Whitehall’s recruitment watchdog has announced a temporary tweak to the civil service hiring rules, in a bid to make it easier for departments to draft in experts for Brexit and cut the government’s reliance on external consultants.
The Civil Service Commission is the independent regulator tasked with ensuring that departments only hire staff on merit after an open recruitment process, a key safeguard for an impartial civil service as laid out in the 150-year-old Northcote-Travelyan report.
But the requirement for departments to stick to the civil service’s recruitment principles means that the hiring process can often take months, and while departments can bypass them by applying for “exceptions”, the use of these is tightly regulated by the CSC.
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Currently, any member of staff brought in at senior civil service pay band 2 and above without a fair and open recruitment process is unable to serve for more two years before having to apply for the job through the usual interview process.
There is also an £87,000 cap on the amount departments can pay those staff without having to make an explicit case to the Commission.
But, speaking to CSW, first civil service commissioner Ian Watmore said Whitehall’s need to quickly bring in outside expertise for Brexit had prompted a rethink of the rules around exceptions.
“Departments are likely to want to bring in experts in negotiation or trade to get them through the Brexit period,” he said.
“And £87,000 isn't going to be enough to pay them. If they bring them in for two years, their time will be expiring just as the whole Article 50 process is coming to an end.
“So what we decided to do was to consider raising the salary limit temporarily to £142,000 — and allow them to bring people in for three years rather than two.”
The new rules — published today on the Commission’s website and detailed in a note sent to permanent secretaries this morning — also allow departments to recruit in bulk using exceptions, submitting a single business case to the Commission for approval rather than having to get sign-off for each new hire.
Watmore said: “What we're now saying is you can ask for permission for up to three years and up to £142,000 and then — provided you put that business case to us this calendar year — we'll approve your business case. You've then got the delegated authority to go forth and do the recruitment that you need, without constantly coming back to the Commission.”
The revised protocol applies only in the 2017 calendar year, Watmore said, and the first civil service commissioner stressed that it can only be used by departments looking to recruit for specific Brexit-related roles.
“If they just said, ‘we want 25 programme managers to implement Universal Credit’ or something like that we would say, ‘no, do that in the normal way’.
“But this is to recognise the fact that there is an urgent and unusual need in respect of skills that the civil service has to have for Brexit.”
The first civil service commissioner said he hoped that the extra flexibility would avoid departments becoming bogged down in red tape, which he said could end up tempting them to write “large cheques” to external consultancies to get in the expertise they need.
“If we didn't have this place, departments would either consistently come back, one case after another, and that would minimise their impact on the market and be a bureaucratic pain for everybody,” Watmore said.
“Or much more likely, they’d say, ‘well we won't recruit them —we'll go and buy all these people in through expensive firms.’
“And they’d do it on a procurement basis, writing large cheques to consultancies and law firms and so on, which is not what anybody really wants.”
“What we're saying is that they can get the individuals they need for up to three years.
“That will see them through the period up to triggering Article 50, the Article 50 process itself, and the period of time after that, by which time the people's jobs will either be done — in which case they can finish and return from whence they came or, if the system still wants them, they've got ample time to run a full and open competition to recruit them permanently.”
The Commission is expected to produce regular reports on the way the new exceptions are being used, Watmore said, and he warned that the watchdog would also be keeping a close eye on the kind of staff being brought in to departments to ensure their adherence to the Civil Service Code.
“Frankly, if people are recruited under this banner who are special advisers in disguise or something similar, and they don't behave in the proper way then we'll then we'll withdraw the authority to recruit them,” he warned.
“It's important that when people are brought in under this banner that the department recruits civil servants, not political special advisers in numbers.
“This is to get key skills that we don't otherwise have. So it's a balance between getting people in quickly and in bulk, and protecting the system for the long-term, defending the Northcote-Travelyan principles — that’s the balance we’re trying to strike here.”
Cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood told CSW recently that the civil service "at the moment requires 1,500 to 2,000 extra roles" for Brexit, including "another 100 senior civil servants", and said Whitehall was already "two-thirds of the way" through filling those posts.