Job cuts, secondments and cab sec contenders: What Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss said about the civil service this week

The ex-chancellor set his sights on Whitehall reform with a series of civil service proposals
Rishi Sunak led the civil service rhetoric this week. Photo: Mark Hawkins/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

19 Aug 2022

Rishi Sunak upped the ante on civil service reform this week, announcing a series of proposals that included getting senior civil servants to spend a year on the outside and to axe "back office" jobs.

If the last few weeks of the leadership campaign have been all about Liz Truss’ controversial comments on reforming the civil service, this week was Rishi Sunak’s turn to take centre stage.

Last week, Liz Truss was criticised for her comments on antisemitism in the civil service, while the week before she quickly U-turned on a pledge to slash the wages of civil servants who work outside London after a backlash.

Seemingly taking a “now or never” approach, Sunak – who is widely predicted to lose out to Truss in the leadership race – this week outlined plans to ensure “we have a truly Rolls Royce service delivering for and accountable to the British people”.

A year in the private sector and tackling churn

Sunak pledged to “tackle civil service groupthink and deepen departments’ understanding of business’ by getting all senior civil servants to spend a year in secondments or external placements in the private sector before getting further promotion.

He also said he would end the “unnecessary” churn of staff who move from department to department by enabling performance-based pay rises without moving to another team.

But as the IfG’s Jordan Urban wrote for CSW this week, many of Sunak’s proposed measures are already being implemented in the civil service. The Cabinet Office is working on a plan to implement capability-based pay progression, for example – although work on the reform has been delayed several times and will not be introduced until at least April 2023.

Sunak also said he would aim to increase the number of officials with a "real-world business” perspective, including expanding the use of private ministerial offices to bring in more private sector expertise.

Job cuts: 91,000 v “back office”

While Liz Truss has now reportedly committed to carry out Boris Johnson’s promise to slash 91,000 jobs from the civil service, said he would “press ahead with cuts to back-office civil service headcount”. This invoked his pledge in the 2021 Spending Review to reduce non-frontline roles, which the cabinet secretary later said would have meant around 20,000 jobs going.

“As chancellor I saw parts of the British civil service at its best, delivering world-class Covid support schemes in record time. But the bloated post-Covid state is in need of a shake-up,” he said.

The Ready4Rishi campaign did not respond to a request from CSW to define “back-office” roles or confirm whether this signalled a change from the current plan.

Sunak said he would also push forward with his efficiency review of arm’s-length bodies, which he launched in May as chancellor.

Less about London

Sunak also pledged to push ahead with government plans to make the civil service, a fifth of which is currently London-based, more regionally diverse – in an apparent continuation of the Places for Growth programme pledge to move 22,000 civil service roles out of the capital.

Sunak also wants to ensure officials working from regional hubs “are exposed to the level of expertise, seniority and opportunities that they would have if they were in Whitehall”, his campaign team said. This would include getting ministers to work from the hubs more often. Sunak also said he would accelerate plans to move bodies like UK Export Finance and the Crown Commercial Service out of London.

Fast Stream reframed

The ex-chancellor also planned to reinstate and reform the Civil Service Fast Stream and give it a less London-centric lens. A third of placements should have an operations element, he added.

Sunak also said he would do more to make sure the Fast Stream is attracting talent from every region by creating Fast Stream assessment centres in every region of the UK. Currently, they are only based in London and Newcastle.

The ex-chancellor also eyed up making more use of apprenticeships to hire civil servants, noting that apprentices in the civil service are more likely to be based outside of London and from working-class backgrounds.

Scotland scrutiny

Ahead of a campaign hustings in Perth, both candidates announced plans to hold the Scottish Government to account.

Sunak said he would require the  Scottish Government permanent secretary to appear annually before a UK government select committee.

Truss put her focus on MSPs, saying she would change the law to give them parliamentary privilege so they can more robustly question ministers on government policy.

Who could be next cab sec?

Meanwhile, there were rumours this week that leadership favourite Truss could appoint Department for International Trade permanent secretary James Bowler as the next cabinet secretary if she becomes the next prime minister.

Bowler, who signed off on Covid Task Force head Kate Joseph’s Covid rule-breaking leaving do whilst Cabinet Office second perm sec, worked with Truss when she was chief secretary to the Treasury and was a DG at the department; Truss also appointed him to his current position when she was trade secretary.

Sir Chris Wormald, perm sec at the Department for Health and Social Care, and Peter Schofield, the Department for Work and Pensions perm sec, are also thought to be among the stronger contenders.

If Simon Case were to be replaced, the recruitment process would follow the formal appointment process, which is run by the First Civil Service Commissioner.

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