Civil service pay is "not an issue" outside London and Partygate would not have happened had No.10 been full of career civil servants – and other opinions the ex-chief people officer shared

Former chief people officer Rupert McNeil appeared before the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee yesterday to give evidence on Civil Service HR. The wide-ranging session tackled ministerial bullying, job cuts, pay, resilience planning and much more besides.

Here are some of the standout revelations from the hearing…

The 91,000 job-cuts target was ‘sensible’

Asked for his opinion on the Boris Johnson-era headline target to cut 91,000 civil service jobs, McNeil said: “I think it was a sensible number and it comes down to the arithmetic and it raises much bigger issues about the size of the civil service.” The ex-CPO said he “strongly” believed the “reference point” for the size of the civil service should be its headcount in 2016 – before the Brexit referendum. 

“91,000 it was a sensible number. It raises much bigger issues about the size of the civil service” 

He said the Treasury and departments had undertaken a “very collaborative piece of work” breaking down the increase in civil service numbers – which he said was down to work on Brexit, Covid and “a lack of deprioritisation”.

“That was a sensible workforce planning move, but the trick really is to do this over a sensible length of time and look at it very strategically,” he said.

The civil service should shrink by two thirds by the late 2030s

“There's a question about how big should the whole system be,” McNeil said, noting that automation offers opportunities to “deduplicate” and reduce staffing needs.

But he also pointed to “well-established” organisational principles that no organisation should have more than nine layers. “If the top layer is the top of the executive – the prime minister, cabinet secretary – and the bottom two layers increasingly in modern organisations have been done by bots and AI, then you've actually got a much flatter structure,” he said.

“The question is how many should that actually be? And the number that I reached was that by the mid-to-late 2030s, the civil service should be about 150,000 people if you take all those things into account.”

"The number that I reached was that by the mid-to-late 2030s, the civil service should be about 150,000 people”

HMRC and DWP should be merged

Cutting the civil service headcounts requires both “all sorts of investment in technology… and also an acceptance that maybe you don't need as many departments”.

“To be a bit radical, HMRC and DWP essentially do very similar activities. So really, should they not actually be one entity? There are real opportunities like that… as we move into dealing with the challenges the 21st century offers, we do need to look at that type of type of question.”

There should be fewer cabinet ministers

McNeil said he had put the idea of shrinking the number of departments to then-cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood within a few days of joining the civil service – but was told there would always need to be “so many jaguars” around the cabinet table.

But again citing “basic human organisational principles”, he said: “I don't think that a committee of more than 12 people is effective.”

“I think it's that type of radical thinking that is probably required,” he added.

"Radical thinking is probably required"

Civil service pay is "not an issue" outside London

Asked whether pay is a barrier to attracting the right candidates to the civil service, McNeil said: “It's definitely not an issue, as I understand it from the data, regionally, where civil servants are well paid in the regions relative to others.

“I think it is an issue with people who are in London at middle and senior levels – and generally – but the answer to that is get them out of London and let them have their careers outside London.” 

"People don’t join the civil service for the money"

Adding to his argument about recruitment, McNeil said: “You do not join government mid career… for the money. You come in because you want to contribute to public service, but also because the work is fascinating.”

He said government should make more of the opportunities for development available to its staff to entice people to apply – noting that he had been given the opportunity to qualify as an accountant during his stint in the civil service.

“You do not join government mid career… for the money. You come in because you want to contribute to public service, but also because the work is fascinating.

This should be a selling point to encourage movement between the public and private sectors too, he said. “We need to advertise the fact that the government context is so unique and complex – that if you want to broaden your senior managers, it's really good to have them have experience in the public sector because they will be able to acquire skills they would never be able to acquire in their existing organisations,” he said.

‘Porosity’ is key to addressing skills gaps

The 2016 referendum vote and preparations for leaving the EU “reinforced” existing skills gaps in the civil service, and the need for movement to bring in expertise from the private sector, McNeil said.  “The general set of project management, digital skills, integrating policy and operations, the requirements for hybrid policymakers and delivery leaders, was missing,” he said, while trade negotiating capability “had completely atrophied”.

He said CSHR had run a campaign for deputy directors with policy and project management and “over 60%” of successful applicants were external – “which was quite revealing to the point about porosity”.

…But Partygate "would not have happened in a No.10 full of career civil servants"

But McNeil said there were downsides to this “porosity” if people “are not able to respect the cultural and public service requirements… or are not sensitive to them”.

"Do I think that would have happened in a No.10 full of career civil servants? Absolutely not"

“You saw that, sadly, in the exceptional strangeness of the Partygate situation. Do I think that would have happened in a No.10 full of career civil servants? Absolutely not,” he said.

“Some elements over successive governments have suggested that bringing people in externally is part of a process of changing the culture itself… I think it's actually misconceived,” he added.

McNeil that added that the "exceptionally disappointing" breaking of Covid rules by “a very small part of the civil service… does not reflect the incredible work that was happening in many other parts of it”.

“In any organisation, the tone is set from the very top… whether that's the political leadership or the management leadership,” he added.

Ministerial bullying of civil servants is an 'overstated issue'

The MPs also grilled McNeil on allegations of bullying in the civil service, especially by ministers – which the former HR chief said he believed were "dealt with very well".

“I think that in my experience… I think it's an overstated issue. I think if you have people who are competent in their roles and able to assert their position and say ‘that behaviour from the person above me is unacceptable’, you quite quickly see the type of culture that you want," he said.

Read more of what McNeil had to say on ministerial bulling here:

 

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