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The Civil Service Quarterly Interview: Harriet Matthews, Director of Policy, Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting

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Harriet Matthews, Director of Policy, Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 2018

What is CHOGM, and what was the theme of this year's event?

The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, or CHOGM, is the biennial gathering of the leaders of the Commonwealth’s 53 member countries to discuss common challenges and opportunities facing the organisation.

This year the UK hosted CHOGM, the largest summit of its kind in our history, between 16 and 20 April across London and Windsor. The summit also brought together thousands of delegates from across the Commonwealth’s six continents for four ‘Forums’ on business, women, youth and civil society.

With a remarkable 60% of the Commonwealth’s 2.4 billion people under the age of 30, we were determined to put young people at the heart of this year’s agenda – ‘Towards a Common Future’ – looking at how we build a modern Commonwealth which responds to their aspirations for a better life.

Flagbearers carrying the flags of Commonwealth member countries during the CHOGM parade on The Mall, London

What was your role?

As Director of Policy, I oversaw a team of about 30 people who worked with departments across Whitehall and member countries to develop a series of policy proposals around the four themes endorsed by them at UNGA (United Nations General Assembly), last year – prosperity, security, sustainability and fairness. As a responsible host, a key part of our role was to build a policy agenda which worked for all members, in the Commonwealth spirit of consensus and equality between its members, large and small. The Commonwealth is a broad church so a lot of my time, and that of my team, was spent consulting and negotiating these draft outcomes between the membership, both overseas and through High Commissioners in London.

Of course, delivering a summit of this scale was also a significant moment for us as a Civil Service, so in the earlier days much of my focus was also on building a fantastic team from across Whitehall in order to deliver the event successfully. Once the unit was up and running, it was equally important to keep our staff motivated and supported through what was an exceptionally busy and demanding experience for everyone.

How was the event delivered?

The summit was run by the Commonwealth Summit Unit (CSU), based in the Cabinet Office; a team of more than 60 people drawn from across Whitehall under our Chief Executive, Tim Hitchens. Our unit reported directly into the Prime Minister.

The unit also supported an Inter-Ministerial Group co-chaired by the Foreign and Home Secretaries, put in place to ensure that ambition was as high as it could be, and that every part of Whitehall did its bit to make the summit a success.

We worked incredibly closely with the Foreign Office Protocol team, who delivered the core logistics ranging from airport arrivals and vehicle transport, to building our venues and how we accredited thousands of people to access them. The Home Office and Metropolitan Police were also key partners from day one, working to ensure that we delivered not only a memorable summit, but a safe and secure one.

Meeting of Foreign Ministers at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, London 2018

But the summit wasn’t just delivered in Whitehall – close working with the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Royal Household was also key to our success, for which our unit was responsible. For the week of the summit our collective teams were boosted by thousands of volunteers from across Whitehall who supported us across the full breadth of summit work, whether as Delegation Liaison Officers, or staffing the media centre.

CHOGM was much more than just a week-long summit, beginning in earnest with a reception for Commonwealth leaders in the margins of the UN General Assembly in 2017, where the Prime Minister launched our theme and branding. In the months that followed, our campaigns team worked hard to raise the profile of the Commonwealth and create a sense of celebration and anticipation, reaching up to 100,000 people across the UK and the Commonwealth with our ‘Commonwealth Big Lunches’ and ‘Commonwealth Schools’ programmes. The #OurCommonwealth campaign helped us tap into the ideas and give a voice to our young people, reaching an incredible 8.7 million people on Twitter and 3.7 million on Facebook alone.

Why was the theme 'Towards a Common Future' chosen?

Ever since the UN General Assembly last year, the Prime Minister was determined to put young people at the heart of the summit, and to renew the Commonwealth to ensure its relevance to them this century. So we needed a theme which encapsulated the essence of this mission – forward looking, which spoke to a common future for everyone, irrespective of whether you are a large or small state, and of your gender, race, sexuality, creed or other status.

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle being welcomed to the Youth Forum at CHOGM 2018

Within this, member states agreed to pursue action under the four broad themes I’ve already mentioned: how to make the compelling case for free trade as the best way to promote higher living standards around the world, and so create a more prosperous commonwealth; how to mitigate the effects of climate change, especially as it affects small island states, and so create a more sustainable Commonwealth; how to address new security challenges, like cyber terrorism, and online extremism, and so create a more secure Commonwealth; and how to protect and promote the values we all share and so create a fairer, freer and more tolerant Commonwealth.

What were the key achievements of the event?

The Summit delivered significant policy outcomes, supported by a genuinely cross Whitehall package of announcements from FCO, DfID, DIT, Defra, BEIS and the Home Office. For example, we secured the largest global commitment on Cyber Security Cooperation; a ‘Blue Charter’ that will develop marine economies and tackle plastics in oceans across the Commonwealth; improved Commonwealth election monitoring; support to improve the resilience of small and vulnerable states, steps to tackle trade barriers between Member States, and a strengthened pledge to ensure an equal voice for minorities.

Leaders also agreed that His Royal Highness Prince Charles, The Prince of Wales would be the next Head of the Commonwealth. We set ourselves the goal of having a real impact for Commonwealth citizens and this paid off - in the closing press conference, the Prime Minister of Grenada stated this was the most productive CHOGM he had ever been to (since 1997).

What were the main challenges, and how were these addressed?

There are always challenges that come with an event of this scale: from those that arise from the early days of establishing a new Whitehall unit at such a pace; to those which stem from the Commonwealth’s many idiosyncrasies. As for policy, I would focus on a couple.

It was sometimes a challenge to build consensus around some of the biggest global challenges we face with such a diverse membership – the key was to turn this diversity and geographical reach to an advantage, so that when the Commonwealth did speak with one voice on an issue, as the Prime Minister said, the world had to listen. I’m confident we achieved this with the first Commonwealth statement against protectionism, or the world’s most ambitious and geographically diverse commitment on cyber security cooperation.

Prime Minister Theresa May speaking at the closing press conference for CHOGM 2018

As with any global summit, events outside the CSU’s control meant we also had to be flexible, keep a cool head and our staff focused on the prize at hand. The unfortunate events around the Windrush generation, and targeted action in Syria to degrade the Assad regime’s chemical weapons capabilities, could have easily distracted us if we hadn’t remained focused on our core role of delivering a fantastic CHOGM.

Bill Gates speaking at the joint plenary session of CHOGM

How will CHOGM impact the work of the Civil Service in the future?

Having set in train an ambitious agenda across so many Whitehall departments last month, be it on plastics pollution, cyber security, or girls’ education, there’s much to deliver on throughout the Prime Minister’s ‘Chair-in-Office’ (‘Presidency in other circles’). The Prime Minister expects every part of government to play a role to ensure we build on the momentum of last month’s summit to 2020, when Rwanda hosts CHOGM and takes the Commonwealth reins.

As the Commonwealth Summit Unit winds down in the Cabinet Office, a new joint unit in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will take forward this work with a new Commonwealth Envoy.

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