The prime minister’s new deputy chief of staff has called for radical reform to the civil service career structure and for the regionalisation of Whitehall departments to go beyond simple relocation to make a success of the government’s “levelling-up” agenda.
In an opinion piece for the Centre Write magazine put out by conservative think tank Bright Blue, Baroness Simone Finn said the civil service had a “key part” in ensuring that ministers understood challenges faced by people outside the “metropolitan bubble”.
Finn, who took on her new Downing Street role earlier this month, is also a non-executive director at the Cabinet Office and advised Francis Maude on civil service reform during the 2010-2015 coalition government.
She said reform of the civil service had to go further than moving jobs to different parts of the country and needed to embrace new ways of working that would also include being more open to diverse ideas and making it easier for professionals from outside the public sector to take up jobs.
“It is not enough simply to relocate jobs,” she said. “Those leading the civil service also need to think harder about cognitive diversity. Levelling up means not only geographical diversity, but respect for and inclusion of different voices and life experiences.
“This means breaking up the current career ladder, welcoming people into the service not just for secondments but for periods of two years or more, so that the civil service can gain from people whose expertise is in, for example, renewable energy.”
She added: “The civil service needs to become more open to new ideas and decision making, more commercially aware, and less risk averse.”
Finn said the levelling-up agenda faced “enormous challenges” and making it a success would involve a “proper transfer of power to the regions”. But she said that success would mean opportunities were delivered for the whole country.
“Experiments in other countries in dispersing civil service jobs show the danger of simply distributing posts across the country in a way that may satisfy individual political constituencies, but does not lead to coherence and efficiency,” she said.
“What the government should do is make a strategic choice about relocating critical parts of the state and its infrastructure to significant parts of the UK, but also ensuring that in those areas there is a critical mass or a concentration of jobs.”
Finn said such a strategy would not only ensure career opportunities for people in the selected locations but also bring “a sense of identity, purpose, and civic pride”.
Teesside the 'obvious' choice for Treasury's new northern base
A week after the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government announced it would set up a “dual HQ” base in Wolverhampton, Finn said she believed Teesside was the obvious location for the Treasury’s proposed “northern economic decision-making campus”. Newcastle and Leeds have also been flagged as contenders for the outpost.
“Various sites are being canvassed, but the compelling logic of levelling up would say that Teeside is the obvious location,” Finn said.
“Taking advantage of the transport links provided by Tees Valley and Teesside International Airport, and also acknowledging Darlington’s proximity to both the universities of Durham and Newcastle, it could be an attractive exemplar of change.”
Garry Graham, deputy general secretary of the Prospect union. responded to Finn’s article by cautioning that civil service reform needed to be conducted in a “calm and rational” way with trade bodies part of the conversation with ministers.
“All successful organisations are in a process of constant change and improvement and we have been very clear that we want to engage with the government on civil service reform, for example with relation to STEM skills,” he said.
“We have been frustrated that calls for reform have been used as a slogan, devoid of real policy content, and that bashing hard-working civil servants is often used as a smokescreen to distract from the failings of ministers.
“The reality is that the civil service has delivered magnificently during the pandemic and helped navigate through the challenges of Brexit whilst politicians were in chaos.
“There are never grounds for complacency however and we need a calm and rational conversation with government about how we can ensure the civil service continues improve so it can best serve the public.”
FDA general secretary Dave Penman said some of Finn’s comments were insulting to civil servants who had been working flat out to respond to the unprecedented demands of the coronavirus pandemic.
He added that drafting in more expertise from the private sector – as suggested by Finn – would require a rethink of reward strategy within the civil service.
“Pay levels half that earned in the private sector for equivalent roles and 15% lower pay in real terms than [in] 2010 may be an issue,” he wrote on Twitter. “If only those in charge over the last decade had done something about it.”
Finn's full article can be read here. An abridged version appeared in the Daily Telegraph.