Jane Dudman: Has the price of civil service reform been too high?

Journalist Jane Dudman assesses the state of Whitehall as it prepares for a new government

By Jane Dudman

22 Apr 2015

So the reformers haven’t had it all their own way. They wanted to slash civil service jobs by 23%. That hasn’t happened.

The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that at December 2014 there were 405,400 posts in the civil service. That’s a big drop from the 490,000 jobs in March 2009 and a 15% fall in jobs since the third quarter of 2010. But, as the Institute for Government’s number crunchers point out, it isn’t the 23% reduction that the Civil Service Reform Plan forecast back in 2012. To achieve that, another 25,000 staff would have to go. 

After five years of a government determined to reform the civil service, it’s a good moment to look back on what has – and has not – been achieved and what state the civil service is now in as it prepares for a new government.

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Anyone who thinks the past five years haven’t been challenging for civil servants must have been hiding in a cupboard. Even the keenest proponents of civil service reform – step forward Francis Maude and David Cameron – acknowledge that it’s been a slog. “I understand how tough it has been,” wrote the prime minister recently. He claimed that making billions of pounds in efficiency savings and a 17% reduction in civil service headcount were “necessary measures” in dealing with Britain’s deficit and building a “faster, bolder, more nimble and less bureaucratic system”.

It’s true that many of the measures set out in the civil service reform plan three years ago have been about making the civil service more effective, more joined-up, more professional, better trained, more digital and with more specialist skills. There are also signs of greater freedom to pay higher salaries for specialist and senior leaders, which is welcome. 

But has the price been too high? Over the past five years, on the Guardian Public Leaders network, we’ve heard from many, many civil servants not just incensed at what’s happened to their own jobs, working conditions, pay and pensions, but also hugely concerned about the impact on public services. 

We’ve heard from demoralised staff at the Department of Work and Pensions, from probation officers forced to choose between applying for jobs in the new National Probation Service or transferring, along with 70% of probation work, to private companies and charities. Job cuts and a two-year pay freeze followed by a 1% pay rise cap have added to feelings of demoralisation and a rise in the number of staff suffering from stress at work – not surprisingly, given that in a survey last year almost three-quarters of those asked said their workload had increased. Even the small things have been demoralising – how much money was actually saved by taking away tea and coffee from meetings? 

One of the most unpopular changes to working life has been the introduction of performance rankings. Cabinet Office minister Maude said this would be welcomed by civil servants who felt it was unfair if there was no mechanism to tackle underperformance by those not pulling their weight. But it hasn’t worked out like that.

We’ve heard from managers and staff right across the civil service with deep concerns that the ranking process, introduced in February 2013, is opaque and far from making the system fairer actually leads to a “bullying” culture, where people are placed in direct competition with one another, undermining teamwork and leading to fears that managers are more focused on their own next promotion than doing what’s right for the public. One civil servant told us the system was one of the worst things they’d seen in 40 years’ service. “Spending this ridiculous amount of time on this rating system is abhorrent,” they said. “The process for giving and receiving feedback is also hugely time-consuming and over the top. If this were not so serious, I would describe it as laughable.”

There has also been concern about perceived politicisation of the civil service. First civil service commissioner Sir David Normington has had things to say about that – but has warned that a greater danger comes from a lack of diversity, with progress on both gender parity and greater ethnic diversity having stalled. 

Civil servants are generally a tough and resilient bunch. They see governments come and go. But this government set the tone early on and its attitude towards its own civil service has been almost unremittingly hostile. It began early on in the life of this parliament: in March 2011, the prime minister launched a stinging attack on his own officials, criticising what he called the “enemies of enterprise” in Whitehall and town halls. In the four years since then, there have been attacks, both openly and sometimes less openly, on the civil service, right up to the end. In March 2015, Cameron described his frustration at the “buggeration factor” that prevented government policies being implemented, and the same month saw a last-minute change to the civil service code to impose what the FDA calls a “draconian” gag on civil servants being able to talk to the media. 

Given all this, it’s little surprise that more than two-thirds of public sector respondents to a recent CSMA poll said they felt less valued by society than they had a decade ago. And that’s a real shame. Perhaps things will be different after May.

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