I have said many times that working for any large organisation, public or private sector, is like being on a merry-go-round. There is a constant sense of motion but for some reason the same sights keep coming round again and again.
And here we are again with Francis Maude being commissioned to look at Civil Service reform. It is indeed deja vu all over again.
I think there are three key points of concern for me.
The first is the driver behind this review. The 2011 review was ideologically driven. Cameron and Osborne were determined to drastically cut the size of the state. So the review was driven mainly by numbers. This led to the infamous “Bonfire of the Quangos“.
Departments when faced with cuts immediately looked to see how much of the burden they could shift onto the bodies they funded and government backing newspapers were very happy to have headlines about “unelected bureaucrats” and mysterious “Quangos”.
The result has been a disaster. The Audit Commission, the equivalent of the NAO for local government, was scrapped with the notion that an army of “armchair auditors” would somehow do the work voluntarily and with no access to key information. The outcome has been stark.
The closure of the Central Office of Information has led to expensive, confused and at times shambolic campaigns on critical issues such as Brexit, Covid, and health.
The closure of the Regional Development Agencies is slowly being unwound as the government pushes its “Levelling Up” agenda but the goodwill, expertise and connections lost will be hard to replace.
When asked what the Government would stop doing as a result of 20% fewer civil servants, Rees-Mogg said it would’t stop anything, it would just do it all more efficiently.
Which is confusing cause and effect. Efficiency may lead to the need for fewer staff but fewer staff does not lead to greater efficiency. Moreover efficiency requires investment. There is no sign of the significant capital funding required for the kind of efficiency changes needed.
The Institute for Government has a very useful chart showing the breakdown of numbers of civil servants by department.
Nearly 70% of staff are in operational departments. Cutting the equivalent of the total DWP staffing and then some will have very significant implications for an already close to collapse criminal justice system, the chaos that is the Home Office and a DWP facing supporting a country on the verge of a recession, if not indeed an actual depression.
So why have Civil Service numbers increased over the past few years?
It is simple, the centre is being asked to do more. The government has not stopped coming up with policies. Brexit alone demands thousands of people in frontline, policy and oversight roles. Again the Institute for Government has the latest statistics.
Leaving aside whatever DWP are playing at, the key growth is in policy development and delivery. Brexit in the main.
But there is another key driver which brings me on to my second key concern.
Look at the chart below which was created by Thomas Fort.
Local government staff numbers have fallen by a third since 2010 whilst central government has grown by almost the exact same number. For a government which has localism as one of its core policy aims this does not seem sustainable. But simply constantly moving functions between central and local government does not seem a sustainable way of making savings or delivering outcomes.
My third concern is that the timetable for the process is being driven by staff numbers not by organisational needs. Departments have until the end of June to agree their 20% cuts. This does not align with any timetable for Civil Service reform, so it’s not so much the tail wagging the dog as the stubby tail wagging the Manx cat.
So we have a notional Civil Service reform programme which will not input into any cuts process. Again cause and effect are out of sync.
There is a desperate need for Civil Service reform, I have not known a time where the relationship between the top of the Civil Service and rank and file members has been so bad. Partygate has left a poisonous legacy which the current Cabinet Secretary seems unwilling or unable to address.
The work on service transformation started by the Government Digital Service seems stalled. There is excellent work underway in departments and GDS has some great services like Notify but there is little sign of a coherent direction for government as a whole. The risk is that scarce resources are spent on “nice to have” rabbit holes such as citizen identity (*cough* why not just fork) and service personalisation rather than tackling the deep issues of replacing government as silos with government as a platform.
Given the somewhat baffling mention of “software engineers” in a previous Cabinet Office letter an even bigger risk for digital services is that they are seen as the “magic pixies” who will somehow make the impossible happen. And that breaks confidence and people, and guarantees that delivery will fail.
I worry that we remain as far away from implementing the 1968 Fulton Report now as we ever have. The 2023 Maude Report looks likely to join it on the shelf.