The Public Accounts Committee recently published its report ‘Managing early departures in central government’. The Institute agreed with many of the PAC conclusions – but the report has a solely technocratic view of the reality of managing reductions in staff numbers.
Senior civil servants are people, not just bloodless lightning conductors, punchbags or beasts of burden for downsizing and cuts. They need to feel engaged, supported and valued at a time when more is being asked of them than ever – and their number is being reduced by as much as a third in some departments.
At the moment civil servants don’t have to go far to hear trenchant private and public criticism of them. But as the IfG argued in March 2012:
“Politically inspired civil service bashing is naive, and counterproductive to the process of reform. Ministers and civil servants have got to work together, or else they will fail separately.”
The scale of change civil servants face is unprecedented. Sir Jeremy Heywood summarised the challenge at an IfG civil service reform event in March 2012:
“we’re [at] a starting point [of]... a seven-year programme of fiscal austerity. And that means dramatic reductions in headcount... an enormous programme that is putting huge pressure on every single department in Whitehall... Business as usual is continuous improvement for the foreseeable future... a constant process of driving cost out year by year..."
“[this] Government... has embarked simultaneously on a huge reform of the education system, a fundamental reform of the National Health system, the major change in immigration – wherever you look – the welfare reform system, the police and crime commissioners, the criminal justice system... Pretty much everything’s been thrown up at the same time...”
The last spending review required savings in central administrative costs at a scale that forced departments to downsize at speed before the start of the first year of spending review, in order to get the savings payback by the end of the spending review period. This approach guaranteed unintended consequences – whether losing the wrong staff or having to cut services that people value. There simply wasn’t time to develop new or better ways of working that could mitigate the sharp reduction in headcount.
Downsizing at this scale and pace inevitably takes a toll on the capacity, energy and emotions of managers and senior leaders. The requirements of consultation, selection for redundancy, matching remaining staff to the remaining posts create a huge management burden on line managers. Overstretched HR functions are left with little capacity to do anything else. It is draining to run comprehensive downsizing programmes.
Civil Service managers and their much abused HR colleagues deserve credit for managing big reductions in staff – up to 30% in little more than 15 months. With the support of the better trade unions this has generally been done as fairly and humanely as you could expect given the pace of reductions.
Some who saw this phase through have already seized their voluntary redundancy or even resigned with a sense of relief and sometimes glee – depending on their age, their ability to get another job, or the respective sizes of their redundancy package, savings and pension.
But what about those who have stayed? Do they have the appetite for one or even two more rounds of staff reductions and savings in Sir Jeremy’s seven years of austerity? Do their hearts sink at the thought of having to spend six months getting ambitious reshuffled ministers up to speed on the unpleasant reality of making sustainable savings and cutting services?
Given the inevitability of further 'more challenging' staff reductions ministers and civil service leaders would do well to reflect on the energy and engagement of the senior civil service. As Peter Riddell wrote in his open letter to Sir Jeremy and Sir Bob civil service reform is "about creating a high-quality, high-morale and highly effective Civil Service. All three elements go together. Unless reforms are urgently introduced, there will be the risk of a downward spiral of cuts, inadequate services and a demoralised Civil Service."
We should watch the ranks of director, director general and permanent secretary to judge whether the Civil Service is beginning to see an exodus of too many of its best and brightest to somewhere they feel more valued and better supported to perform – somewhere that allows them to restore their dwindling sense of personal accomplishment.
Such an exodus would be bad for ministers, advisers, parliament and the country.