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Opinion: Civil servants have risen to George Osborne’s austerity challenge so far – but this summer, they are staring into the abyss
Most permanent secretaries, it’s safe to say, are unlikely to regard their offices as the equivalent of a monastic cell. Beating heart of hugely busy government department, yes; Benedictine space? Not so much.
But in a recent intriguing lecture in Cambridge, Claire Foster-Gilbert, the director of a think tank in the heart of Westminster, put forward the idea that there could and should be a contemplative space at the very top of Whitehall. Her institute, which is attached to the venerable Westminster Abbey, is looking at what constitutes “goodness” and her work has included meeting permanent secretaries to think about moral and spiritual virtues in public life.
Across a weary Whitehall, such a message may be inclined to be met with a hollow laugh. With ministers on recess, this is traditionally a time of year for a bit more downtime in Whitehall. Not this year, though. The chancellor’s spending review in November is looming and more huge departmental cuts are on the horizon. No-one’s job, or department, is safe and the number crunching will continue through the dog days of August.
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We’ll see at the end of the summer, when ministers get back from the beaches, just how much change there will be to the way Whitehall works. Some predict departmental mergers, although so far the government has resisted this urge.
In the meantime, some things are predictable. Stress levels are rising across the civil service. Our recent survey for the Guardian of almost 4,000 public servants revealed the shocking toll that government cuts have already taken on staff in public services and the voluntary sector. As one employee put it, “you are always struggling just to keep up” and another central government worker pointed out that when there is so much to do, “no-one ever makes workable decisions about prioritisation”.
Our survey made clear the damage cuts have had on frontline services. Add to that attacks on pay and pensions, together with mass redundancies, and a picture emerges of a thoroughly demoralised workforce, with many understandably fearful of the new round of austerity unleashed by the chancellor in his July budget.
Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s a picture the government itself refuses to recognise. Asked to comment on the survey, the Cabinet Office said its own People Survey showed staff engagement continuing to rise. But they would say that, wouldn’t they? Stress is rising, pointed out one civil servant in our survey, as an inevitable consequence of civil service cuts in staffing without equivalent cuts in work to be delivered.
So far, in other words, civil servants have risen to the challenge and papered over the cracks. But this summer, they are staring into the abyss. Departments cannot take 40% more out of their budgets and keep delivering the same services. While some argue that the 40% figure is a classic management ploy – threaten a huge cut so that when it is then a mere 25%, everyone is relieved – there is no doubt that big cuts will be made to unprotected departments.
What has already changed is the relationship of civil servants to their work. In a time of overwork, it’s harder to clock off. People check in with work when on holiday or even when on sick leave. There’s pressure from government and public alike for more services, with fewer resources, which has resulted in civil servants working very long hours, including evenings and weekends.
So what, some might say. Isn’t this precisely what the chancellor wants – more productive public servants? But people worried about constant change and the threat of job cuts are not working more effectively. A workforce where job security has simply disappeared and people are just waiting for the next round of redundancies is not a happy or more productive place.
Against this backdrop, trying to search for goodness in everyday civil service work may seem a foolhardy project. But most civil servants don’t work simply for the money. In her Cambridge lecture Foster-Gilbert used a lovely metaphor, seeing civil servants as the crew of a flotilla of small sailing boats, buffeted by the wind of public opinion, the waves of national and world events.
Unlike Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”, in which the narrator, Nick, at the end, sees the ultimately pessimistic vision of boats fighting against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past, for Foster-Gilbert the boats sail on, doing good in the world. And part of that voyage is, indeed, about creating some kind of contemplative space to think and consider what public services are, in the end, all about.