Departments must be ready to let go of some of their top civil servants so they can work for Whitehall’s new Brexit unit, DCLG permanent secretary Melanie Dawes has said, as she shed more light on the crack new team set up to lay the groundwork for the UK’s next prime minister.
Downing Street this week announced that a new team had been set up in the Cabinet Office, bringing together the “brightest and best” officials to start planning options on Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union for whoever succeeds David Cameron as Tory leader. Cameron is set to step down in September after Britain voted to leave the EU, and has appointed the Home Office’s second permanent secretary Olly Robbins to lead the new unit.
It will draw on support from Treasury, Cabinet Office, Foreign Office and Business department staff, although ministers have said all departments will be involved in its work.
Oliver Robbins announced as head of Cabinet Office Brexit unit
Oliver Letwin to head up civil service Brexit unit - as experts question contigency planning
Theresa May pledges Brexit department – as Boris Johnson withdrawal boosts her chances of being next PM
But the establishment of a dedicated Brexit team raises the prospect of key departmental staff being taken away from their day-to-day duties to focus on withdrawal preparations, and some — including former head of the civil service Lord Kerslake — have questioned whether the civil service has the resources to cope with the extra burdens of Britain's departure from the EU.
Dawes, who serves as both the top official at the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) and chair of the people board focusing on HR policy for the whole civil service, gave more insight on the unit in an event held by the Institute for Government on Thursday, and said it was vital for the civil service to give a “very coordinated response” to the referendum result.
She confirmed that Robbins, who starts work next week, had already begun thinking about what his team will need in order to do its job, including managing the “balancing act” of taking resources away from departments.
“He’s already thinking — and I had a chat with him last night — about how he’s going to be approaching this,” Dawes said.
“One of his early tasks is going to be to work out exactly the scale of resources that is needed in his unit and what needs to remain in departments. And I think it’s going to be one of the key balancing acts for us as we go through us.”
The civil service is now at its smallest size since the second world war, employing 18% fewer staff than it did when the coalition government came to office in 2010.
But Dawes sought to counter claims that a reduced workforce left the civil service unequipped for the task of untangling the UK’s decades-long relationship with the EU.
"It’s worth bearing in mind that a lot of reductions that have been made in the last years have been in the service delivery departments" - Melanie Dawes
“A lot of people are asking – do we have enough resources? And I think we know that in some areas, clearly, no we don’t. We are going to need trade negotiators. There may be some other areas like lawyers where we are going to need to increase the number of people that we’ve got.
"I think though, it’s a moot point for me about whether this about overall civil service numbers. A lot of people have said we’ve actually reduced in numbers.
"It’s worth bearing in mind that a lot of reductions that have been made in the last years have been in the service delivery departments when they introduced clear kind of initiatives in places like HMRC, for example, that have allowed the workforce to be smaller, they’ve used technology, they’ve used prioritisation among other tools and techniques.”
While Dawes acknowledged that “central Whitehall” was also smaller in size, she said she did not believe that was “necessarily a problem” for the organisation's ability to deal with Brexit.
“What we need is just to be good,” she said. “We need to be good, we need to be skilled, above all, I would say we need to be flexible and collective. And if there’s one opportunity we have here that we really need to seize it is for a more collective sense of Whitehall in the civil service.”
Asked by CSW whether the Cabinet Office would support departments who faced losing key staff to the Brexit unit with filling those vacancies, Dawes said it was important for the whole civil service to think “collectively” about the government's response to the referendum.
“This is a very big, very important new priority," she said. "Sometimes you have to break a few eggs and move somebody out of a job that they were doing well and that they’d only just started doing. That’s the name of the game here, and that’s what’s been done to move Olly [Robbins] across.”
"We need to be good, we need to be skilled, above all, I would say we need to be flexible and collective" - Melanie Dawes
The DCLG perm sec said the civil service had a “long-established sense” of being able to quickly move key staff around departments in response to new polticial priorities.
“We need to do that even more in earnest," she said. "But we also need to think about resources across departments at all levels as well and make sure we’ve got them in the right places.
“The tendency in any big system is to hunker down a bit and hope no-one’s going to come and ask you. I don’t think that’s the right response right now. I think we’ve got to be collective and be brave and come together. And I think that’s what our people want of us actually.”
She added: “There’s an awful lot of other work that will be going on and we’ve got to balance that trick across the leadership of the civil service — making sure that the big priority which we now have is sufficiently well-resourced and led, while also making sure that the rest of the world keeps moving too.”
"Capability and capacity"
The FDA union, which represents civil service managers, on Thursday endorsed the appointment of Robbins as the government’s lead official for work on EU withdrawal, saying there could be “few in the civil service more qualified to lead the unit”.
But the union’s general secretary Dave Penman added: “Delivering a successful exit from the EU will be one of the biggest challenges the civil service has faced since the second world war.
“There can be no doubt that issues of capability and capacity will need to be urgently addressed and this will be all the more difficult given the spending decisions of the last two governments.
“Decisions made at the Spending Review in 2015, before the result of the referendum was known, now need to be quickly reassessed not only across the service, but also in departments where they will face the greatest burden in the immediate aftermath of the result.”