The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has gone out to market in the hope of finding some answers, offering £80,000 to someone who can point them right way. Perhaps whoever wins the bid could then nip over to Crystal Palace to sort out the club's problem with staff churn.
There’s a nuanced answer to the question that involves looking at different shaped public institutions that can handle change at internet-speed, rather than telegraph-speed. That’s for another day.
For now, there are two threads that need pulling apart. What aspects of the malaise at BEIS are specific to the department, and what are the broader issues impacting on the civil service as a whole?
Let’s start with BEIS.
A disclosure. I’ve spent time working in BEIS as a consultant and was loosely coupled to it as a civil servant in the Government Office for Science. I know it has good, bad and indifferent civil servants, just like everywhere else. There are people there, senior and less so, who I admire and respect. There are others, senior and less so, who contribute to the anger that fuels these columns.
First of all, we should applaud the department for being open about the problem it faces. Other departments have experienced similiarly arctic levels of morale in recent years — HM Revenue and Customs, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health all spring to mind — and were not nearly as candid.
BEIS is partly a victim of being a relatively new construction; a merger of Energy and Climate Change with Business, Innovation and Skills. The history is informative. DECC was set up to have a distinct culture when it started in 2008. It was small, relatively young, had a clear mission, and — this is important — was home to some people who consciously left BIS to join it. They’re not delighted to be back, nor are they impressed that Climate Change has been jettisoned from the new department’s name. The ‘CC’ may have become increasingly symbolic under the, umm, "greenest government ever", but symbols matter.
For its part, BIS has a recent history of traumatic change too. A seriously bungled restructuring exercise in 2012 badly hurt trust between staff and management. BIS2020, the inevitable transformation programme kicked off under David Cameron's government, was beginning to display a handful of green shoots before being comprehensively steamrollered by the EU referendum. The last thing BIS wanted was another double dose of uncertainty.
More fundamentally, the five nouns brought together via this unhappy marriage hint at the strategic incoherence in the heart of this partnership. Layered on top of this mess is Number 10’s own seasoning; the "Industrial Strategy". As a piece of government phraseology, Industrial Strategy is now 14 months old. I’ve asked several insiders what it is over the past few months, and been met with hollow laughter on every occasion. It has 10 pillars and no plans. There's nothing like a strategy with 10 different priorities to really focus the mind.
In the recent employee engagement statistics, BEIS scores a clear nine points behind the next worst department (Health) on "purpose". It is 37 behind the best (Treasury). BEIS doesn’t know what it is for. Nor does it know how to do it.
The problem may not be about having too many strategic priorities, but owning too few. BEIS is a department for bridesmaids. Brexit goes to DExEU. Trade goes to the Department for International Trade. Apprenticeships and skills are in the Department for Education. There doesn’t appear to be any prospect of the lights going out before 2019, so energy policy is on the back burner. The UK’s climate change policy is a spectator to the US-China geopolitical rollercoaster.
Mismanagement is present and correct
Lacking obvious paths to take, successful leaders create their own opportunities. Even in this strangest of administrations, strong political and official leadership could give a sense of direction in troubled times. Sadly, none of this is apparent. On leadership, BEIS scored 38 points behind the leading department.
A score this dire points at problems beyond Whitehall’s pathologies; the performance management, procurement and governance processes that typically offer Kafkaesque experiences. Mismanagement is present and correct — certain BEIS directors general have been described to me by several people as "poisonously useless". Yet many civil servants have been tolerant of these and similar trials for years, often to a fault. They are unlikely to be the tipping point for the several talented directors, deputy directors and specialists leaving the department in the last year. When there’s a shared mission, one can shrug one’s shoulders about some of the hygiene factors and bad behaviour. Without one, these daily irritations are shown up as what they are. A constant, enervating grind.
The secretary of state, Greg Clark, is also culpable. According to multiple accounts, Clark is barely reading submissions from his department. Instead, he chooses only to look at letters written to other departments, penned by his Private Office. For several months, only a tiny handful of officials were allowed to join advisory briefings. Inevitably, decisions have been held up for weeks, and officials are left playing a dissatisfying game of second-guessing the minister. Civil servants are finding themselves learning of policy changes through his public speeches.
I have neither the time nor the space to do full justice to what has gone wrong with BEIS, and believe it or not, I don’t get paid £80,000 to write these columns, so I should hold something back.
There is no doubt that all the problems creating retention and morale problems across Whitehall are present in BEIS; legitimate pay gripes set alongside the rising cost of living, the erosion of pensions, the endless pushing of water uphill required to deliver anything at all, the corporate inauthenticity. Fixing some of those is within the direct gift of senior civil servants. Some are not.
Perhaps the easily solvable part of all this is that BEIS simply doesn’t know enough to help itself right now. As Gavin Freeguard, the Institute for Government’s head of data and transparency, has said, “It really underlines that having the right data about your staff is the least we should expect departments to have, and many clearly don’t.” I suspect BEIS is far from uniquely bad in this respect, and very much doubt departments scoring highly have a much clearer idea about the reason for those outcomes than the laggards. Now is a good time for them to start digging.
BEIS’ civil servants are going through their Network moment — the newscaster screaming into the camera "I’m mad as hell, and I’m not taking it any more!" Civil servants will put up with adversity, criticism and broken promises. The vast majority of them will even put up with change. But they won’t stomach more warm words without actions, and a dearth of authentic leaders able to show — not merely write down — how their institution will improve.