Sir Philip Rutnam

Futureproofing the Public Service: Key Takeaways from Sir Philip Rutnam

By Jun Kit Man, Digital Media Manager

In our latest webinar, Sir Philip Rutnam, a former permanent secretary in the UK civil service, shared his extensive knowledge and experience on leadership in the public sector.

The discussion, moderated by Kat Thorne, Associate Director of Wellbeing & Resilience, covered a range of pressing issues facing today's public sector leaders, from the challenges of economic growth and global instability to the evolving role of artificial intelligence (AI) in public services.


Challenges in the Public Sector

Sir Philip began by outlining the multifaceted challenges facing the public sector. He underscored the global instability marked by events in Ukraine and the Middle East, alongside long-term issues like climate change and demographic shifts. He highlighted the pivotal role of technology, particularly AI, in shaping public expectations and services. "The environment for public servants is about how to make sense of all of that, how to respond to those challenges and deliver outstanding public services based on a really strong set of values," Sir Philip emphasised​.


Role of AI in Public Services

The potential of AI in enhancing public services was a key focus of Sir Philip's address. He stressed the need for thoughtfulness, especially regarding frontier AI technologies. “We have to be really thoughtful about all this as public services... There are some significant risks and that's why all those countries came together at the summit and talked about the need to start investing individually and together through the UN in understanding the safety issues around AI,” he explained​.


​Sir Philip further illustrated the practical application of AI, citing its use in visa processing at the Home Office to improve efficiency and enrich jobs, showing the significant potential of technology in public services.​


Evolution of Leadership Styles

Sir Philip observed a significant shift in leadership styles over the years, moving from directive to more inclusive and value-driven. He stressed the importance of diversity, equality, inclusion, and giving a sense of purpose and inspiration to people. "Think about the why," he advised, underscoring the need to provide context and purpose to those being led​.


Impact of Hybrid Working

On hybrid working models, Sir Philip noted both challenges and advantages. “But there are also advantages for the employees... Longer-term the issue is about driving how to sustain better relationships, how to integrate new colleagues, how to drive innovation,” he reflected. He further emphasised​ the importance of face-to-face interaction in leadership, “Leadership works best when it's face to face when there's a human relationship”​​.


Ethics and Accountability in Leadership

Sir Philip highlighted the importance of thoughtful and reflective decision-making in public service. He emphasised moral authority and the need for tolerance and allowance for mistakes. “Public servants have tremendous responsibility... It's got to carry moral authority. And we all make mistakes... a bit of tolerance and allowance for that is needed,” he said, stressing the importance of accountability and ethical considerations in leadership​.


Future of the UK Civil Service

Discussing the future of the UK Civil Service, Sir Philip envisioned a scenario where the civil service might experience a more defined role. “There's one hypothesis—where actually the role of the civil service is narrowed... You could see a world where the role of civil service is a bit more tightly defined and there's more tightly defined accountability around that for the delivery of certain functions tightly specified with clear accountability and measurement around that,” Sir Philip explained​​. This perspective suggests a potential shift towards a more focused and accountable civil service, contrasting with its traditionally broad and versatile role.


Personal Reflections and Role Models

In discussing his personal figures who shaped the early years of his career. Sir Philip fondly recalled this mentor, whom he referred to as "Steve" to maintain his privacy. Rutnam shared a memorable interaction that highlighted Steve's approach to mentorship and leadership. “Let's call him Steve for his privacy. And the things that were really outstanding for me about Steve was his sense of purpose. He really cared about why we were there and he was able to instil that in a very succinct, powerful, vivid way in everybody who came into contact with him. Second, he cared about people, so I remember... Alright, here's one feedback conversation I had with Steve. I went in for my annual review. His first question to me was, 'Philip, why don't you smile more?' Brilliant” Sir Philip recounted.


Sir Philip’s webinar provided a rich insight into public sector leadership, blending practical advice with philosophical reflections. His perspectives offer valuable guidance for current and aspiring leaders in navigating the complexities and dynamics of modern public sector leadership.


If you found our webinar with Sir Philip Rutnam insightful, don't miss the chance to explore our previous episodes of “In Conversation with” Wendy Williams CBE. A seasoned solicitor with an inspiring career in public service, Williams shares her profound experiences and insights with us. From her early days in a law centre to leading roles in the Crown Prosecution Service and her impactful work in inspecting police and fire services, Williams' journey is a testament to dedication and leadership. She passionately discusses the importance of teamwork, collaboration, and authentic leadership.


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