Chisholm ‘open’ to the idea of creating a centralised civil service HR function

Cabinet Office perm sec tells MPs he would be very willing to look into the case for a comms-style reorganisation of departmental personnel teams
Alex Chisholm appears before the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee on 22 October

By Jim Dunton

26 Oct 2020

Human resources professionals across government departments could see their roles subjected to the kind of organisational shake-up that thousands of their communications counterparts are currently undergoing, it has emerged.

Cabinet Office perm sec Alex Chisholm has told MPs he was “very willing” to look into the case for creating a centralsed HR service for the civil service along the lines of the “single employer model” for comms that was announced in July.

Chisholm’s remarks came in response to a question at last week’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee meeting, when MP John Stevenson asked whether it would be more sensible for a central HR service to look after civil servants “right across the spectrum”.

Chisholm, who is chief operating officer of the civil service as well as Cabinet office perm sec, replied: “I think I’m pretty open to that myself, speaking candidly.”

He said the Government Legal Department, the Government Internal Audit Agency and the Government Commercial Function were all examples of cross-cutting functions that were done on a centralised basis, while HR and finance were currently “within the departmental boundary”.

Chisholm said there was constant reflection on the best way to provide services that departments needed and for exploring the case for change.

“At the moment we’re in an exercise to put the communications professionals into a single-employment basis and we’re very willing to look into the evidence to see whether there’s a case for other functions – including the one you mentioned, HR – to be similarly centralised,” he told Stevenson.

Changes to government HR procedures are among the areas of civil service reform frequently mentioned by Dominic Cummings, the prime minister's top adviser. In his January blog calling for "weirdos and misfits" to join government, he wrote: "We need to figure out how to use such people better without asking them to conform to the horrors of ‘Human Resources’ (which also obviously need a bonfire)."

When the government confirmed its plans to overhaul the way departments handle communications it was understood that the reform was likely to lead to a reduction in headcount among departments' 4,000-plus army of comms professionals. At the time, it was suggested that departmental comms teams could be capped at 30 staff.

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said at the time that the reorganisation was a poorly thought-out “power grab by ministers” that could cost thousands of jobs.

“The scant regard ministers and Downing Street advisors have shown to our communications members who operate in a high-pressured environment is shameful,” he said. 

“This back-of-a-fag packet approach must end and we call for our members livelihoods to be secured.”

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