Ready, aim, hire: how is Brexit reshaping the civil service?

Written by Beckie Smith on 28 January 2019 in Feature
Feature

Since the UK voted to leave the European Union, civil servants have been working to get the country ready for its departure from the bloc. Beckie Smith examines how Brexit has changed government so far

In December, with parliament yet to approve prime minister Theresa May’s EU withdrawal agreement, it was announced that all non-urgent government business would be halted so officials would have more time to prepare for a potential no-deal outcome. But stretched departments have been balancing contingency planning with their day to day business ever since the UK voted to leave the European Union two and a half years ago.

Despite – and indeed because of – ongoing uncertainty about what the UK’s departure from the bloc will look like, life in government has changed radically as officials have had to prepare for all eventualities. Here, CSW looks at how Brexit has reshaped departments, cross-government work and spending in the post-referendum period.

Whitehall by numbers

At the end of last year, around 10,000 government officials were working to prepare for Brexit – some hired externally and others redeployed from within the civil service – with 5,000 more in the pipeline. This number could grow by as much as 5,000, depending on the outcome of withdrawal negotiations, civil service chief executive John Manzoni told the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in December. “We can’t hire those people fast enough,” he said.


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Recruitment has been such that the Institute for Government estimates one in five job cuts since 2010 has been reversed since the June 2016 referendum.

One of the most obvious changes has been the creation of the Department for Exiting the European Union and the Department for International Trade in July 2016. Office for National Statistics quarterly figures put DExEU’s headcount at 570 in September 2018, and DIT’s at 1,540. Those statistics relate to full-time equivalent posts, as do all the other employment statistics in this feature.

Brexit has also reshaped several existing departments, including the Cabinet Office, which is instrumental in coordinating Brexit work across government. Its headcount rose by more than 40% between June 2016 and September 2018 (although some of this was staff moving over from HM Revenue and Customs to centralise the HR function).

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs grew by a similar proportion in the same period, adding staff in every quarter after the referendum – having shrunk in the two years prior. With no machinery of government changes in Defra in that time – and the fact that 80% of its work is affected by the EU – almost all of the growth is likely to be down to Brexit. The Home Office, meanwhile, has grown every quarter since the end of 2016. 

All this comes at a cost. Cabinet Office data shows its workforce spending – including payroll and temporary staff, contractors and consultants – reached £34m last October, more than double the £16m it spent in July 2016.

Defra, which has one of government’s heaviest Brexit workloads, spent £23.6m in October 2018, more than twice that of any month in the two and a half years before the referendum. In July 2016, its paybill was £7.8m. In the same post-referendum period, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s expenditure doubled from £12.8m to £25.8m.

New recruits to the Brexit effort include external hires and fast streamers. As of October 2018, DExEU claimed the largest share of generalist fast streamers in government, according to Cabinet Office data obtained by the IfG and seen by CSW. (“I’ve got a lot of very bright young civil servants – I haven’t got that much grey hair [among my staff] yet, which I may have to find outside,” then-Brexit secretary David Davis commented in 2016.)

But many Brexit-related roles are filled by civil servants redeployed from elsewhere. In November Defra was accused of “raiding” its agencies for staff when environment secretary Michael Gove revealed that of 2,000 staff working on EU exit in his department, 400 came from bodies such as the Environment Agency and Natural England.

This is happening on an inter-departmental basis too. Many of DIT and DExEU’s staff are secondees who remain on their home departments’ payroll. The ONS put DExEU’s September headcount at 570, but estimated that these transfers could bring the total to 690.

Recruitment for specialist staff pools has recently stepped up as no-deal preparation escalates. In December the Cabinet Office sought 50 civil servants to join its Civil Contingencies Secretariat, which responds to emergencies and which is taking a lead role in cross-government Brexit contingency planning.

And in October, the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government was recruiting “resilience advisers” to deal with emergencies and help local areas mitigate disruption resulting from Brexit.

Bringing in outside help

Since the referendum, there have been repeated warnings about commercial, technical and project management skills deficits that must be addressed to implement Brexit.

One way departments have sought to fill these gaps is by bringing in external expertise. CSW examined monthly departmental workforce statistics for the last five years, which give a more granular picture of how departments have changed than ONS figures.

The numbers, which include departmental employees, temporary staff, external consultants and contractors, reveal a marked rise in specialist contractors at some departments since the referendum.

