The new department tasked with getting Britain out of the European Union is aiming to "stay small", its most senior civil servant Olly Robbins has said, amid reports it is struggling to attract officials from other parts of Whitehall.
The Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) was set up by prime minister Theresa May in the wake of the UK's vote for Brexit, replacing a small Cabinet Office team that had been established by May's predecessor David Cameron.
After Civil Service World reported details this week of the new senior leadership team at DExEU, the department's permanent secretary Olly Robbins got in touch to reveal more information on the size of the organisation.
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He tweeted to CSW: "Dept now 150+ & growing fast. Aim to stay small, drawing on best expertise across @UKCivilService."
A DExEU spokesperson subsequently confirmed that this figure was accurate, with around 30 of those officials working at senior civil service level and the rest at lower grades.
There has been some concern over the relatively small size of the new organisation, which is currently smaller than the 500-strong Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
On Wednesday The Times quoted a Whitehall source as saying there had been a "concerted effort by permanent secretaries to resist any attempt to poach their European experts".
But Jill Rutter – a former senior official at the Treasury and Downing Street, and now programme director at the Institute for Government think tank – told CSW that trying to measure a department's effectiveness by its size was not a “helpful or sensible approach".
"You need the right number of people to do the job they've got to do," she said.
Rutter said DExEU’s size appeared to be appropriate for a policy department which has four ministers and six directors.
And she explained why she believed it could be beneficial to keep the organisation relatively small.
“The first function of the Brexit department has got to be co-ordinating a cross-Whitehall position," she said.
"What they seem to be doing is actually creating a co-ordinating unit but calling it a department" – Jill Rutter, Institute for Government
"If they were spending the autumn creating a large department and bringing loads of people in, they would be making their task much harder. The sheer logistics of all the recruitment would be absorbing all their time and effort."
"Make a success of Brexit"
Before May became prime minister, the IfG published a paper arguing against creating a dedicated Brexit department, citing concern that the new organisation could prove to be an unwieldy distraction.
Instead, the think tank argued in favour of a central co-ordinating unit close to Number 10 and which was able to draw on expertise from across the civil service. This, Rutter told CSW, appeared to be the model that the department was now opting for.
"What they seem to be doing is actually creating a co-ordinating unit but calling it a department," she said.
“The department is currently leading and co-ordinating the cross-government work that will ensure Britain gets the best possible deal as it leaves the EU" – Department for Exiting the European Union spokesperson
Asked to explain the thinking behind keeping the new department's staff numbers at a relatively low level, a DexEU spokesperson told CSW: “The department is currently leading and co-ordinating the cross-government work that will ensure Britain gets the best possible deal as it leaves the EU.
“As part of that work it is now building a team with the relevant skills to seize the opportunities available to us as we make a success of Brexit.”
The IfG's Rutter said it was inevitable that the department would be drawing heavily on “detailed expertise” in other departments.
She added: “Brexit can never be one department’s issue, it is basically top of the agenda across Whitehall, so you need to optimise at a Whitehall level, not just in one department.”
Several well-regarded senior civil servants have already joined the department, with Rutter saying any departments that were reluctant to cede staff were likely to be getting a “very firm steer from the centre” of government.
Those who have already joined include director general Sarah Healey, formerly a top official at DCMS; Catherine Webb, previously director of EU internal issues at the Cabinet Office; and Tom Shinner, a former Michael Gove policy adviser who joins from the Department for Education.
Despite the senior hires, Rutter said there remained some uncertainty about the new department’s relationship with the existing UK Representation to the European Union, which is currently a unit in the Foreign Office.
An explanatory note presented to Parliament announcing DExEU’s creation said the department would be “formed by staff from the Europe Directorate of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the UK’s Permanent Representation to the EU, who will support the new secretary of state's role in external engagement and negotiations with Ministers in EU 27 countries and the European Parliament".
However, a list of senior staff published by the new department this week does not include staff from UKREP – and there is no reporting line or clear relationship between DExEU perm sec Olly Robbins and Ivan Rodgers, head of UKREP.