The UK Civil Service

Facts, Analysis and Comment.

Civil Service Reform (17)

Civil Service Reform took a back seat following the June 2016 Brexit referendum, but there was some interesting comment etc. over the subsequent months and years.

PACAC Inquiry

The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee began an inquiry into 'The Work of the Civil Service'. It was foreshadowed by an interesting October 2016 speech by its Chair Bernard Jenkin. He noted that ' In fact, conscious efforts to reform the Civil Service have usually failed. Ironically, this is testament to the strength and resilience of the institution. The Fulton Report became the archetype of a Royal Commission that took minutes to announce and then years to conclude its work, with far less effect than intended. Many of its conclusions and recommendations bear reading today, but have been ignored. For example, its conclusion that the Civil Service was based on the cult of the generalist, with a lack of skilled management, is an all-too-familiar criticism of the Civil Service today.'

Mr Jenkin also noted that his committee's previous Truth to Power report had been pretty well ignored by the Government, even though:

PASC made only one recommendation: that a Parliamentary Commission should be established to take a long-term look at the Civil Service, to examine its nature, role and purpose, and develop a strategic vision for its future. The Committee recommended that this inquiry should include consideration of the relationship between ministers and their officials. It is interesting that Fulton, the last detailed examination of the overall structure, function and future of the Civil Service, was explicitly barred from considering this topic, leaving it unable to tackle the question of accountability. The PASC recommendation was widely supported and was subsequently endorsed by the Liaison Committee in its report Civil Service: Lacking Capacity, which stated that this Commission should be established “as a matter of urgency”

He also repeated his criticisms (shared by many others) of Francis Maude who had been the Minister responsible for the supposed civil service 'change programme' in the previous government:

First, though many of the proposed changes were laudable, they did not amount to a comprehensive corporate change programme, because the approach was managerial, rather than strategic. Secondly, proposals intended to increase ministers’ control over permanent secretary appointments and their private offices gave rise to the fear that the Civil Service is being subject to what Peter Hennessy called “creeping politicisation” and seemed to go against the grain of the Northcote Trevelyan principles, setting many against the plan. Thirdly, the approach failed to address people, and leadership, and there was no coherent or comprehensive analysis of what the underlying problems arising from the culture of the civil service might be. These gave rise to the shortcomings identified in the reform plans including skills gaps, risk aversion and poor interdepartmental working.

Ex-Cabinet Office Minister Oliver Letwin submitted sharply worded evidence in February 2017, complaining about 'deficiencies of training and culture' leading to poor work authorised by senior officials who had been promoted because of their 'willingness to play the game' rather than on merit. The full text of Mr Letwin's evidence is here.

NAO Report & PAC Inquiry

The NAO published its report 'Capability in the civil service' in March 2017. It made a number of sensible recommendations having noted that (emphasis added):

The capability of the civil service means its ability to implement policy effectively. The civil service needs the right number of people with the right skills in the right
 place, supported by effective accountability, governance and information. This report focuses on the people aspects of capability – specifically, whether the civil service has the right specialist capacity and skills to undertake all that government wants it to do. … Recent budgetary constraints have meant that departments have had to undertake ambitious transformation programmes to rationalise their organisational structures, change the way they deliver services or add efficiencies to existing processes. Departments
have faced significant reductions in their administrative budgets, with corresponding reductions in staff numbers and resources that can be used for learning and development. Departments also need different skills as they introduce different operating models and new technology.

Civil servants are responsible for an increasingly complex range of tasks and projects. Government is asking the civil service to deliver more, even though its size has reduced by 26% since 2006. The work of government is becoming ever more technical, and delivering government policy objectives increasingly needs a response from the civil service. This may be through providing joined-up services to the public, or carrying out programmes that need departments to coordinate their work. Government’s major projects have an estimated whole-life cost of over £405 billion with 29 considered to
be complex transformation projects.