They show Defra paid 432 specialist contractors in October 2018 – nine times as many as the month after the vote. Non-payroll staff made up 12% of Defra’s 4,562-strong total workforce in October; two years earlier, they accounted for 3%.

The number of specialist contractors recorded by the Cabinet Office has varied, but was typically fewer than 30 a month leading up to the referendum; since then it has recorded as many as 200 in one month.

There have also been considerable sums spent with consulting firms. DExEU has reported spending more than £5.7m on external consultancy since it was established. Contracts have been used to fill short-term roles and carry out projects that demand “speciality knowledge and skills”, its annual report said.

Meanwhile the Cabinet Office has reported upwards of £4.5m in payments for “central EU exit consultancy”. When CSW asked about the payments, a spokesperson declined to say which projects they were for but said: “The whole of government is preparing for the UK to make an orderly and successful exit from the European Union, and we are equipping ourselves with the right people and the right skills across government to make this happen.”

Cabinet Office minister David Lidington later said the contracts helped departments secure commercial, operational, programme management skills and ranged “from short, strategic advisory engagements, to day-to-day programmatic support, such as establishing and running project management office functions”.

Lidington said consultants had been hired to help with everything from DExEU’s business readiness communications team to the Border Force operational readiness portfolio management office.

HMRC has spent nearly £2m on consultancy related to border coordination, which supports the work of the cross-government Border Delivery Group. And the Department of Health and Social Care has paid EY £220,485 to assess the risks Brexit poses to the supply of medicines and medical isotopes – used in cancer treatment – to the NHS.

How departments report and demarcate consultancy spending varies, so it is nearly impossible to determine exactly how much has been spent on Brexit overall. In October 2018, Buzzfeed obtained documents showing departments had signed contracts worth up to £40m for Brexit-related consultancy, including Home Office contracts worth up to £22m relating mostly to the EU citizens settled status scheme. However, the department’s spending data does not clearly label payments for Brexit.

A Whitehall spokesperson said they didn’t recognise the figures published by Buzzfeed but that it was standard procedure to draw on external specialists’ advice. “The Brexit negotiations are a priority for the government and we will continue to bring in expertise from outside as appropriate,” they said.

The view across government

Brexit also appears to have sped up a drive o re-centralise some areas of government work, which began under former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude during the coalition government after a period of decentralisation under New Labour. Last year Manzoni told the Public Accounts Committee that Brexit allowed the Cabinet Office to “have a grip across the system”.

One way it has exerted this grip is by drawing up common job descriptions across 37 technical roles for centrally-run recruitment campaigns to bolster government functions, which it said was more efficient than departments recruiting individually.

Meanwhile, post-Brexit border planning “goes against the grain of traditional accountabilities in our civil service system”, Manzoni said in a speech announcing recruitment reforms last year. A cross-government board, the Border Planning Group, oversees the government’s approach to work at the UK border. It is supported by the Border Delivery Group, which liaises with departments and holds them to account for implementing the border plans.

These teams are among the assorted groups providing central coordination of Brexit work, many with similar names, interwoven responsibilities and a low public profile [see box].

The Functional Support Team works with the digital, communications, HR, commercial, project management and finance functions and provides consultancy-style support, skills and resources to departments on high-priority Brexit workstreams. It sits in an implementation group in the Cabinet Office, which answers to an EU Exit Delivery Board led by cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill

CSW understands there are also multiple inter-ministerial groups dedicated to Brexit. One whose existence has been confirmed – following a Freedom of Information request by the IfG – is a group of DExEU, Treasury and Cabinet Office ministers that form Dragons’ Den-style panels to interrogate departmental progress on Brexit projects. The existence of these groups outside of the normal cabinet committee structures is perhaps due to the political difficulties facing government, with ministers on all sides of the debate struggling to form a consensus. However, the separation from normal committee systems has raised concerns, particularly about transparency and the process or governance supporting these groups.

Shouldering the burden

Manzoni famously once said the civil service was doing “30% too much to do it all well”. At a seminar on pay in 2016, he said Brexit had only added to that and was probably “the hardest thing any of us have had to deal with”.

This sentiment has become uncomfortably familiar to many officials. Nearly three-quarters of civil servants polled for the FDA union’s 2018 working hours survey said excessive working hours were a problem in their organisation and 82% said working extra hours had damaged their wellbeing.

