Mon, 27 May 2024

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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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For No 10 to succeed, it must become a workplace that values parents


Nikki da Costa

4 min read

A new prime minister inherits a No 10 that is largely broken. Huge churn means the institutional memory of what it means to be a high performing, collegiate, team is gone.

David Canzini’s appointment is often cited as a positive, but No 10 is not where it needs to be to handle the scale of problems the United Kingdom faces.

A new prime minister will need to trust their chief of staff to put in place the right people and culture to tackle the immediate crisis and sustain the prime minister in office.

Those with children may self-exclude, fearing an unreflective No 10 machine that will chew up their family’s sacrifice and ask for more

They will need to find the best and brightest. This means tackling the bias towards those in their 20s and early 30s. If you are making difficult policy decisions which affect an entire population, you want more than just all-hours availability, you want experience, more diverse insight, and to guard against blind spots.

Yet those with children, particularly women, may self-exclude, fearing an unreflective No 10 machine that will chew up their family’s sacrifice and ask for more.

I believe No 10 can be run differently. That we excuse a lot when we talk about “the machine” or “the system” rather than unthinking managers. There will be dividends if the senior team are willing to work on this. 

First, by valuing experience. Overrule the No 10 count by numbers approach, imposing arbitrary caps on senior civil servants or giving long serving Spads a salary increase. Those committed to No 10, find there is no potential to progress unless they leave. This creates churn and makes No 10 a tick box for the young and ambitious, increasing the risk of repeating mistakes out of inexperience. No 10 should be where the very best can be found.

Second, by getting No 10 motoring without having an all-cast meeting every day between 8am and 9am. There are significant advantages to having an evening call or virtual check-in where the whole team share live issues and triage what needs to be raised with the prime minister the next morning and who really needs to be there. Everyone then wakes up knowing what they must grip, and the team meeting time can vary and be more strategic.

Third, discouraging presenteeism by reducing anxiety that there is a cost to not being in a meeting. When Boris entered No 10, Dominic Cummings texted the team “for meetings – the fewer spectators the better, only go to stuff if you’re really needed e.g. I’m not in Cabinet now but trying to do stuff”. Make sure all adhere to this and couple with a robust process for cascading information and genuine forums for discussion.  

Fourth, reminding the whole office that people are often out of reach. If someone is unavailable for an hour or two, whether that’s bedtime or a meeting, and everything falls apart, something is going wrong. Encourage active thinking about how to deal with situations where a specific person is unavailable. It’s good contingency planning and encourages responsibility from potential “seconds-in-command”.

Even so, parents still need to be strong when negotiating roles and specific situations, and there will be limits to flexibility. There is a casual assumption that partners will end up picking up some slack. This calls for honest conversations at home on what is acceptable, and clarity on the family commitments that you will always defend. From the start, speak openly with colleagues about how to make it work. Enlist the help of your diary manager. You may want to have a script for specific situations (I had a very blunt explanation prepared for why I might need to get home to breastfeed my baby).

Dads also need to do this. During my time in No 10 new fathers often spoke with most sorrow about what they were missing out on but seemed most stuck.

If you want the best hands on deck this will help. It’s not just a nice to have.


Nikki da Costa is the former director of legislative affairs at No 10.

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