A brass plaque in the reception area of a busy Whitehall building informs visitors that the state of vigilance is ‘heightened’. But once you are through the glass security pods and down a flight of stairs, you could be sitting in any other open-plan office. However, this one’s far from ordinary.
“The department is just over 18 months old – it was formed shortly after the referendum,” says Helen Mills. This is her first HR director role, and it’s a sizeable brief: people management at the Department for Exiting the European Union (DEXEU), the civil service arm tasked with managing the EU withdrawal bill, and coordinating implementation and contingency plans for various Brexit outcomes in Whitehall and beyond.
“I think I have the best HR job in government,” she says. “It’s so unusual to set something up from a blank sheet of paper and play a key role in its development. I’ve been on that journey from day one.”
If the ultimate aim of modern HR is to ensure strategy is people-focused, this was a golden opportunity. The department was created over a single weekend following the Leave vote, with Mills transferring from her former role as deputy director of HR at the Cabinet Office to take on the challenge.
“A decision was quickly made that we would have a department of state following the referendum, and some of our people who had been working on Europe in the Cabinet Office transferred to this,” she says. “We started with a tiny team, four or five of us, and over this one weekend had to think about what we needed for the bare bones of a department: people were our first priority, followed by basic things like an IT system and payroll.”
Cultivating a cohesive working mission was crucial, with staff designing a set of values to support the new department’s function. “We came up with three key values: the first about embracing our – exceptional – context,” Mills says, with a hint of a smile, “then fostering collaboration, and being empowered to deliver on the DEXEU mission.”
As heads of state wrangled in Brussels, DEXEU evolved into a 600-strong department: recruiting external employees and co-opting civil servants to work on the most talked-about project of the modern age. Recruitment rarely proved an issue. “People volunteered to join – they were aware DEXEU would be a pacy and complex environment, and were excited to be a part of something very current,” says Mills.
A bigger challenge has been delivering a staff experience well-rounded enough to serve employees once the DEXEU task is complete, with HR determined to challenge staff to get involved in every aspect of the department, and provide transferable skills to equip them for the future.
“Many people arrive from civil service talent streams to contribute to this immense project that will form part of their career – one I hope they will look back on fondly in the years to come,” Mills says. “While we do think of our staff from a DEXEU perspective, we’re also considering their wider civil service journey.”
Employees can join a shadow board, where they can scrutinise the internal governance of the department and offer feedback, while comprehensive learning and development programmes support current civil servants and those arriving at DEXEU from external roles in developing core Whitehall skills, and leadership and change management abilities. Staff can access in-house coaching to support their work-life balance and build on broader experiences. “Creating a balance between structuring a job and having the time to reflect on, build and consolidate skills is very important,” Mills explains. “If we can do it in this environment, people should be able to do it anywhere.”
The department also boasts an impressive commitment to diversity and inclusion, with a workforce far from ‘pale, stale and male’. The average age of a DEXEU employee is 31, with a majority female workforce and 13 diversity networks, which have a significant impact on departmental culture. “Our BAME and our social mobility networks have collaborated on a reverse mentoring scheme, with every senior member of the department mentored by a younger member of staff,” Mills says.
Achieving these goals under the spotlight of intense media scrutiny could make a lesser professional balk but, in many ways, having staff walk the line between their professional duties and their political views is not as difficult as some may suspect. “The civil service operates on a strict code of impartiality – as part of that code we are here to serve the government,” Mills says. “That’s a key part of the job, regardless of the department. On the other hand, we should be bringing our whole selves to work, and I hope our commitment to celebrating diversity in the department allows people to express themselves.”
With two years of Brexit negotiations and challenges ahead, DEXEU has a substantial task on its hands. But Mills is confident that the journey will be a valuable one for the HR team and the wider employee base.
“There is no textbook on how to set up a government department from scratch,” she says. “But this is the place for creative people who are comfortable working from a blank sheet; it’s a chance to work with some truly talented individuals who have been given licence to operate a bit differently, and I’m confident staff will value their experiences here.”