An anonymous HMRC official quoted in the survey said they had been working up to 60-hour weeks “due to the pressures caused by Brexit”. Another in the Home Office said although their department was “pretty flexible in how it manages work-life balance”, Brexit work was inevitably “often tacked on to already busy posts”.

In October, Gove told the Environmental Audit Committee some vacancies caused by Defra secondees had been “left unfilled and work reallocated or paused”. And Manzoni later warned PACAC that “distributing large chunks of civil servants from one department to another… starts impacting the normal delivery of a particular department”.

This is causing “increasing concern and alarm” among Prospect trade union members, deputy general secretary Garry Graham tells CSW, as some secondees’ day jobs are “either not being done or being picked up by others who are already hard-pressed”.

This is set against a backdrop of morale-eroding criticism from ministers and the public of civil servants’ handling of Brexit. HMRC permanent secretary Jon Thompson even reported receiving death threats after publicly sharing the estimated cost of some Brexit scenarios.

And civil servants have also had to cope with an unprecedented wave of ministerial resignations over Brexit. An IfG analysis found that when universities minister Sam Gyimah stepped down on 30 November in protest against the proposed withdrawal agreement, he became the 13th minister to resign over policy during May’s premiership. Eleven of these resignations were related to Brexit.

In CSW’s permanent secretaries’ round up in December, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s perm sec Dame Sue Owen said managing this ministerial turnover was one of the hardest challenges she had faced while leading the department in 2018.

“We’re good at leading through that change at DCMS,” Owen wrote. But while briefing new ministers is hardly an insurmountable challenge for civil servants who are used to dealing with reshuffles, it is just one more hurdle to overcome in a time of huge pressure and uncertainty. 

Central influence

A snapshot of some of the key groups working to implement Brexit

EU Exit Delivery Board
Led by Cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill.
What is it? The central Brexit implementation board, comprising key officials with responsibility for putting systems and processes in place for Brexit.

EU Exit Implementation Group
Led by Matthew Coats, director general EU exit implementation, reporting to civil service chief executive John Manzoni and DExEU perm sec Philip Rycroft.
What does it do? Oversees the delivery of Brexit workstreams across government and supports the EU Exit Delivery Board with management information and insights. Works with the Treasury and its spending teams to expedite approval and controls and allocate resources.

Functional Support Team
Set up in September 2017 within the EU Exit Implementation Group.
What does it do? Works with Cabinet Office-led functions to provide consultancy-style support to departments in areas such as recruitment and project implementation.

Border Planning Group
Set up in
March 2017
Chaired by HMRC perm sec Jon Thompson and Home Office second perm sec Shona Dunn.
What is it? A cross-government senior board of representatives from around 30 departments and agencies, which oversees and assures departmental Brexit planning and implementati

Border Delivery Group
Set up in
April 2018.
Led by Karen Wheeler, HMRC director general border coordination.
What does it do? Supports the Border Planning Group, liaising with departments and ensuring Brexit works for government, ports, airports and border users and operators.

EU Exit Inter-Ministerial Group
Chaired by
a DExEU minister (formerly Brexit secretary Dominic Raab), it includes Cabinet Office and Treasury ministers.
What does it do? Allows DExEU to monitor departments’ progress and performance on delivering their Brexit-related projects through Dragons’ Den-style scrutiny.

Civil Contingencies Secretariat
Set up in
2001 in the Cabinet Office.
What does it do? Oversees the UK’s emergency planning, responds to civil emergencies and coordinates Operation Yellowhammer, the government’s no-deal contingency planning.

UK Governance Group
Set up in
June 2015 to lead work on constitution and devolution.
Led by DExEU perm sec Philip Rycroft.
Brings together the Cabinet Office’s Constitution Group, the Scotland Office, the Office of the Advocate General for Scotland and the Wales Office.
What does it do?Tasks include addressing Brexit-related risks to devolved administrations and working with DExEU to build departmental devolution capacity around Brexit.

 

This is the first in a series of analyses of how Brexit has changed Whitehall. If you have any reflections to share on any of the topics covered, please get in touch: beckie.smith@dodsgroup.com

Consultancy and workforce figures in this report were up to date as of October 2018, the latest data available at the time of writing.

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Beckie Smith
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Beckie Smith is a reporter for CSW who tweets Beckie__Smith.

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