It’s a strange paradox that the civil service, which essentially supports the political party in power, doesn’t actually have a political champion.
Each department has their minister and it’s clear where accountability and expectation lies. If reports are to be believed, Gavin Williamson is at loggerheads with No 10 and the Treasury over budgets for the Ministry of Defence. Jeremy Hunt has clearly gone to bat successfully over budgets and pay increases for NHS staff.
Elsewhere in the public sector, the employers have a voice separate to government. NHS and local government are probably the best examples of that. Government policy can be challenged by both those representing staff and, if appropriate, the employers themselves.
In the civil service, the government is the employer. The management of the civil service is obviously able to influence government, but the bigger the policy imperative, the easier it is for the government to use the civil service as the example to be set.
When it comes to ministerial responsibility for the civil service, clearly the minister for the Cabinet Office is key, but on so many issues the Treasury essentially rules the roost. We saw that on pension reform, compensation scheme changes and of course on pay. The chief secretary to the Treasury has responsibility for the Treasury remit guidance on pay which, despite all illusions of delegation, is where the real action is. Ministers in departments then have to agree their own settlements. So, who is politically responsible? MCO, CST, SoS or indeed NFAA? (Answers on a postcard to: Who the Hell is in Charge of Civil Service Pay Competition, 70 Whitehall, London)
Public sector pay has been a hot political topic since the last election. As the Tories tried to analyse what went wrong, many quoted those doorstep moments where public servants were telling MPs that pay restraint was the reason why their floating vote had drifted leftward. Suddenly it became the received wisdom among ministers, who happily allowed those closest to them to suggest to the press that they might actually support a lifting of the cap.
In health, dialogue that had been taking place over a couple of years intensified. Employers and unions (15 no less) met dozens of times, including a series of away days, to thrash out joint priorities. In local government, where the politics and structures are more complex, unions worked with the different political and employer groups over many months to lobby and persuade before thrashing out a deal with the Local Government Association, the umbrella body for employers.
The meeting was not the most productive; we asked a series of questions which went unanswered and when we steered on to any more fundamental issues, these were not up for debate. The subliminal message was clearly “we won’t consult you on the number for the pay rise, but we may consult you on the numbering of the paragraphs”.
In both of these examples, employers, politicians and unions collaborated to deliver an outcome. A settlement was reached because that was the intention from the start: consult and try to reach an agreement. Process and outcome were intractably linked.
In the civil service, we received a copy of the draft remit guidance on Friday 1 June. It contained no figures, only the letter x where a number should be. A hastily arranged meeting took place on Monday 4 June. The meeting was not the most productive; we asked a series of questions which went unanswered and when we steered on to any more fundamental issues, these were not up for debate. The subliminal message was clearly “we won’t consult you on the number for the pay rise, but we may consult you on the numbering of the paragraphs”.
We were promised at least one further meeting and we requested a meeting with the chief secretary to the Treasury. Three further meetings were arranged then cancelled, usually at very short notice. Then on 25 June, the guidance was published without any further consultation.
This is the process that the government deems appropriate for consulting unions on the pay regime for 400,000 civil servants. Accountability at ministerial level is opaque. There is nothing to be gained by taking responsibility and little to be lost by avoiding it. Instead we have a contemptible, shambolic process that will almost inevitably deliver the worst outcomes across the public sector.
This will only change with political accountability and this is what the FDA will be trying to enforce this year, both centrally and in departments. Ministers need to feel the heat – they need to realise they have responsibility for the outcomes. They need to understand that this year, like no other in recent history, all public servants are starting from the same place on pay, so ministers will be judged on the outcomes achieved.
Will ministers be champions for their civil servants or simply buck passers? They will have to decide, but what they won’t be able to do is hide.