Weaknesses in capability undermine government’s ability to achieve its objectives. We have recently seen improvements in how some departments manage projects but we continue to report regularly on troubled projects. Our work shows that many delivery problems can be traced to weaknesses in capability. For example, a lack of expertise in project and programme management contributed to the collapse of the InterCity West Coast franchise competition in 2012. We also found that the Common Agricultural Delivery Programme suffered from a high turnover of senior leaders. The Infrastructure and Projects Authority’s (IPA) gateway reviews show that skills, management and resourcing are among the top three concerns highlighted by reviewers.

Government projects too often go ahead without government knowing whether departments have the skills to deliver them. Government is seeking to deliver a challenging portfolio of major projects, including Hinkley Point C, High Speed 2, and the Trident renewal. While the civil service has skilled people, many of these projects draw on the same pool of skills. For example, in rail projects such as Crossrail and Thameslink, we have seen skilled civil servants performing a number of project roles or being moved to fill skills gaps for new priorities or projects.1 Government has recently accepted that project leaders and accounting officers need to assess whether projects are feasible at the outset, including whether departments have the right skills to deliver them.

Government has identified three main capability gaps for the civil service [but] Departments do not know what skills they have, whether these are in the right place, and what additional skills they need. We have reported a number of times since 2011 on government’s lack of proper workforce planning and that it does not have a clear picture of its current skills. … Government’s capability initiatives will take time to mature and greater urgency is needed. …

Government does not fully understand the private sector’s capacity to supply skills. … one in four senior recruitment competitions run by the Civil Service Commission in 2015-16 resulted in the post not being filled. Many of these were for senior posts with specialist commercial or digital skills.

Leaving the EU will further increase the capability challenges facing government. The Cabinet Secretary has referred to the United Kingdom’s decision to withdraw from the EU as “the biggest, most complex challenge facing the civil service in our peacetime history”.

The next step is for the PAC itself to report having taken evidence from civil servants and (slightly unusually) having called for evidence from others. Its report will also have a slightly wider title:- ' Civil service capability and the “revolving door” '.

Brexit, Austerity etc.

It wasn't just the NAO who were concerned about the capability of the civil service. The uneven consequences of 'across the board' austerity were increasingly evidenced in the form of problems at the front line, most particularly in the Health and Social Care sectors. Ex-Permanent Secretary Leigh Lewis described the process all to accurately in this extract from a longer March 2017 article in Civil Service World:

In the run up to the Budget it was widely reported that the chancellor had asked all but the "protected" departments to come up with proposals for a further reduction of £3.5bn in spending by the end of the current Parliament. Unless the world has changed utterly since my own time in government, a ritual process will have taken place. To parody only a little, the Treasury will have told each affected department what its ‘share’ of these cuts needs to be. Departments will have responded by describing the likely impact of such cuts, painting a picture of death, disaster and mayhem. The Treasury – inured by decades of listening to such protests – will have ignored the protestations and demanded the number it first thought of. Last minute political haggling – and even, in some cases, threats of resignation – may have secured some alleviation, but not much. And the previously warring ministers – once the spending figures have been announced – will have assured the public that the cuts, while challenging, can undoubtedly be delivered through greater efficiency. And sometimes they can.

But not always. Take the Prison Service as perhaps the most glaring example of this macabre dance in recent years. Between 2010/11 and 2014/15 the Prison Service budget was reduced by around a quarter – approaching £1bn – at a time when prisoner numbers remained at an all-time high of around 86,000. Over the same period, prison officer numbers fell by around 9,500 – nearly 30%. At Pentonville prison – to give one example of the impact of these cuts at local level – it has been reported that officer numbers fell from 280 to 211 between 2013 and 2016, while at Holloway the reported reduction was from 150 to 121 over the same period. The effect of these reductions is now clear; serious outbreaks of disorder, increasing drug and substance abuse and, potentially most serious of all, a collapse of prison officer morale to name but three.

Finally, faced with increasingly lurid and public examples of each, the government has responded by restoring some of the cuts in Prison Officer numbers and implementing unilateral pay increases for Prison Officers in the areas of greatest shortage in what has looked extremely close to a panic reaction. Predictably, the media and the opposition have piled in to attack the government for its incompetence. But the truth is that all governments in recent decades have been guilty of imposing similar examples of short-sighted reductions. Indeed the current crisis in social care is arguably the result of every government over the last thirty years acting with similar irresponsibility.

