negotiate with the EU as a single entity, UK ministers have been unwilling to share control of key aspects of that process.
Rycroft is understandably reluctant to comment, beyond noting that the UK is committed “as far as it possibly can” to deciding how these powers will land “through cooperative, collaborative working with the devolved administrations.” But the clash does, he says, illustrate a “wider point: Brexit changes the landscape of responsibility as these powers come back from Brussels to the UK, and that will increase the need for civil servants in Whitehall to understand how to work with the devolved administrations to achieve common objectives”.
Brexit, of course, follows successive waves of devolution to Scotland and Wales – notably the taxation and benefits powers passed to Scotland following its 2014 independence referendum. Taken together, Rycroft believes, these constitutional changes demand a shift in relationships between the centre and the devolved administrations. There’s a need for “not just civil servants, but ministers and, indeed, the wider world of politics and beyond, to understand what this means”, he says. It’s “no longer sensible” to devise policy “without taking into account the interests” of ministers and elected politicians in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
As Rycroft is gently pointing out, the greater the powers and legitimacy of the devolved administrations, the more important it is that their views are considered in London – and, by extension, the greater the risk that over-riding them will hasten political and constitutional divergence. But Scotland represents just one front in the multifaceted challenges thrown up by Brexit – almost all of which are made more complex by the lack of an agreed, defined end state for the UK’s relationship with the EU.
So how do Rycroft’s officials plan for a Brexit whose nature is in constant flux? “Clearly, it’s a unique and unprecedented circumstance,” he replies, but any big change project “requires very similar skills to those we’re deploying across the Brexit waterfront: classic project management skills.” DExEU is focusing on risk management, flexibility, and “very sophisticated planning work to deal with that variability in possible outcomes. Managing those different variables requires a lot of hard thought and planning, but that’s the job we’ve been on for many months now and the work is in good shape.”
The Perm Sec emphasises that much of the work required by Brexit falls to other parts of Whitehall. “The component parts of that are very much owned by departments,” he explains, adding that civil service Chief Executive John Manzoni and the heads of the civil service specialist functions are “getting alongside departments to help with delivery; they can bring to bear the commercial, IT and project management skills.”
Whatever support the centre can offer, departments confront an astonishingly complex set of tasks and as Rycroft says, DExEU is addressing “a concentrated version of the challenges facing the whole civil service.” Yet the very scale and historic nature of these challenges have, in part, proved the department’s salvation – attracting a highly-motivated workforce blending experienced civil servants, new entrants, and a “large and enthusiastic” cohort of Fast Streamers. “It’s a tremendous opportunity for people to be in the thick of the action,” comments Rycroft. “We look hard for the right people, but the right people also look hard to find us.”
The staff, he comments, know that a stint at DExEU will “build their capability and career experience in a way that will stand them in very good stead for future careers in the civil service.” And the civil service unions have been “very helpful”, providing “a good feedback mechanism about what people are feeling. Partly as a consequence of that feedback, we’ve put in a lot of effort to help people with what is quite an exceptionally pressurised context – thinking long and hard about people’s wellbeing.”
DExEU was “never designed to be a permanent fixture – just look at its name – but I’m absolutely certain that the skills that we’ve built up will be required long past the formal point of exit,” Rycroft adds, explaining that he and his peers will be thinking carefully about how to retain staff following the department’s eventual disbandment. “We have built up an enormously important resource of capability, which will stand the civil service and Government in good stead; we need to look after it.”
Rycroft is plainly very proud of his DExEU team. How does he respond to the repeated allegations that civil servants are undermining the Brexit project? “The civil service has approached this really complex, tough policy challenge with integrity, impartiality, objectivity and honesty,” he replies emphatically. “The approach of DExEU and all the other departments I’ve encountered has been absolutely professional. I’d like to put on record my absolute belief in the way in which the time-honoured values of the British civil service have come to bear on this enormous challenge for the country, which should be very glad to have a civil service of this quality.”
Does all this criticism have an impact on staff morale? “Anybody knocking any profession, from a position of perhaps little knowledge, is not well received – but we have broad shoulders, and confidence in the quality of our work,” he says. “Clearly, one would wish that commentary wasn’t there, but it’s part of my job to help people put it into context and not allow it to demoralise or distract them.”
Such “commentary”, though, can have far-reaching effects. Some observers worry that when elected leaders choose to challenge unwelcome advice or analyses from public servants by questioning officials’ motives or loyalties, they undermine trust in public institutions as a whole – further weakening the public’s tenuous faith in future governments of every stripe. Does that concern him? “It behoves anybody with influence on political commentary to think about the way in which government works in the UK, and to understand the value that the country gets from the civil service,” he responds. “Clearly people can have different views about the way the country is run, but don’t undermine something which you might regret losing!”
Amidst this “vivid” debate, Rycroft and his team have been working to coordinate workstreams, manage projects, and craft a workable Brexit policy. Just a regular day in the cockpit of Brexit.
Matt Ross is a journalist and communications adviser to the FDA.