I’ve not written any weeknotes since my unremarkable endnote. That was when I came to Defra as part of the Brexit surge. In my first few weeks here I was in the EU emergency centre, helping test our preparations in the event of no deal. It all seemed a bit too sensitive to blog about at the time. After we were stood down (because brexit was postponed to 31 Jan) I took a week off and prepared to return to DWP until after the Christmas holiday. However, on the Friday that I was tidying up and preparing to take my coffee home with me, I got a call at 5pm asking me to go work in the Defra Strategy Unit. With the announcement of the UK Parliament General Election they needed someone to be the joint head of the political change team. I’ve been involved in election scenario planning several times previously, so I jumped at the chance.
I knew from the beginning that I probably wasn’t going to be writing weeknotes. I also know from reflection that weeknotes serve a useful purpose for my wellbeing. I’m calmer and less stressed when I write about what I do. It’s not the publishing that does that, it’s the reflective time when I’m drafting the weeknote.
When I think back over the last four or five years and which times I was confident and happy and which were less so. I’ve realised that when I was working in the open, writing and sharing, then I am happiest. I noticed a massive improvement in my wellbeing when I moved to Defra. It wasn’t just me either, the situation where I worked previously wasn’t good for others, at least three of the people I worked closely with clearly had similar experiences. I’d largely stopped writing the Weeknotes, because of some negative feedback from a couple of direct reports that didn’t like it. On reflection, that was a major mistake for me, and possibly for others.
I decided to make sure I reflected in the new role. I was less sure how I could help other people or work in the open. I know from my earlier Weeknotes that other people found them useful. Even if no-one reads them they help me and I can write. Publishing might help other people, which is a reason for being open. However I needed to consider the sensitivities. In DWP I started blogging on the intranet before going wider. I couldn’t find out how to do that in Defra, although it looks like the facility is coming soon with the upgrade to Office 365.
So I considered a few other options:
- Not writing anything
- Writing full on Weeknotes and putting a time delay on them
- Writing a self-censored version and publishing in real time
- Writing in my notebook, and keeping it for later reflection
As I said, 1 wasn’t really a workable option for me. I seriously considered the third option and decided that it didn’t meet my need to reflect. Leaving bits out, or editing them back out, was dull. What I enjoy is the novel and contentious bits of the roles.
The second option, writing and delaying publication, seemed for a bit that it might work. However early experience in the Yellowhammer 2 environment suggested that either there might be a long time lag, or it would all be rather dated. So I opted to spend time reflecting and writing longhand in my notebook.
I’ve not kept a paper notebook since the end of 2016, having a shelf of near continuous notebooks going back about 15 years before that. Since mid-September I’ve written on 143 pages of it, slightly more than halfway. There’s certainly enough detail should I ever want to write retrospective Weeknotes.
Anyway, things are settling down now. With us now in the transition period, and the reshuffle complete, it looks like things might get less sensitive. Hence this post filling in the gap.
On Monday 11th November I found myself part of a much expanded Political Change Team, getting people ready for several outcomes. It was a pretty busy five weeks, but really interesting. The team ran a series of deep dives on the hot topics that the Executive Committee thought might need significant change depending on the outcome. We also ran a load of seminars for people in Defra and ALBs to share experiences of general election pivots, and propriety issues. Over 900 people attended these sessions. Alongside that we prepared the welcome pack for new ministers, in several flavours to reflect manifesto commitments made by the main parties. I also read all the party manifestos, and we co-ordinated the analysis of the Defra impacts and liaised with Cabinet Office on the cross-cutting parts. This was something that I could have blogged about happily, but the pre-election period is not a time for public servants to be public.
The aftermath of the election wasn’t the quiet period I might have expected, even though none of our Ministerial team changed. The team tracked all the Ministerial submissions, to avoid overwhelming Ministers with the backlog, and also to ensure quality of advice. We stopped a few submissions going into the box until they were re-written to be clearer. We also ended up speech-writing for the Queen’s Speech debate in the Lords, and co-ordinating briefing for both Lords and Commons debates. On top of that we did lessons, how-to guidance for the next round, and then realised that there was media speculation about a February re-shuffle. So we went straight back into updating the welcome pack and preparing for another round of new Ministers.
Along with the re-shuffle were a series of commissions to set priorities, have plans to deliver those priorities and show where the people and the money we have were being applied to the new priorities. Brexit actually happened, third time round, and we have a whole different lexicon for the transition period, and plans and negotiations for the end of the year. My last three weeks have been all about co-ordinating a stocktake in the department to show we’re ready and able to deliver our priorities. That we understand what we need to do that, what the risks are, how we’ll measure success and what our key milestones are.
On a very personal level I want to keep on working for Defra, there’s a lot of really interesting and very worthwhile work to be done here, whether on the future of farming, fisheries, environment, biodiversity, climate change, flood resilience, or animal welfare. However I’m on loan until 31 March, and I can’t be certain about anything. Moves are afoot to extend that, but it needs the business planning round to be complete, and it also needs my home department to be happy not to have me back. So still up in the air for now.
I’m also actively applying for posts in the Senior Civil Service, I’m pretty confident that’s where my next challenge lies.