Civil service leaders must make realistic re-assessments of how Britain's vote to leave the European Union will impact their change and transformation agendas, the organisation's chief executive John Manzoni has said.
Speaking at a seminar on pay, reward and performance management hosted by the Prospect Union this week, Manzoni said he believed the government already had too many objectives before the UK voted to leave the European Union – and was now facing the prospect of having to re-plan and re-prioritise.
"When I look across from outside, I say we're doing 30% too much to do it all well – that is the nature of government," he said.
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Brexit had added to that work load, he said, and is probably "the hardest thing any of us have had to deal with".
Manzoni said the civil service was "still in thinking mode" about Brexit. Having created two new departments and merged another two, the civil service chief said there was now "an enormous amount of work going on across the civil service redefining what the future of the various policies might be, or what we might like them to be".
He cited the example of the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and said a reorganisation at the department – whose policy agenda will be heavily affected by the UK's withdrawal from the EU's Common Agricultural Policy – was already taking up a great deal of senior leaders’ time.
"Along comes Brexit – 90% of your business has just changed," he said. "How do we absorb that? The fact is we need to go back, we need to re-plan, we need to be realistic, we can't do it all – it won't all happen within the existing envelope."
Defra permanent secretary Clare Moriarty last week said her department estimated that "a quarter of the total" of the some 1,200 EU laws affecting the UK related to Defra, with the department distributing some £3bn a year of EU money to farmers and land managers.
Writing in the in-house civil service journal Civil Service Quarterly, Moriarty said Brexit was now "a top priority alongside the work already under way to transform Defra to be better able to deliver our ambitious objectives".
"We have much to do to be ready for the activation of Article 50 that will trigger EU withdrawal negotiations," she said.
"This work includes the Great Repeal Bill to annul the 1972 European Communities Act, which gives EU law immediate effect in the UK (a significant exercise for us, given Defra’s interest in so much of the UK’s EU legislation); trade negotiations; and drawing up post-Brexit arrangements on agriculture and fisheries."
Manzoni's comments echo remarks made by Institute for Government deputy director Julian McCrae earlier in the day, with McCrae saying the civil service faced Brexit with even greater budget challenges than those faced by public sector bodies back in 2010.
"Our view before Brexit was the government was already hopelessly over-committed in its change agenda,” he said. “That’s increased massively."
McCrae added: "In the short term the absolute first thing government needs to do is prioritise. It's got a very finite level of political capital, but actually the prioritisation comes from far more prosaic things like capability and capacity."
Manzoni said the civil service would not have to focus only on Brexit, but on supporting the ideas and agenda of the new government headed up by Theresa May.
The civil service chief highlighted three messages which the prime minister gave to top civil servants at a recent Wednesday morning colleagues' meeting of permanent secretaries.
"One was the fiscal context won't change; the second is Brexit; the third is her own philosophy about a country, an economy, a society that works for everybody, not just the privileged few," Manzoni said.
"I think there are big implications of that yet to be seen. We've got to figure out how do we invest in strategy, not just about industrial sectors but a combination of sectors and places – because the wealth and the prosperity needs to be spread around the country."