As the election looms, CSW puts six questions to deputy prime minister and Liberal Democrat party leader Nick Clegg
How have your views of the civil service changed since you entered government in 2010?
It’s fair to say that the civil service wasn’t really quite ready for its first coalition in 70 years. But it quickly adapted, and I continue to be impressed by the public service ethos embodied by civil servants up and down the country. This is something that you can’t manufacture, but it’s too often taken for granted. Whatever the pressures, our civil service has shown itself to be committed to meeting the challenge of securing Britain’s future at a time of unprecedented change.
The values you represent – integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality – are integral to the smooth running of our country, and you should be incredibly proud of what you achieve every day.
Civil servants have endured real-terms pay and pensions cuts ever since 2010. Do they have a right to expect rising living standards after 2015?
Everyone working in the civil service knows the tough reality of the deficit we inherited. To build a better future, we had to deal with this issue. It’s meant that over the last four years, our public finances have been squeezed like never before. Together we’ve had to take some tough decisions on pay, pensions and the future of the civil service. But thanks to your sacrifices, your hard work and commitment to do more with less, we’re getting Britain back on track. Our economy is growing again and more people are in work than ever before.
Of course, we still have a lot to do: we need to continue to cut waste and increase efficiency. But the Liberal Democrats also believe that when hard choices have to be made on issues such as pay and pensions, it should be done fairly. That’s why we fought to protect lower earners from pay restraint and rises in pension contributions and, more widely, worked to agree long-term settlements on pensions so you can plan for your future now.
We recognise that our public services need the highest quality staff, and my party has been clear that once we’ve balanced the books, we’ll ensure that overall public spending grows in line with the economy. This will ensure we can improve key public services and enable public sector workers to receive fair and affordable increases in their pay.
In September 2011, you said that “failure to deliver major infrastructure projects on time, on budget, is a perennial problem in the UK”, pledged that ministers would get directly involved in 40 key projects, and said that the “barrier I want to talk about is actually within government: Whitehall.” Do you still see the civil service as a barrier to delivering infrastructure projects?
Across the country, we have civil servants delivering major infrastructure projects such as HS2, which will impact Britain’s success for decades to come. Whether you work in the public or private sectors, if you’re managing projects on this scale you need access to the best skills and experience possible. And with our public finances so tight, there is even more pressure to deliver these projects on time and to budget.
That’s why we created our award-winning Major Projects Leadership Academy to boost the skills of senior project leaders across government. By the end of this year, hundreds of leaders in the civil service will have enrolled on this training.
Our Major Projects Authority, which works to ensure value for money for the taxpayer, also enables us to monitor all of the major public sector projects in progress and resolve any challenges that arise. There’s still a way to go, but things are improving, and when our public sector does a great job – for example, delivering such a successful Olympics – I want them to be recognised and celebrated.
The Conservatives and Labour now say they’d like ministers to be able to choose new permanent secretaries from a list of people approved as acceptable candidates by the selection panel, rather than – as now – merely having the opportunity to reject a single recommended candidate. Do you support that stance?
Every minister wants a team they can work with, but – for me – the independence of our civil service is fundamental to its effectiveness. It means that a new government, whatever its political stripes, can start delivering for the British people from day one.
An even greater priority for me is that everyone – politicians and officials – works together to ensure that Britain’s civil service at all levels, particularly the most senior, fully represents the society it serves.
This includes giving more talented young people who aren’t graduates a clear route to entering and reaching the very top of the public sector. That’s why we’ve launched our new fast-track apprenticeships. Due to the scheme’s success, we’ve already doubled the number of places available and, over time, I want this programme to become as influential and respected as the graduate Fast Stream.
What are the key priorities for improving our civil service over the years ahead?
Every great organisation needs to evolve to succeed, and the civil service is no exception. The world is changing rapidly and we need to keep up, striving to increase value for money, boost productivity and drive innovation wherever we can.
That starts and ends with our people, so I want to ensure that the civil service is amongst the best employers in the country, offering a modern workplace where people feel valued, inspired and empowered.
It’s about enabling you to implement your best ideas and develop your skills; freeing you from clapped-out rules and unnecessary red tape; and supporting you in your professional and personal lives – whether through flexible working, shared parental leave, or backing campaigns like Dementia Friends and Time to Change.
Crucially, I want us to be recruiting the brightest people from across society. Talent is what matters. So whatever your background, if you’re ambitious for the future and have the potential to make a difference, I want you to know that the civil service is open to you.
Do you have any sympathy with the anonymous ministers who appear in newspapers arguing that civil servants are obstructive, self-interested, incompetent and inefficient?
None whatsoever. It’s dismissive, disingenuous, and fails to recognise the incredible job that millions of public sector workers do every day. The stark reality is that Britain just wouldn’t function without you.
You’re the people out there day in and day out, working with the public and supporting them in their lives, and we’ve achieved a huge amount together in the last four years.
Whether it’s making history through equal marriage; supporting more modern families by increasing access to affordable, high-quality childcare and shared parental leave; boosting apprenticeships; or giving our local communities greater powers to invest in local skills, drive growth and kick-start local projects through our City Deals and Growth Deals – none of this would have happened without you.
These are incredible achievements that deserve our thanks. Together, we’re building a stronger economy and fairer society for Britain.