Senior civil servants and other public-sector leaders want to see staff numbers come down – but that the amount that government does should also be reduced, a survey has found.
In this year’s annual State of the State report from think tank Reform and Deloitte, civil service leaders have expressed a desire for a more "streamlined" government.
Reform interviewed 54 public sector leaders between July and October for the report, including permanent secretaries, local government leaders, NHS trust executives and politicians.
All the interviewees agreed that the civil service workforce should shrink following the increase in headcount brought about by Brexit preparations and the Covid pandemic. Many of them said that Whitehall could be “substantially smaller”, according to the report.
But there were mixed views among the civil service interviewees about the now-scrapped target to cut 91,000 jobs, according to the report.
This week, new prime minister Rishi Sunak axed Boris Johnson's plan to cut a fifth of civil service jobs in three years. Instead, he said every department will be asked to "look for the most effective ways to secure value and maximise efficiency within budgets”.
Asked about the plan – which was still understood to be in play when the interviews took place – some senior civil servants said they disagreed with it, saying this is not the time to reduce government’s capacity. Others, taking a similar view to Sunak, felt cost reduction would be better achieved through a wider approach that looked beyond staff numbers alone.
On the other end of the scale, some senior civil servants suggested "wholesale reductions of layers within the civil service", Reform said.
As well as reducing the size of government, leaders said they want public bodies to focus on what skills they are missing and how they can attract the talent they need to keep their organisations fully resourced.
Goverment 'should do less and deliver through others'
Public leaders' desire to see a reduction in civil service headcount did not come in isolation, but alongside a recognition that government should do less.
Many interviewees said they wanted their organisations to become "sharper" or "more focused" by 2030. They argued that the state has expanded its scope in recent decades, and in some cases insourced functions that could be commissioned by the public sector rather than delivered by it directly.
“Government is asking a lot more of the civil service than 30 years ago. There’s a way through that but it is quite radical – we’d need to transfer a lot of what the government does. I’m running services that could be run by the private sector, but there’s no ministerial appetite to outsource,” one senior civil servant said.
Another said: “By 2030, I hope we’re connecting better with the private sector. It shouldn’t be about public versus private.”
However, none of the public sector leaders argued that frontline services should be "fundamentally privatised", Reform said.
“The consensus was that government’s impact would be greater if it focused on outcomes and leveraged others – whether within the public sector, in communities, or in the private and third sectors – for support, capacity and capability,” the report said.
One senior figure in the third sector said government needs to do much more to embed voluntary and non-government organisations in its policy thinking. Others talked about the possibilities of greater delivery through the private sector.
Government departments can also do more with less by working better together and with other public bodies, leaders said.
“There was a strong consensus that joined-up working across government departments and across local services would make a difference to their impact and value for taxpayers’ money,” the report said.
“This is a longstanding ambition not only within central government but across the sector, and its leaders recognise that it will not be realised without systemic changes to governance, funding or even a democratic rewiring of the state,” the report added.
Reform said the comments show the public sector “has never been more stretched, or more ambitious”. The think tank said the government needs to be clearer about what outcomes it wants, optimise its ability to deliver them and make choices about what it will and won’t do so it can focus on delivering “profoundly challenging programmes” such as levelling up and net zero.
Becoming 'effortlessly digital'
To enable the government to do more with less, as inflation bites and public-spending cuts loom, interviewees said becoming “data-led and digital to the core” could help channel resources where they are needed most.
They said they hope their organisations becomes “data-led and effortlessly digital in everything they do”. To achieve this, they expect to see more data analysts, digital specialists and user-experience professionals in their workforces in the coming years, according to the report.
Some noted that the public sector’s physical estate is likely to change as well, with workplaces adapting to new technologies and hybrid working.
Reform said some interviewees also expressed their desire for more services to move online so that resources can be diverted to vulnerable people.
“We’re about two spending reviews away from where government could be on data. We need to do this as an ecosystem and then it’ll pay for itself,” one senior civil servant said.