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Civil war: Inside the crumbling relationship between ministers and the civil service

Civil war: Inside the crumbling relationship between ministers and the civil service

(Illustration | Tracy Worrall)

6 min read

With relations between civil servants and ministers at breaking point, John Johnston reports on the mood in Whitehall, and the big choice facing the next prime minister on their first day in Downing Street.

The painful rift which seems to have emerged between ministers and officialdom in recent months first appeared after the government’s plans to drastically reduce the size of the civil service popped up in the Daily Mail in May.

At the heart of the row is the government's plans to prune the civil service back to pre-Brexit levels, a move that would see the workforce lose 91,000 jobs over three years. While fluctuations in the size of Whitehall are not unusual as government and national priorities change, ministers have suggested that significant employment surges to deal with Brexit and the pandemic left the civil service bloated at a time when the government is attempting to take control of the public finances.

Whether Jacob Rees-Mogg, the minister for government efficiencies who is leading the charge, or the plans themselves will survive under the next Conservative leader remains to be seen, although some candidates have pledged to maintain them.

Critics of the government's approach have pointed out that cutting around a fifth of all civil service jobs goes far beyond what ministers have likened to families making efficiencies in their household budgets.

Speaking to The House, Dave Penman, general secretary of civil servants’ union, the FDA, insists that while any government's electoral mandate gave them the right to alter the size of Whitehall, their approach was not consistent with the kind of rigorous analysis which usually precedes such a major shake-up.

“Headline-grabbing policy is just not the way to deal with complex organisations or senior professionals. The 91,000 jobs figure was released to the Daily Mail, and civil servants woke up that morning to find out that the jobs are going to go because it said so in the paper,” he says.

“It's like Stalin talking about the number of tractors that have got to be built. It's just incredible. But departments have now got to work on that basis.”

While Westminster continues to focus on the leadership contest, Whitehall bosses have already begun modelling cuts to the workforce of 20, 30 and 40 per cent, in addition to the five per cent reduction already set out in the recent Spending Review. 

Ministers have already taken initial steps to reduce headcount, controversially pausing the Civil Service Fast Stream, which takes on thousands of young graduates each year and often tops the list of most popular graduate recruitment programmes.

Describing the move as an “act of vandalism,” the union boss said the decision was likely to have been made because it was one of the few “levers” directly available to ministers.

It's like Stalin talking about the number of tractors that have got to be built. It's just incredible.

“As far as I can tell there wasn’t a lot of advice before they made this decision, but because the numbers are nonsensical and it’s one of the few levers they can reach out and pull, they’ve done it,” he said.

"[Fast stream applicants] know they're not going to get paid well, but they want to work in government, and they are the absolute cream of the graduate crop.

"We are going to pay the price in five or 10 years, because we are not going to have those really capable people working their way through the system to positions in senior leadership."

Among civil servants working in government departments, there has been a mixed reaction to the overall strategy of cutting back numbers, with one mandarin telling The House that a rush for staff during the pandemic had resulted in a chaotic recruitment process.

“The principle is generally quite sensible,” the official said. “It's going to be hard for lots of the people brought in on short-term contracts over the pandemic and the last couple of years, but it does all need streamlining and revisiting because recruitment was having to happen in chaos.

“There are enough good people at higher/senior executive officer grades to go around and they need to be distributed or supported better. There are just too many middle management young people.”

This civil servant added that during the pandemic, the recruitment process resulted in many younger or inexperienced people being hired directly into roles for which they were not suited, adding: “People also came in at weird grades, for example, a guy who is way too senior for his ability and is in his mid-20s was recruited directly from a role at a supermarket.”

But they criticised the decision to pause the fast stream, saying ministers and departments should take a “sensible look” at who had “invested time in government and the civil service” before pausing the system.

Rhys Clyne, a senior researcher at the Institute for Government, concurred, warning that using recruitment freezes of any description were a “blunt tool” that would leave holes in government departments that may become critical to legislative plans.

“It's certainly true that from the perspective of achieving efficiency, pausing the fast stream is a really short-sighted mistake. You're cutting off an effective route of talented officials who otherwise might go and work for consultancies and be hired at increased costs,” he told The House

“It is something the government can announce today and enact in a few months’ time, and therefore signal an intent towards its target. It's certainly not a sensible approach to managing the workforce.”

This is a unique opportunity to catch the wrecking ball before it clobbers the civil service, but God help them if they don’t.

Beyond the dangers of cutting critical staff, other civil servants warned the adversarial approach from some ministers was having an impact on morale, with one senior civil servant saying it had reached “rock bottom” in some departments.

Their concern follows a leaked Cabinet Office survey published by The House’s sister website PoliticsHome found widespread unhappiness among those working there, with only around a quarter of respondents saying they believed senior leaders had a clear vision for the department, down from nearly half who agreed with the statement last summer.

One civil servant working in another Whitehall department said a “widespread malaise” had spread in recent months, telling The House that staff often felt like they were “undermined” by ministers.

“It’s been disturbing to witness it. We all pulled together under the unbelievable pressure of the pandemic to deliver for the country, and now ministers take credit for our work while simultaneously accusing us of being work-shy layabouts.”

And they added that flagship government policies, such as the levelling up agenda, would inevitably be impacted by the planned cuts, adding that they go “too deep, too fast for there to be any other outcome”.

Responding to the concerns, a government source defended the approach, saying that “policies like levelling up shouldn't depend on a large civil service; creating economic growth up and down the country comes from a strong private sector rather than delivered by the state.”

Whatever the outcome of the Conservative leadership contest, the next prime minister has been left with an immediate dilemma: to press ahead with the ideological approach of their predecessor or overturn the plans and attempt to rebuild the fractured relationship with Whitehall. 

As one civil servant said of Boris Johnson’s resignation: “This is a unique opportunity to catch the wrecking ball before it clobbers the civil service; God help them if they don’t.”

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