Dave Penman: If the government wants radical change, it needs to take the civil service with it

Civil servants want to see a light at the end of the tunnel, not five more years of the same, argues the FDA union's general secretary Dave Penman

By Dave Penman

18 May 2015

As I write this, the FDA's annual conference has just finished. It's not the usual week-by-the-seaside stuff from the 1970s that you may recall (If you're under 40, Google it: 20 different shades of brown suit and firebrand speeches from old men in NHS glasses). No – for us, one day in central London. What we miss out in kiss-me-quick hats, we gain in accessibility to Whitehall. Well, that's what you'd think. John Manzoni was our keynote speaker but was delayed by traffic as it had just started to rain!

He was worth the wait though. He doesn't pull his punches and has a very different style from most Whitehall speakers. He was frank about the challenges ahead and was challenging to the delegates. The message I took, among others, was that there needs to be better collaboration between the Cabinet Office, Treasury and departments if the civil service is to face the fiscal challenge of the next five years, and few could argue with that – although identifying the problem and solving it are two very different matters. He was well received, but then most of the issues that you would expect to be exercising the minds of FDA delegates so soon after the election are not in the control of the chief executive, but the political masters. 

The FDA prides itself in being a strong, pragmatic and honest union. Those values were reflected in the debates at our conference and ones we have tried to encapsulate in our "New Government: New Deal" campaign, which was also launched on the same day. There can be no doubt that the new government needs civil servants to deliver an additional £13bn in savings and an extra £5bn in tax revenue. What civil servants need in return is a new deal; one that puts valuing civil servants at its core, protecting their impartiality and integrity; that looks to develop the skills they'll need to deliver public services in the future, recognising this takes time and money.

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A new deal, which recognises that pay has been largely unreformed since the last Conservative government more than 20 years ago, and that the current system is neither capable of rewarding staff fairly nor attracting the right talent for the future. A new deal where the government will match the commitments it makes to the resources it provides, recognising that public services cannot continue to be underpinned by countless hours of unpaid overtime. And finally, there must be a commitment from the government to genuinely engage with its workforce, which can only help produce better and more efficient public services. 

This government clearly has an electoral mandate to deliver on the fiscal commitments it set out in its manifesto, and by the chancellor in the autumn statement. Of course that doesn't mean we won't disagree over investment in services, or challenge where we believe those cuts are incompatible with the demands being made. But the new government now has an opportunity to change its approach to the civil service. To recognise that the very people it relies on to deliver those commitments - those who have already demonstrated that they can by delivering £12bn in the last parliament - are more than simply a deficit reduction tool. The Office of Budget Responsibility said at the time of the autumn statement that, in unprotected departments, by 2020 spending as a share of GDP would be at pre-war levels. Spending levels might be pre-war, but the public services being delivered by civil servants are definitely 21st century. 

Our campaign is no unrealistic wish list. Not only is it achievable, but I believe it is essential if the government is to work with, rather than against, its staff over the next five years. Which is exactly what most civil servants want. The last five years have at times felt as if the government was blaming civil servants for public spending excesses. Pension reform may have been public sector-wide, but attacks on leave and sick pay arrangements for civil servants felt like they were being viewed as anachronistic luxuries rather than valued elements of a reward package.

Those five years have been tough for civil servants, but the election of a new government provides an opportunity to look forward to the next five, to provide a vision for the civil service – a light at the end of the tunnel if you will – rather than simply more of the same. That is going to be a great deal easier if the government can demonstrate that it will value civil servants, commit to delivering the right skills, pay them fairly, match the commitments it makes to the resources it allocates, and genuinely engage with them to help shape the services they deliver.

As John Manzoni indicated at our conference, more of the same will not deliver the level of savings demanded by this government. More radical change is on its way, and, to deliver that, the government needs to take its most treasured asset with it.

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