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Whitehall is braced for more Brexit challenges, big government changes and a backlog of work

As the election campaign draws to a close, Emma Norris identifies the challenges that await civil servants in the weeks and months ahead.

As the election campaign draws to a close, Emma Norris identifies the challenges that await civil servants in the weeks and months ahead.

The civil service has been working at a frenetic pace for well over a year now. Its time has been dominated by the push for a Brexit deal, Theresa May’s attempts to get that deal through Parliament, repeated full-scale no-deal preparations and a change of prime minister.

So the election campaign period has been a chance for civil servants to take stock. They have been busy working on plans for different election outcomes, but many civil servants will have appreciated a few short weeks with ministers off on the campaign trail.

But with the election result imminent, the civil service will be looking ahead to a year that provides little certainty and plenty of potential challenges.

Civil servants will revisit some of the Brexit battles of the last few years

Regardless of the result, Brexit will dominate. One scenario involves getting Boris Johnson’s deal through Parliament, moving on to future relationship negotiations, and working towards a December 2020 deadline. Another scenario involves renegotiating a deal under Labour with a confirmatory referendum to follow. Or some combination of these options under a minority government or coalition.

Beyond Brexit, any election outcome will shift the focus of civil servants – from austerity to spending, to the delivery of machinery of government changes and potentially to change the size of the state.

Civil servants will also have to deal with a backlog of work, as any election means that all sorts of routine government activity goes on hold: appointments are delayed, policy development is stalled, contracts are paused and every aspect of government communication has to be considered through the lens of purdah restrictions. This is on top of the enormous impact that Brexit has already had on the rest of government operations, distracting ministers and diverting resources away from day-to-day business. The catch-up will kick in within hours of the election result.

Whitehall has been badly hit by low morale and high turnover

The last year has been a hard slog, and morale will be one of the most serious concerns for civil service leaders. As the Health and Safety Executive has shown, rates of work-related stress, depression and anxiety among civil servants have risen to the highest levels for decades. Some of this is due to the sheer workload that the civil service has faced under Brexit – and the sense of uncertainty that has accompanied this work. Some departments and public bodies are already taking action to help staff manage workload and stress – including by introducing shift work and making counsellors available.

Turnover is another – related – challenge. Whitehall already suffers from very high levels of turnover: more than four in 10 senior officials have been in post less than a year, and in the space of just two years a majority of these senior officials will have left their roles. High turnover has been exacerbated by Brexit, which has seen large numbers of people relocated into Brexit departments and then quickly moved on again. The most recent Civil Service People Survey showed that 53% of staff in the Department for Exiting the EU were planning to leave their roles as soon as possible, or within the year.

This loss of institutional knowledge could be particularly problematic as Brexit plans progress under a new government. If a new government is serious about making progress on domestic policies beyond Brexit, then retaining institutional knowledge in priority areas will be important. In 2010, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government lost almost its entire homelessness team in the space of two or three years, including subject experts and directors with links across Whitehall. Criticisms of the recently updated homelessness strategy were partly based on its failure to draw on past experience.

A new prime minister looks likely to restructure Whitehall departments

Machinery of government changes inevitably disrupt the work of civil servants. With news that a returned Johnson government may merge the Department for International Development with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, it looks like there will be big departmental changes to work through whatever the election result. Labour has even bigger plans for new departments and splitting existing ones, including the creation of a Department for Housing and a Ministry for Employment Rights.

Such changes often bring uncertainty, as civil servants working in a new department work out what their new roles entail and how they relate to the rest of the government. The hit to morale and productivity can cost up to £34m a year for a medium-sized policy department; the cost can be much bigger if it involves a department responsible for the delivery of services directly to the public. Previous experience shows it takes about two years for departments to be properly up and running following machinery of government changes.  

Civil servants will need to adapt to new ministers – or returning ministers with new agendas

If the election results in a change of government, civil servants will have to work out how their new ministers like to work. Most of the Labour frontbench has no direct experience of government and will take time to learn how government operates and how they want their offices to be run. Even if the Conservatives return to government, and many ministers return to their current roles, any change in the parliamentary arithmetic may mean that they approach their jobs very differently. Ministers in a majority government will need to learn new ways of governing, and civil servants may need to adapt to a minister with a changed set of priorities or a different working style.

Over the coming days, weeks and months, the frenetic pace of the last year will resume. The challenge for Whitehall will be to keep morale up and keep turnover down as it learns to work with unfamiliar ministers – or ministers unfamiliar with governing in a new context.

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