Civil service chief operating officer Alex Chisholm has told MPs that departmental and agency staff are bearing up well to the unprecedented twin challenges of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit, contrary to media reports.
Appearing before parliament’s Public Accounts Committee to answer questions about Whitehall’s EU-exit work, Chisholm – who is also Cabinet Office permanent secretary – was asked directly for his assessment of staff morale.
“I would say it’s actually quite high,” he replied. “You read in the media from time to time that there’s an assumption that people might be being worn out and demoralised, but most people who work in public service – including the civil service – are very motivated by doing useful things to serve their fellow citizens.
“Both the need to be ready for a hard deadline of EU transition and the need to respond to the pandemic has actually brought out the best amongst civil servants. There’s a terrific sense of pride and achievement.”
Chisholm told MPs he expected to see that sense of achievement reflected in the results of this year’s Civil Service People Survey which is now live for submissions.
“My expectation is that contrary to the media debate it will show that people’s morale has held up quite well and that there’s a real sense of pride in what’s been done,” he said.
However he acknowledged to the committee that there was a degree of nervousness in waiting for the survey results, which he said would be available within the Cabinet Office in November.
The People Survey is now in its twelfth year, and historically results of the workforce-sentiment barometer have been available within weeks. However the results of the 2018 people survey were not made available until well into December, while the 2019 survey results did not emerge until March this year.
When they were eventually aired, the 2019 survey results revealed the benchmark “employee engagement index” at a record high of 63% across the whole service, despite a year of political turmoil that saw civil servants routinely vilified for the quality of their work on Brexit. Staff satisfaction with pay levels also increased.
Chisholm, along with Cabinet Office and HM Treasury colleagues, was grilled by PAC members for more than two hours on Brexit preparations and the government’s Covid-19 response.
Brexit staff flows
MPs asked Chisholm about the civil service's ongoing preparations for the end of the EU transition period on 31 December and the changes in staffing that were expected.
“Looking out over the next three months, we’ve carefully identified which additional resources are needed, some of those are working in HMRC – particularly call-centre staff dealing with customer queries,” he said.
“Defra have a need for some additional inspectors in relation to sanitary and phytosanitary checks. Border Force do need some more people. In all cases Civil Service HR are working with departments to make sure their plans are solid for recruiting those people.
“Mostly it’s people who are already working in departments who will be reallocated for a process of prioritisation, in some cases there are new recruits who will be coming in. In a small number of cases, we’re making use of contractors or consultants. But that’s the mix.”
Chisholm said the Cabinet Office currently had about 500 people working on “EU transition”. He said those who were part of Task Force Europe and engaged on negotiations over the UK’s future relationship with the EU did not expect to be working into the New Year.
“That is a group I expect will be wrapping up quite rapidly,” he said.
Committee member Dame Cheryl Gillan asked whether any of those staff could lose their jobs.
“We don’t expect redundancies,” Chisholm replied. ”It’s relatively small the number of people working on this in the Cabinet Office.
“Furthermore, the quality of the people working in the group has been extremely high and we’d love to have them working on other roles in government.”
Chisholm stressed that the Cabinet Office’s work on Brexit “doesn’t all go away” at the end of December, when the Brexit transition period ends. “The 500 will reduce, maybe be half that,” he said.
Crackdown on consultancy spending
PAC chair Meg Hillier asked Chisholm whether he believed some departments were overly keen to hire consultants to carry out policy work, even though the results that came back were “often not very good quality”.
Chisholm said there had been a lot of examples of the “good use of consultants” as part of the Brexit process – such as people with specialist data, systems-skills or particular market knowledge.
But he accepted there had been a lot of use of consultants as “contingent labour” when it may have made more sense to bring in staff on a short-term basis.
“As a whole, we make too much use of consultants and contractors and we’d like to take more of the responsibility for that in-house,” he said.
“There’s been a big trend to do so, particularly in the digital domain, where there used to be a major contracting-out approach. A lot of departments – HMRC, DWP, MoD, Home Office – are bringing more of that in-house, where that makes sense.”
Hillier asked Chisholm how the committee would know efforts to bring more work back in-house were proving successful.
“Over time, what we should be seeing is that total government expenditure on consultants and contractors goes down and you should see evidence of skill levels rising, both from external-accredited sources but also from activity and expenditure on learning,” he said. "Those would be the prime indicators, I would think.”
Earlier in the session, HM Treasury director general for public spending Cat Little told MPs to expect new measures to tighten up on departmental spend on consultants in the Spending Review.
"We are focusing – as you might imagine – very heavily on levels of consultancy, the way in which departments are making best value of consultancy across the board, and we’re also looking at continent labour as part of our overall workforce planning and strategies,” she said.
"It’s a really, really big emphasis for ministers, and for the Treasury and the Cabinet Office. You can expect to see much more about how we make better use of the funds available there.”
The comments come after Cabinet Office minister Lord Agnew said in a letter that the civil service’s reliance on consultants had “infantilised” officials and stopping them from being able to work on the most challenging issues in government.