‘Rubbish’ pay, the training ‘taboo’ and waning diversity: Insights from a civil service reform talk with ex-cab sec Gus O’Donnell

Highlights from a civil reform chat with O'Donnell, Civil Unrest report author Amy Gandon, and Reform director Charlotte Pickles
Gus O'Donnell at the event

By Tevye Markson

01 Nov 2023

Just two kinds of people will stay in Whitehall if the government doesn’t get serious about pay, those “who aren’t any good” and those who have access to “the bank of mum and dad”. It’s time to break the taboo and properly train up ministers. The civil service should have an assembly on its own reform.

These were some of the standout remarks on the state of the civil service and how it should be reformed at a panel discussion this week including former cabinet secretary and civil service head Gus O’Donnell.

The discussion, led by ex-Levelling Up Taskforce chief Andy Haldane, and also featuring Reform director Charlotte Pickles and ex-fast streamer Amy Gandon, came alongside the launch of a report from Gandon on civil service unrest which found a civil service “deeply frustrated” with Whitehall’s flaws and eager for change.

Here are some of the key insights from the event, including the three panellists vision for the civil service in 2050.

Just two kinds of people will stay: Why Whitehall is becoming ‘incredibly non-diverse’

Gandon’s report – Civil Unrest – published on Monday, highlighted how a squeeze on pay, among other issues, is making the civil service a less attractive place to work.

O’Donnell’s warning over pay was even starker. “Rubbish” pay and the cost of living in London will leave Whitehall bereft of talent, with only flawed employees who struggle to leave and those propped up by parents sticking around, he cautioned.

“If you think about it, you're going through the ranks… junior levels, and you're in London, right? You're a policy person because most of them are, apart from the wonderful Darlington. You're trying to get on the property [ladder] and your income is rubbish. So you've got no chance. So if you're good, and you want property, you'll get out,” he said.

“The two people who remain will be the ones who aren't any good because they can't get out so you're stuck with them… and the other group are the ones like my darling daughter, who is a civil servant, and her husband who's a former civil servant, but my daughter gets on the property ladder because of the bank of mom and dad.

“Now, what does that do to the civil service of the future? It makes it incredibly non-diverse. It distorts it radically.”

O’Donnell’s remarks expanded on previous comments he made in an Institute for Government that a lot of civil servants are “voting with their feet” and getting out and “the only ones you’ve got left are the ones with the bank of mum and dad”.

Let’s get serious and trade pensions for pay

To change this situation, O’Donnell said the government has to start “getting serious about pay” and sacrifice the quality of the civil service pension for better pay.

“We could do a bit of a pay-pension trade off,” he said. “Because if you talk to your 28-year-olds, how many of them said to you, I'm staying here because of the wonderful pension. We are myopic. We don't see that pension for what it is so we can cut that back.”

O’Donnell said he had suggested this many times to chancellors who had always refused because “the way the accounts work, this won’t help the Treasury at all”. He said an increase in pay would sharpen the deficit, while reduction of future tax liabilities on pensions “goes nowhere, doesn't reduce your debt”.

Give head of the civil service more authority over pay 

O'Donnell also bemoaned the head of the civil service’s lack of authority over pay, calling it a “ridiculous” situation. Pay guidance for delegated grades is set by ministers, on the advice of the Treasury and Cabinet Office officials, with departments setting pay within this framework. For senior civil servants, a review body gathers evidence and advises government, which makes the final decision.

“You’re head of the civil service, but you're not in charge of pay. In what sense are you the head of the civil service? I mean, it's just ridiculous, right? So we have a bonkers system at the moment,” O’Donnell said.

Covid Inquiry: The big mistake?

The former cab sec  also warned that the UK is getting its probe into Covid wrong by focusing inwards.

“One of the things about Covid – and I really, really hope we find a way not to make this mistake, because we're making it at the moment – is we are enquiring into how we managed Covid, which is the wrong question.

"The world manage Covid in different ways, with different outcomes. We need therefore to study the world. Curiously enough, whenever I've done experiments, a sample size of one doesn't really work.""

‘We need a civil servants assembly on its own reform’

Gandon interviewed 50 civil servants, mostly policy professionals, for her Civil Unrest report, gathering their views on the state of the civil service in the last few years and seeking their ideas for reform.

The report recommended seven reforms, but Gandon said the key take away from Civil Unrest should be the need to get the civil service more involved in its own reform.

“Let's try something radical,” she said. “Let's have a civil servants' assembly on its own reform and let's give government transformation the very best chance of success.

“Let's try something radical. Let's have a civil servants' assembly on its own reform and let's give government transformation the very best chance of success"

“Not only would the involvement of civil servants, especially mid-ranking ones, like most of my participants, make for better design reforms, but it would also give them a following wind over the natural human response to fight or in many cases seek flight from the hostility of some reformers in recent years."

The civil service in 2050

When the panellists were asked to described what they expect or would like the civil service to be like in 2050, O’Donnell said ministers will have gone to university to study how to be ministers, will have degrees in being ministers and will have to come through local government first. And he said the civil service will be "full of creative people", because “virtually all of the other stuff, the AI will be doing”. Therefore, officials will all be thinking about how digital systems fail, he said.

Pickles, a former political appointee at the Department for Work and Pensions, said she would like Whitehall to be “a lot smaller” and a “a lot more dynamic and agile”, with automation and AI deployed in a way that means that people are really using human skills like relationship building and problem solving. The government would have the brightest and best ministers and civil servants, with the latter “really well paid and so it's the most attractive place to go and work”.

Gandon said her hope is the civil service will be much more responsive and able to engage in a much more human way with the people that it serves. But she said her fear is that all the issues there are now will still be around in 27 years, pointing to the Fulton Report of 1968, an inquiry into the service’s structure, recruitment, training and management.

"That's longer than the time we have to get to 2050 and all the things that were said in the Fulton report still stands today," she said.  Gandon said this is why the government needs to try "participative engagement with the civil service to make reform happen".


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