Civil servants should be banned from switching departments, says Maude

Former Cabinet Office minister says experts can’t expect market rates to work in Whitehall but ministers should get a pay rise
Lord Francis Maude (IfG)

By Jim Dunton

12 Nov 2020

Whitehall reformer Lord Francis Maude has said staff churn between ministries has become “ludicrous” and officials should be stopped from jumping ship to new roles at different departments unless there is good reason for their moves.

The former Cabinet Office minister, who has been advising government on the current state of reforms he introduced between 2010 and 2015, said inter-departmental moves were out of control and not serving the needs of government. 

Cross-government transparency data published earlier this year showed that the average time in post for staff at the Cabinet Office was just 18 months during 2019, and even less for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Maude was asked about the issue during a lunchtime interview session with Institute for Government director Bronwen Maddox yesterday, and said the review of Cabinet Office performance he commenced over the summer had provided a case in point on inter-departmental churn. 

“I had an interesting minor example of this,” he said “The very good, capable civil servant who was assigned to support my review … I noticed after about two weeks that he had ceased to appear on my Zoom calls, so I asked what had happened and I was told that the week before he’d moved on to another job.  No-one had bothered to tell me.”

Maude said the current levels of churn were “really problematic” and appeared to prioritise what staff wanted above what departments needed.

“No sensible organisation would permit it,” he said. “When I was in government the first time around in the 1980s, there was a much stronger culture of people’s careers being proactively managed and business need was the most important thing. 

“Of course you want people to be fulfilled and to have the chance to develop in the right way. But civil servants work in government to fulfil a need. We don’t employ them for their own personal satisfaction.”

Maude said the current situation, in which civil servants often felt they needed to change departments in order to secure promotion and pay rises, was damaging to the civil service as an institution.

"This culture that’s developed where civil servants are completely free to apply for any job they like within the system and then move to it – often incentivised to do that because that’s the only way they can get promotion – this is ludicrous,” he said. 

“People should not be able to go to another part of government on a whim if it’s not the right thing. No big, successful outside operation would operate like this. 

“Of course you want to accommodate people’s preferences – and you can’t stop them if they want to leave the civil service altogether.  But this freedom to move wherever the hell they like within the system … there’s a real penalty in effectiveness, in loss of institutional memory, loss of continuity. All of these things are imperilled by this.”

Maude took questions from viewers of the interactive event. FDA general secretary Dave Penman asked how the former minister's keeness to have highly-qualified, "top five in the nation" leaders for government functions could be squared with below-market-rate pay.

Maude said simply paying market rates was not the right measure of candidates’ suitability and had not been a success when the Labour government of Tony Blair had sought to tempt industry leaders into Whitehall two decades ago.

"To lead these functions  across government – the top digital officer for government, the head of commercial for government, head of property – you want the best people, you want one of the top five people in the country to come and do these things,” he said.

“And there is absolutely no way that the government is ever going to be able to offer pay which is even comparable to what they will  command in the private sector. So what you want is people whose reward will be to help make change happen on a big scale.

“Obviously, you want people with a strong civil service gene, because if they don’t have that  they’re not the people you want anyway.”

Maude said that status was more important than salary. “I’m not saying salary doesn’t matter, because it does,” he said. “But it’s not the decisive factor. “

IfG director Maddox asked Maude whether he thought prime ministers should be paid more, and Maude responded: "I think ministers generally should be paid more. I’ve never taken the view that MPs should be paid more, but ministers should. 

“I did try to persuade [then prime minister] David Cameron actually, at the very beginning of the 2015 government, to commission a review,  look at the comparables with other countries in the EU – where British ministers are massively underpaid by comparison – and you would not have had to bring it in until after a subsequent five-year period, so it wouldn’t look like it was self-interested… But at some stage it does need to be done.”

Ministerial salaries currently range from £19,880 for a government whip to £98,921 for the attorney general. The prime minister’s allowance is £79,286, while secretaries of state and the chancellor get £71,090. The payments come on top of the basic salary for MPs, which is currently £79,468.

Elsewhere in the hourlong session, Maude gave an update on his work reviewing the operation of spend controls in the Cabinet Office, which he introduced in 2010; the effectiveness of the cross-cutting functions across government that are headquartered in the Cabinet Office; and assessing progress on civil service reform. 

Maude said he had now finished and submitted reports on the first two topics, and planned to feed in thoughts on the potential for civil service reform into Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove’s wider reform programme, unpacked in his Ditchley Lecture in June.

He said he understood ministers were planning to publish the submitted reports at some point.

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