“If you control [the defense program] only from the center you disempower the people who can solve the problems and fall into a downward spiral.”Ursula Brennan, currently the top civil servant at the UK’s Ministry of Justice
As the most senior civil servant in the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MOD), Ursula Brennan juggled a 24:7 myriad of responsibilities. She discusses the eclectic challenges of the role.
Ursula Brennan, currently the top civil servant at the UK’s Ministry of Justice, previously served as the Ministry of Defense’s Permanent Secretary and top civil servant.
As Permanent Secretary, Brennan’s role was all encompassing. In addition to acting as joint leader of the department (with the Chief of the Defence Staff), she was responsible for organization and management and, as Accounting Officer, was personally accountable to Parliament for the efficient and effective use of Defence resources.
Here she reflects on some of her work and the changes she’s witnesses in her 30 year career.
MOD’s strategic future
Brennan says that one of the main projects she has worked on is translating the MOD’s statement of strategy into a working model that people could implement.
“We’re doing this at a time when everything in the public sector is under pressure and under a lot of scrutiny,” she says.
“It’s true that we could have taken longer and extended it out to do more analysis but the business needed clarity and to understand where it’s going,” she says. “After a point, you just need to get on and take decisions.”
Defense reform program
The MOD commissioned an independent and detailed review into how defense is structured and managed. Its recommendations included streamlined decision-making supported by a simpler structure with fewer senior posts, clearer responsibilities, and greater accountability.
“What we’re trying to do is change lots and lots of moving parts at the same time,” says Brennan.
“Previously we tried to drag too much stuff to the center and we got into a cycle of having ambitions larger than our resources and therefore the only way to manage it was from the center. But if you control it only from the center you disempower the people who can solve the problems and fall into a downward spiral.”
Gender diversity in government
Brennan, whose civil service career has seen her on something of a mini-tour of several government departments, has witnessed much during her time in the public sector.
“The representation of women at the top levels of the civil service has really changed but I’ve worked in departments where even when we got to several women on the board it just takes a couple of departures and it’s gone,” she says.
“You really need a relentless focus as you can think you have won the battle and then you find it’s too easy to slip back.”
It seems that balance is the key for successful management of government tasks from implementing strategy statements to maintaining gender diversity.
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