But senior officials appeared confident that they could cope - or maybe they were complacent. Here is a January 2017 report by Civil Service World of its interview with Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood:

Ministers are planning to shelve "very few" of the government's existing commitments to free up resources for Brexit, Britain's top civil servant Sir Jeremy Heywood has told CSW, in spite of warnings that Whitehall is already overloaded as it prepares for Britain's departure from the European Union. In the wake of the UK's vote to leave the EU, a number of figures have said that the civil service – which has cut headcount by almost 20% in the past six years – is doing too much and will have to pare back some policies to allow for the urgent extra work required by Brexit.

Civil service chief executive John Manzoni has previously described the civil service as doing "30% too much to do it all well", while Sir Amyas Morse – head of the National Audit Office spending watchdog, last year urged ministers to stop asking departments to run on "perpetual overload". But ... Heywood made clear that the government intends to press ahead with the majority of the Conservatives' 2015 manifesto goals, while also working on Theresa May's new policy priorities and implementing Brexit. “Obviously, when you have a new government with a new set of priorities the logical question is: well, do the old priorities still stand and how many of these new priorities become even more important than the pre-existing workload?" he said. “So we’ve had those explicit conversations. And I think the honest truth is that very few of the original set of priorities can be dropped.  "The prime minister feels very strongly that she and other ministers were elected on a Conservative Party manifesto that must still stand. So, of course, she’s added some further priorities and we’ve got the Brexit programme as well. But, you know — one way or another we are going to deliver that package. That’s the civil service’s job.”

Concerns have also been raised since the Brexit vote about whether a smaller civil service has the resources to handle the task before it. But despite some speculation that the referendum result might prompt a rethink of departmental spending plans, most of Whitehall is still working to deliver tough settlements agreed with the Treasury in 2015. Heywood told CSW that it was important for civil servants to be "resourced to do the job that they’re asked to do", and said individual departments were free to "make their case for more resources to the Treasury". But he added: “The Treasury of course, and I as head of the civil service, expect that there will be some reprioritisation. This is not just a case of extra resources. Because, as a whole, we’ve got to meet the fiscal ceilings that we’ve got. And the civil service certainly can’t be exempt from the overall requirement to control public spending. "So we will live within our means, we will try and reprioritise, and where a case can be made for extra resources, as in the case when you’ve got a new department like DExEU or DIT, of course the Treasury will find a way of making that happen out of the normal reserve.”

Heywood estimated that the civil service "at the moment requires 1,500 to 2,000 extra roles", including "another 100 senior civil servants" – but he said Whitehall was already "two-thirds of the way" through filling those posts, and praised the way the organisation had stepped up to the challenge of Brexit. “I think we’ve shown once again over the last few months, which has been a very, very intense period, just how effective we are in supporting an incoming administration because, let’s face it, we’ve got a new prime minister, a new set of ministers, a completely new agenda. We have turned on a sixpence and are now focused very much on that and serving the country in that way."

Recruitment Rules Relaxed

Despite this optimism, the Civil Service Commission were asked and agreed that civil service hiring rules could temporarily be relaxed so that senior staff could be brought into departments on salaries of up to £142,000 without having to go through an open recruitment process.

Dodgy Statistics

There was a growing feeling that civil servants were paying less attention to the need to publish accurate information and were instead over-willing to publish dodgy data that supported Ministers (or even their own) preconceptions. There was an example of this in January 2017 when the Cabinet Office (no less) published a report which included some sensible things about the management of information but also included some unnecessary and ill-informed comment about policy making in government together with a figure of £500 million on "wasted effort from recreating old work”- based, according to a footnote, on a Cabinet Office estimate. The Times unsurprisingly built a story around the loose comments on policy making and this estimate. Equally unsurprisingly they asked the Cabinet Office to stand up their own “estimate”.  A Cabinet Office spokesman apparently said on the record - without apparent shame -  that “This is an entirely hypothetical figure which is not based on an analysis of actual working practices”.

Martin Stanley