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The Civil Service plays its part in delivering success for the UK

The Olympics were a success - but there were fears it wouldn't be

Six months ago, in the Opening Ceremony as the flaming Olympic rings descended, I finally allowed myself the thought that “Yes, this really is going to be very good”. Six years earlier, it had all been rather different. Taking up post as Permanent Secretary at the Culture Department, one of Whitehall’s most interesting and smallest departments, but responsible for the Government’s role in the world’s largest event, it had felt hugely uncertain. Then, there were questions whether DCMS was up to it, whether Britain was up to it, for that matter. The nay-sayers predicted the Budget was going to sprawl to £20 billion (bn), it would be late and it would all end in tears.

But, as we know, it was a huge success. Of course, that is first of all down to the athletes and then to the volunteers, who made it such a welcoming and exhilarating event to be part of. But just as critical to success was an unseen army – many of them civil or public servants – who worked over many years to make the Games a success. This was the ultimate test of delivery and professional skills – and the Civil Service helped Britain pass it with flying colours. This showed off the best we are capable of – and demonstrates clearly the model and culture the Civil Service Reform Plan is seeking to implement. This week the independent Institute for Government published “Making the Games”, setting out twelve lessons from the successful delivery of the Games. Most are not new – get the right people with the right skills, keep them in post, control changes to the project tightly, set a realistic budget with contingency, invest in planning, testing and assurance. The Olympics demonstrates the Civil Service is applying these lessons in department after department. As well as DCMS, the Transport Department oversaw both £6bn of capital transport investment on time and on budget and a near flawless delivery of public transport during the Games. The Home Office delivered, on time and on budget, a new IT system to manage an estimated 500,000 accreditations to the Games – which coped when the actual number proved nearer 1 million. In all, 19 departments had to work together to support the Games successfully – demonstrating that the idea of a ‘joined up’ Whitehall is more than just an aspiration. Lesson 12 from the Institute’s study, incidentally, is the need for bold political leadership. Every civil servant knows the importance of this. Yes, Minister is just a comedy. In the real world, strong and clear political leadership, supported by a professional and impartial Civil Service, is how things get done – the real key to success. It’s well known Tessa Jowell was instrumental in persuading the Government to bid for the Games. And it’s equally well-known that the Civil Service advice pointed out the risks, and was right to do so. In the event, the minister decided to proceed – and how right she was – and then the Civil Service got on with supporting and implementing that decision, with loyalty, professionalism and commitment. A model of the Civil Service offering advice, ministers taking decisions and the Civil Service implementing those decisions – a model repeated day in, day out in every department. And any project lasting many years has to cope with inevitable political changes. The Olympics saw a change of administration in City Hall and in Whitehall. Jeremy Hunt and Hugh Robertson provided the leadership to bring it to a successful conclusion. And that was where the trusted impartiality of the Civil Service became a key ingredient of successful delivery. Civil servants were asked to brief Jeremy Hunt and Hugh Robertson regularly in opposition and so, when they arrived in government, they found no surprises. And that, I believe, gave them the confidence to carry on the work with no backward glance. Impartiality is a core value of the Civil Service and the Olympics showed its lasting importance. But the Games also showed how the Civil Service is changing itself to the modern, professional, flexible, fast-paced organisation that plays its part in delivering success for the UK.  
English Regions
Greater London
Institute for Government

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