Brexit through the eyes of Public Sector leaders

The views of Public Sector leaders

Every year, Deloitte and Reform interview leaders from across government and the public sector to inform The State of the State. This year, we have interviewed more than 50 senior figures in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, including permanent secretaries, senior civil servants, police leaders, university vice-chancellors, NHS chief executives, council chief executives, agency directors, finance chiefs and more. These interviews form the most extensive qualitative research of its kind and allow for an unparalleled view of the public sector’s central challenges from the people who know them best.

Brexit is preoccupying Whitehall – but energising civil servants

Inevitably, Brexit is preoccupying Whitehall. Senior officials told us that work to leave the EU is dominating their time along with their minister’s time, and has reduced the political bandwidth for new reform initiatives.

However, civil servants told us that leaving the EU has come with unexpected benefits for Whitehall. Some said that it had galvanised staff with many energised by the challenge. Others felt that it had forced officials out of silos and into more collaborative, cross-government teams. One added that the Whitehall skills mix is changing as Brexit is stimulating recruitment of people with business experience.

All the civil servants we interviewed were upbeat, constructive and focused on delivering EU exit – even though they know better than any commentators that it is a massively complex undertaking. Some told us that they were focused on identifying opportunities in Brexit, though warned it was not an easy task. One senior figure felt that the most significant opportunities were in regulation – and especially in relation to emerging industries like artificial intelligence, fintech and autonomous vehicles. He said that “a more liberal, market friendly regime would give us an edge” but went on to warn that such an edge, if constrained to the UK alone, could come with disproportionate costs.

Beyond Whitehall, leaders in the public services told us that their deepest concern over Brexit was its potential impact on the public finances – and what a loss in the UK’s GDP could mean for public spending. A key NHS figure said that an economic downturn would lead to more poverty, more mental health problems and more demand on health services as a result.

University leaders are more vocal than most in their concerns about Brexit, given higher education’s substantial exposure to Europe and international markets for student and talent. Ultimately, academia is highly connected across the EU and its leaders told us that they feel culturally at odds with the political trends that underpin Brexit.

Explore the views of Public Sector leaders on Brexit:

  • Brexit has been a galvanising purpose. There’s a lot of energy about. It’s a good time to be a civil servant in terms if the impact of what you do – Senior Civil Servant
  • Brexit is our single biggest issue in terms of the amount of resource it consumes, particularly senior resource, including the Secretary of State – Senior Civil Servant
  • There’s a sense of coming together. A more collaborative approach. We’re in it together and we’ll make it work – Agency Director
  • Actually, too much else is happening. We used to be overprogrammed, about thirty per cent overprogrammed, and now it’s more – Senior Civil Servant
  • Given Brexit, there’s isn’t much appetite for doing anything else difficult – Senior Civil Servant
  • In the short-term, there’s the supply of goods, but in the longer term, the loss of GDP would mean an increase in poverty and in mental health conditions, and that has an impact on demand for the NHS. So as far as Brexit is concerned, there’s the supply issue first but then the bigger issue is the economic loss – NHS Trust Chief Executive
  • When you’re looking at opportunities for deregulation, they would need to be politically feasible, economically useful and technically possible. By the time you pass anything through those filters, there’s not as much left as you might have expected. – Senior Civil Servant
  • We saw spikes in hate crime around the time of the EU referendum and I expect we’ll see another when we leave the EU – Police and Crime Commissioner
  • The Brexit fallout so far is anecdotal. It’s mood music. People don’t feel welcome – University Vice Chancellor
  • This place will move really quickly when we need to – Senior Civil Servant

Qualitative research of this kind explores individual opinions, and the views expressed by our interviewees are very clearly their own. The State of the State reports on their views – it does not endorse them.

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