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Cat Little starts her new job at a testing time for the civil service

Staff numbers, low morale and structural change are pressing concerns for the civil service.

Cat Little has started in her new role as civil service chief operating officer.
Cat Little started in her new role as civil service chief operating officer this week.

Cat Little has taken over as civil service chief operating officer during a time of change for the civil service. Jack Worlidge looks at the challenges she will face

As job titles go, civil service chief operating officer and cabinet office permanent secretary is a mouthful. But Cat Little’s new job is one of the most pivotal – and challenging – roles in government.  

The first part – leading reform across the entire civil service – will not be easy against a backdrop of severe fiscal constraints, the looming election and a demoralised workforce. The second means managing one of the more idiosyncratic (and, as the Institute for Government has argued, incoherent) government departments.

Little was previously responsible for public spending in the Treasury and head of the government’s finance function. With earlier experience at the Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Defence, as well as in the private sector at PwC, she knows the strengths and weaknesses of Whitehall, but her new job will require her to broaden out from her finance background.

Little will need to prioritise technological innovation to find savings

Little’s first problem is a familiar one. The size of the civil service has taken a rollercoaster-shaped journey in recent years, with over 100,000 staff (full time equivalents) shed between late 2009 and the EU referendum before the twin demands of Brexit and the pandemic saw over 115,000 added between 2016 and 2024.

So what is the right size? Successive prime ministers and chancellors searching for savings – both symbolic and real – have targeted civil service staff numbers, with Jeremy Hunt setting out a headcount cap and a target of reducing numbers to pre-pandemic levels by the end of the next spending review.

Arbitrary headcount targets are misguided, and Hunt’s cap has anyway not worked – numbers are still rising. But ministers and senior officials both worry that the civil service’s growth is out of control, and Little will need to set out her position on the right size for the civil service.  

Automation and AI will have an impact, and it is welcome that the government is trialling the use of AI in several civil service settings.  16 Markson T, ‘Dowden: Embracing AI ‘only sustainable route’ to cutting civil service headcount’, Civil Service World, 29 February 2024,   17 Wheeler C, ‘Oliver Dowden: AI could reduce ministers’ workload’, The Sunday Times, 5 November 2023,   18 Seddon P, ‘AI chatbots do work of civil servants in productivity trial’, BBC News, 29 September 2023,  But technological developments cannot sidestep a difficult fiscal environment nor meet the current and future demands on government. Little will need to explain how large she thinks the civil service needs to be, and what should be cut, where and when. If she, and other civil service leaders, cannot provide answers, then they should not be surprised if politicians reach once more for blunt and ineffective headcount targets.

Tackling declining civil service morale should be a priority

The results of the latest Civil Service People Survey showed that the headline measure of morale – officials’ “engagement” with their work – declined for the third year in a row. In a valedictory event at the Institute for Government, Little’s predecessor Alex Chisholm said that he was most concerned by civil service satisfaction with pay and benefits (which fell “catastrophically”, in his words, in 2022 – even though it increased in 2023 following a pay deal) and with “leadership and managing change”.

Some of the current mood is no doubt due to the political volatility of recent years. Speaking to Civil Service World recently, Chisholm suggested that the rate of change in ministers was “greater […] than you would want to support that efficient partnership between the civil service and political leadership”, and that this was a particular reason for poor morale in 2022.  19 Brecknell S, ‘'What I won’t miss? The rate of change we’ve experienced': Alex Chisholm on his time as civil service COO’, Civil Service World, 20 March 2024,

If the election delivers a stable government – whatever its political make up – that difficulty should ease, giving Little an opportunity to rebuild morale.  

The civil service must be prepared for structural changes and new ways of working

Finally, Little faces the task of preparing the civil service for structural changes which may emerge in the next parliament. There is, as we have argued, an emerging consensus that the centre of government is outdated and unable to tackle the challenges facing the UK. The Institute made its own proposals for wholesale reform earlier this year.

Little will also be responsible for most of the corporate ‘functions’, setting standards for the government’s procurement, project management, human resources and other activity. Getting these right is important to improve the capability of the civil service and reduce waste.

There is also increasing recognition that, while many of the most pressing policy problems – from climate change to weak economic growth – span multiple government departments, Whitehall is poor at collaborative working. The Labour party’s mission-led approach to government could involve significant changes to how Whitehall operates,  20 Smyth C, ‘Labour gives Sue Gray her first task: plot Whitehall revamp’, The Times, 21 August 2023,  but whoever wins the election seems sure to review the way government works.  

The civil service has experienced a dramatic, sometimes chaotic, decade. A general election campaign, and its aftermath, means more upheaval is inevitable. Cat Little, working with cabinet secretary Simon Case, has started her job at a challenging time. She will need to draw on her skills and experience – and build strong ministerial backing – to make this the moment the civil service starts to stabilise and rebuild.  


Political party
Conservative Labour
Sunak government
Cabinet Office
Public figures
Simon Case
Institute for Government

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