New Year. A time for trimming fat. A time for forcing your body into some futile, unwelcome movement in the name of exercise. So it is entirely appropriate that 2019 began with stories of a gut-busting Treasury plan to merge several central departments, and frantic moves to reshuffle thousands of officials into Brexit preparation roles.
Several departments have now been asked to send hundreds of staff to the departments on the frontline of no-deal. This great redeployment is an important moment. It’s an admission that, whatever protestations are made for equality between departments, there is now a strict hierarchy of importance. It’s an equally clear signal that not enough civil servants want to volunteer for Brexit work. It is difficult to imagine a much more demoralising scenario than to be told: “We don’t think your job’s all that important actually, and to be honest, we need warm bodies over here right now.”
Any foot-dragging from officials being told to move will doubtless be portrayed as a symptom of establishment “remoaning”. But the concerns rational people might have about moving into Brexit roles are the same that anyone would experience when considering the wisdom of any job move. Officials have a responsibility to be politically neutral in delivering the government policy of the day, and have been deeply professional in sticking to that. They don’t have any obligation to be professionally suicidal.
No one wants to move to a job with absent leadership, no strategy, huge uncertainty, and minimal protection for their reputation. If there was Brexit work that had a fair chance of avoiding these pitfalls and providing some personal fulfilment, Whitehall would not be in this position. But the government has failed to provide this, so being dragged kicking and screaming is the only option left. The alternative tack of bribery – and the Department for Exiting the European Union’s entire recruitment strategy rests on dangling promotions to those over-eager for better pay and status – isn’t working.
In past crises, the civil service has rallied help from across departments exceptionally effectively without bribes or threats. This is because individuals stand to gain something from the sacrifice they are making. There is no such incentive with Brexit. The lack of it is a total failure of political leadership, not official intransigence.
So it is perhaps even more saddening that in the midst of this, senior Treasury officials have apparently proposed folding together the Department for International Development, DExEU and the Department for International Trade into the Foreign Office. Meanwhile, the transport, housing and business departments would be squashed into an infrastructure superministry. This is the civil service take on fad dieting and January gym memberships.
A shake-up of departmental boundaries has been on the cards for a while. DfID, in particular, has been living on borrowed time. Tory ministers were never fans of the crusading policy departments set up in the Blair/Brown era. As Brexit strips away much of the work done by big brother Foreign Office, DfID’s briefs were always vulnerable to being grabbed as a loincloth of relevance by those in King Charles Street. The trade and Brexit departments, meanwhile, were always going to have a limited lifespan.
On the home front, the ragbag of priorities pulled together in the proposed infrastructure department has one major advantage for the Treasury: in spending review negotiations, it will only have to argue with one secretary of state.
The mistake with departmental mergers and grand deployment exercises is not that they waste time and money – though they usually do. It’s that they originate from a profound misunderstanding held by most politicians and the Treasury: the belief that government is a business of institutions, rather a business of people.
You can forgive ministers for thinking the government machine is a series of interchangeable drones humming away beneath them. But the Treasury has no excuse. HMT often appears to think that all officials are essentially the same wherever they work. This may be because its own staff have always been chosen and prized for being very similar to one other – extremely smart generalists encouraged to hop from job to job. Like good economists, they see their 400,000 civil servant colleagues as fungible goods. Officials should be replaceable by another identical item. Yet away from the thin air at the pinnacle of policymaking, government officials aren’t like this.
The writing was on the wall for DfID before Christmas, when staff were told that 600 of them would be “redeployed” to other departments creaking under the Brexit strain. This casual re-sorting of officials makes eminent sense to ministers and Treasury types. But those civil servants are people, believe it or not. Many people who joined DfID did so because they identified with that department’s purpose. Most brought very specific expertise to bear. However professional those specialists are – and the vast majority are exceptionally so – they won’t leap out of bed each morning to apply development world nous to working out Britain’s fish conundrums in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. No company would expect its workers to do this. Why should government?
“You can forgive ministers for thinking the government machine is a series of interchangeable drones humming away beneath them. The Treasury has no excuse”
The one small crumb of comfort in these plans is that despite appearances, someone in Whitehall is thinking about the shape of government after Brexit. It’s just a pity that 2019’s early thinking appears to have been done while hung over.