Jane Dudman: With fresh spending cuts on the horizon, civil service morale faces another tough test

Written by Jane Dudman on 11 August 2015 in Opinion

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.

About the author

Jane Dudman is editor of the Guardian Public Leaders Network

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Dave (not verified)

Submitted on 11 August, 2015 - 13:26
I think we are approaching a situation where many civil servants ARE only doing it for the money, because I don't see too many people really enjoying their work these days and stress is very evident. I know some are only staying put because there aren't many alternatives where they live, which subsequently means they are not engaged with their employers and even less so with civil service reform. Productivity improvements are generally related to process improvements and in many cases digitalisation of services. That is where much of the 'more for less' has arisen, but that in itself means less people needed. Not a great motivating factor for many at risk as a result and even those who stay are on ever decreasing pay and benefits.

Nic Moj (not verified)

Submitted on 11 August, 2015 - 13:39
How true. I'm working on several departmental changes that may save £100's million of pounds, the cost (not that anyone cares), increased sickness (I've not had a day off in 25years but have had 7 this year and received a warning about my attendance - this would be funny if this isn't something they will be considering when the job cuts fall!) this due to stress as I've been working a typical 60 week (I'm paid for 36) just to keep 'things moving'. And for what, more stress, less pay (I've not had a pay increase in 4 years and will not for another 4); not being able to provide the very basics for my child (and I'm one of the better paid), reduced pension and then even more stress. Where does it all end...well the destruction of public services...this is not a statement of politics (I think I would be classed as a moderate) - just fact, to use the phrase ' once it's gone - it's gone' but this Government has and is going to far just on a set of ideals. I fear the public just don't understand the consequences of these decisions. You have be warned.

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