Chief civil servant calls for creative leadership

December 22, 2011

The departing chief civil servant Sir Gus O’ Donnell calls for more creative leadership in public life in the UK

[Critique by LWD Editor and Creative Leadership advocate Tudor Rickards]

The creative Civil Servant

Creativity was hardly the first characteristic looked for in a career civil servant in the UK. I can recall when a feeble joke in Whitehall was to send a colleague a brochure for a course on creative thinking. But times change. More recently [from memory it was just before Alistair Darling’s arrival at the Treasury], there had been efforts involving testing approaches for stimulating the creative juices.

And now in one of his last public announcements as head of the Civil Service, Sir Gus o’ Donnell, argues for creative thinking as a way ahead for more innovative contributions in the future. This is what he wrote [sub-edited for LWD style. Sir Gus does not do sub-headings]:

Overcoming cultural inertia

It is not enough now for the Civil Service simply to respond to a dampened economic climate: it needs to become a central part of its recovery and growth. There is of course some cultural inertia to overcome, but there is a voracious appetite among departments to take on this challenge: to keep adapting, to think more creatively, to reach out to small and medium enterprises (SMEs), to find better ways to fulfil the duties of government without increasing the cost. We know we need to deliver better for less.

The Red Tape challenge

The Red Tape Challenge, an initiative set up by the Prime Minister to do away with unnecessary regulations, is my favourite case study. This is of interest to everybody, but of critical importance to SMEs, which are disproportionately affected by new rules and red tape.

Topic by topic, we have been through the book of regulations to ask whether each one is really needed and whether it still serves the purpose originally intended. Civil servants have proved themselves to be good at this: of the more than 1,200 regulations looked at so far, we have recommended scrapping over half of them.

Innovation not regulation

I was particularly happy to become involved in the Red Tape Challenge because I am an economist by trade. Indeed, I have been an economist longer than I have been a civil servant, and I believe successive governments have been far too quick to solve problems with regulation and legislation.

I understand why this is – all our ministers sit in one or other legislating chamber – but we must be more creative and innovative in the way we solve problems without always resorting to the creation of new rules.

A more grown-up approach to failure

We must also be prepared to take more risks. In a media environment where failure is punished much harder than success is celebrated, this is more difficult for ministers and civil servants than for our friends and colleagues in the private sector. There are some promising signs that we can, in fact, do this quite well, but taking risks means having a grown-up approach to failure. We should celebrate success and learn from failure.

The Civil Service is an engine for growth

The more we can innovate, the more we can find alternatives to legislation and regulation, and the more we can overcome our aversion to risk, the more we can help drive the economy and really ensure the Civil Service is an engine room for growth. I would be proud of that legacy.

Demob happy?

This is quite a remarkable document for a departing leader to produce. I’m not quite sure how to read it. The presentation of a Civil Service hungry for change seems rather unmeasured.

Much rejoicing

But advocates of creative leadership will rejoice at support from such a quarter. On a personal level I am delighted. The piece was published within a week of the second edition of Dilemmas of Leadership, with its one totally new chapter devoted to, you’ve guessed it, creative leadership.


A youthful Sir Gus O’Donnell pictured above is taken from the Leeds University Business School Web Site