The biggest problems facing civil servants grappling with Brexit stem from political tensions that are driving “inordinate levels of secrecy” and a failure by ministers to take decisions, according to the Institute for Government.
The think tank has concluded that the culture of secrecy perpetuated by the current government is “incompatible” with Brexit – a task so dependent on coordination between departments.
In a new report, the IfG has identified the challenges facing Whitehall as it attempts to prepare the UK for Brexit and beyond, including staff retention issues and ineffective external engagement.
It made a number of recommendations, including to make civil service chief executive John Manzoni responsible for effective cross-Whitehall Brexit preparations.
The IfG’s report, Preparing Brexit: How ready is Whitehall?, argued that “the greatest challenges faced by Whitehall now stem from splits within the Cabinet on major policy decisions”. Ministers in disagreement with one another are deferring critical decisions, while deep political divisions have also created “a culture of extraordinary secrecy”, it said.
Published yesterday, the report said key documents were being over-classified, with access restricted even to rudimentary planning guidance.
As a result, the flow of information around government is being stifled, and effective coordination of Brexit work taking place in almost 20 departments, devolved administrations and a number of public bodies is “impossible”, according to the IfG.
Whitehall has created 10,000 new Brexit roles, and the new staff coming in to fill them are also finding their access restricted to material they need because of a security clearance backlog.
Joe Owen, associate director at the think tank, said that the “the toxic interplay between politics and planning poses a major risk to preparations”, particularly as there is still the possibility of a “no deal” on the future trading relationship between the EU and UK.
“Internal and external secrecy are not compatible with the task ahead,” he added. “Ministers must change tack and prioritise the flow of information over domestic political sensitivities.”
The IfG has called for the Department for Exiting the European Union and the Cabinet Office to set out how they plan to run formal negotiations with the EU after March 2019 and how the rest of Whitehall will be involved.
It also called for Manzoni to be made the senior responsible owner for Brexit preparedness – with Cabinet Office minister David Lidington given similar responsibility on the political side – so that “government approaches preparedness with the same level of focus as the negotiations”.
The report also outlined several problems with recruitment and retention of civil servants with regard to Brexit, particularly in DExEU where staff turnover was 9% a quarter at the end of 2017.
More than 40% of staff working in DExEU expect to leave the department within the next 12 months, according to the most recent Civil Service People Survey. Only about 5% of staff expect to stay for at least three years.
The think tank called on DExEU to “give its staff as much certainty as possible about the future of the department” to reduce staff turnover, including by giving permanent contracts to civil servants who will have a role beyond 29 March 2019, when Britain officially leaves the EU.
Among the report’s other recommendations, the IfG said departments should be much more “ruthless” in dropping some of their non-Brexit priorities. Departmental efforts to reprioritise projects have not gone far enough, with most still trying to do Brexit on top of their pre-existing workloads, it said.
The report also said DExEU and Cabinet Office, alongside the Department for International Trade, should set out how they plan to engage with businesses and other key stakeholders during the Brexit negotiations on issues that will affect them.
Jill Rutter, the IfG’s Brexit programme director, said: “The only answer to the question ‘how ready is Whitehall’ is: ready for what, exactly? There are multiple scenarios with multiple timelines still in play.
“Fourteen months after Article 50 was triggered, we still have no agreed UK position on key elements of the deal, let alone agreement with the rest of the EU. The current state of planning suggests only a messy Brexit will be possible, even with an implementation period running to December 2020.”
She added that government would soon have to decide whether to buy more time for better Brexit preparations.
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “The British people voted to leave the European Union and the government is focused on delivering this historic task and seizing the opportunities offered by our withdrawal.
“Close collaboration between departments is a vital component of this and Whitehall has risen to the challenge. We have already recruited over 5,500 civil servants to ensure we are properly resourced for the task. Planning is going well, and we are confident that work to leave the EU will be a success.”