At the heart of civil service reform is a tension: the objective isn’t merely building a more efficient machine. Over 390,000 people are employed as civil servants in the UK; more than 1% of the country’s total workforce. Changing who works for central government, and where or how they do it, is a labour policy decision with consequences. It is also one where political objectives may not tally neatly with what a well-run public service grappling with the internet era should ideally do.
Take regional offices. Successive governments have talked a good game about getting more civil servants out of London. New agencies and arms-length bodies were cast out to the four corners of the nation. Whether any of this was good for civil service effectiveness is moot, because the crunch on regional policy really comes down to two hard conventions: ministers must work within spitting distance of parliament and policy civil servants must work within spitting distance of ministers.
But the implications of civil service reforms are broader than simply where officials turn up to work. When he was an aspiring performer in the late 1970s, the comedian Alexei Sayle temporarily worked as a civil servant. There were four people working in his office, he said, but “enough work for one trained chicken”. Rampant inefficiency within the lower levels of the government machine was, he believed, effectively serving as a tacit arts subsidy from the government.
“Where once the civil service implicitly looked after a group of people that tended to be independent, working-class, without a university background and who didn’t live in London, now it tends to support those who are working in large firms, middle-class, university-educated and London-based. It certainly helped me”
Sayle and others operating in the chiaroscuro between work and art were arguably the last generation to use public employment as a crutch for creative endeavour. Alexei’s antecedents go back centuries. The list of literary worthies with a government job on their CV is long: Anthony Trollope, John Le Carré, William Wordsworth, John Milton, Ian Fleming, Ian Rankin, Iris Murdoch, Robert Burns, Samuel Pepys. There is even a Society of Civil & Public Service Writers, founded in 1935 and still going strong.
Since the rise of managerialism in the 1980s, this kind of civil servant has become an increasingly endangered species. Automation is now accelerating the squeeze on the administrative grades that used to harbour most of the creatives, especially in offices outside London. You could argue that this shift is simply the apolitical tightening up of public services; the creation of a leaner, more efficient organisation that has come about through better management. That is true to some extent. But what is at least as likely is that the government’s tacit subsidy programme hasn’t gone away.
But now, it ends up in the accounts of a relatively small number of large consultancy firms. Digging into the data, as business author Antonio Weiss did, provides circumstantial evidence for this. In 1977, when Sayle was picking up his weekly cheques, central government spending on consultancies was in the low single millions. By 2014, it was over £3bn, accounting for 0.5% of total public expenditure.
Claiming that there has been a straight swap between these groups is a big stretch. But it is harder to dispute the fact that where once the civil service implicitly looked after a group of people that tended to be independent, working-class, without a university background and who didn’t live in London, now it tends to support those who are working in large firms, middle-class, university-educated and London-based. It certainly helped me.
This shift matters for three reasons. One, this is a major – if subtle – change to the political economy of the country that has happened almost entirely without comment, in parliament or the press, over a period where all three major parties have held power. A keener eye on it is overdue. This is particularly true of the dependency that now exists between certain departments – even specific officials and ministers – and particular consultancy firms.
Two, it is perhaps time that we had a rather deeper conversation about whether our public services are really better after subsidising consultants for three decades, rather than creatives. A paper published in March by three LSE academics found the employment of management consultants in NHS trusts (to the tune of £640m in 2014) is in fact likelier to result in inefficiency. Whether that’s fair or not, no one can dispute that Alexei Sayle helped give us The Young Ones.
Three, if you buy the idea that the civil service can be used as sort-of incubator for groups of people without formal professional qualifications (after all, you don’t need any more letters after your name to be a consultant than you would to be a comedian), who’s next? This is a live issue: the trend line on consultancy spending has curved downwards since 2010, although it is enjoying a Brexit fillip.
The civil service’s role as a market maker – deliberate or otherwise – is one that tends to slip under the radar, happening by degrees and without explicit intent. It adds unexpected threads to the national fabric. Politicians would be well-advised to consider the unintended consequences of stumbling into a post-Brexit bureaucracy. At the moment, most seem reconciled to the idea Whitehall will grow and employ more consultants in increasingly critical strategy roles. Whether they have spared a moment’s thought to what the unintended consequences of that might be is another story altogether.