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Saying goodbye to PUS ...

The unexpected news that Ursula Brennan the MOD Permanent Secretary is moving on took quite a few people in Whitehall circles by surprise.

It is certainly the case that Ursula had something of a rough ride being the first Female Permanent Secretary (PUS ) in a department that has the reputation of being quite aggressively masculine (i.e. how many senior military chiefs are female? Answers on a postcard please) and charged with a range of deep and substantive  cuts in that ministry, which had been already been burdened with significant funding issues. In addition, as the most senior civil servant in the MOD she had to deal with the political fall out from the Liam Fox and Adam Werrity affair- that propelled her to some kind of notice.

She is returning to the Ministry of Justice where she was Director General Corporate Performance before she joined the MOD in 2008 initially as the 2nd Permanent Secretary (2nd PUS for short) before being appointed as PUS in 2010.

She has had to preside over huge reductions to both the civilian and military work forces, which were on top of previous head count reductions in a department where employee engagement has been at a low ebb for some time.

However it is reported that she is well regarded by her senior military colleagues and the Defence Secretary (Phillip Hammond) will surely miss her- Tom McKane is going to step into the breach until a permanent replacement can be appointed and continuity and stability is one thing needed at present.

My over-riding feeling is that Mrs Brennan suffered from what you could call the ‘PUS Disease’ in that criticism was made that she, like other PUS’s were out of touch with the feelings of the staff in the department. Now in an organisation of close to 250,000 people, it is always going to be hard, if  not impossible, to understand what the shop floor feeling is, when the MOD is such a diverse outfit – people working there range from MOD Policemen and women, Scientists and Engineers to Administrators- and views can differ greatly from area to area.

But I don’t suppose it is any great secret that in general MOD staff are not a happy bunch- especially the civilians- who very often get the unfair stereotypical criticism of being over staffed and ineffective. Certainly that is not my experience and the department has had to endure significant cuts to its budget and people whilst still maintaining a strategic and critical defence capability. None of that has been easy.

The challenge to the new permanent successor to Ursula Brennan will be how to succesfully engage with a workforce that has become dis-affected over a period of time, with cuts, pay freezes, pension contribution increases and which require very strong leadership- in my view, it is a ministry like none other. It has people with different cultures through the three single services (Army, RAF & RN) and the civilian population also has its own way of working.

It will take a particular kind of person to rise to this kind of the challenge if we are not to let the Armed Forces down.