At a recent hearing for the UK Government's inquiry into its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, Helen MacNamara, who served as Deputy Cabinet Secretary between 2020 and 2021, criticized the government's response to the crisis, citing a "macho" culture "contaminated by ego."
MacNamara claimed that senior officials had a misplaced confidence that the UK would easily handle the pandemic, even laughing at Italy's early lockdown measures in 2020. MacNamara noted an "absence of humanity" in the government's approach and then Prime Minister Boris Johnson's belief that the country would "sail through" the crisis.
MacNamara also revealed that Downing Street didn't follow its own social-distancing rules, with numerous civil servants and possibly ministers breaching guidelines. "I would find it hard to pick one day when the regulations were followed properly," she said. MacNamara's testimony follows a series of damaging revelations about the government's handling of the pandemic, including comments from Dominic Cummings, the former Chief Adviser to Johnson, who criticized the "widespread failure" and "dysfunctional system."
McNamara expressed concerns about the lack of diverse perspectives among senior decision-makers, suggesting that it may have resulted in inadequate consideration of issues like domestic abuse during the pandemic. "Women who had worked in the Cabinet Office and Number 10 reported feeling as if they had become invisible overnight," she noted in written evidence.
It is now widely accepted that culture is a principal driving force behind behavior and conduct in any organization. Failures to attend to such “soft” issues can lead to scandals and loss of public trust and, as such, regulators in many industries are paying closer attention to cultural risk factors. Yet those same challenges confront the leadership of government organizations, and when they fail to practice what they preach, it can foster the perception that those in power live by a different set of rules than those over whom they preside. If we are to rebuild trust in institutions, we must adopt new tools for managing culture to drive improved conduct outcomes, and nowhere is this more important than in government agencies.