26 September 2023

UNITED KINGDOM: Leaders ‘set tone’ for lockdown parties

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COVID-19 lockdown parties at the United Kingdom Prime Minister’s Downing Street offices were “exceptionally disappointing” a former official responsible for Public Service staff during the pandemic has told MPs.

Rupert McNeil, who was Government Chief People Officer until April 2022, was questioned on the parties following Parliament’s Privileges Committee finding that then Prime Minister, Boris Johnson lied to Parliament over the gatherings.

Appearing before the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Mr McNeil (pictured) said while the episode was exceptionally disappointing, it affected only a very small part of the Public Service.

“It does not reflect the incredible hard work that was happening in many other parts of the service,” Mr McNeil said.

“It is absolutely clear that in any organisation the tone is set from the very top, whether that’s the political leadership or the management leadership — the fortunate thing now is that at the Permanent Secretary level you have a group of leaders who are among the best in the world.”

He also addressed criticisms of the Public Service as “a blob”, a term which has been used by supporters of Mr Johnson who claim it was responsible for the former Prime Minister’s downfall.

Mr McNeil said perceptions that the Public Service is a “malevolent force” which hinders policy delivery and reform were a symptom of the Government machinery failing to adapt to the challenges of the 21st century.

He suggested frustration among Ministers was caused by their struggle to exert control over the complex system covering Whitehall and beyond.

He also highlighted the failure of functions in Downing Street to effectively coordinate activity across Departments as a root cause of friction.

“Although we made great progress during the Brexit and COVID periods in improving capability, we still don’t have what is needed to deal with, frankly, the horrendous challenges of the 21st century. The system is not responsive enough,” Mr McNeil said.

London, 24 June 2023

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