Civil service union chief blasts ministers over 'top-down, evidence-free micromanagement'

Dave Penman raps government for "Stalinist" headcount-reduction targets, media attacks and revolving door of political leaders
Dave Penman brandishes a copy of the Evening Standard edition that asks "Why are civil servants so lazy?" on its front page, on the back of an opinion piece by Cabinet Office minister John Glen. Photo: FDA/X

By Jim Dunton

09 May 2024

The FDA union has called on ministers to stop undermining officials with attacks in the right-wing press and instead deliver the stability that departments and agencies need.

FDA general secretary Dave Penman told the union's annual conference this morning that policies such as demanding all officials attend their workplaces three days a week and seeking a return of civil-service headcount to 2019 levels are damaging and unsupported by evidence.

Ministerial attacks on the civil service in the media – most recently Cabinet Office minister John Glen's claims in the Evening Standard that officials have been "languishing in lockdown habits for too long" – are damaging morale and recruitment, Penman added.

"What message does that send to civil servants working on average an extra day a week in unpaid overtime?" he asked. "What message does it send to those that ministers say they want to attract to the service with the skills we desperately need, but aren’t prepared to pay for?"

Penman said the 60:40 rule on office attendance and remote working is "top-down micromanagement, not focused on delivering a civil service fit for purpose for the challenges of the next decade, but merely a convenient tool for political point-scoring".

He added that plans set out by chancellor Jeremy Hunt last year to cut 70,000 civil service jobs by the end of the next parliament, returning it to 2019 levels, imply that ministers have a clear understanding of what government's staffing needs will be in five years' time.

"Like Stalin announcing tractor production in a five-year plan, ministers have decided on a number for political purposes," Penman said.

"No focus on outcomes, no recognition of what the civil service is expected to achieve at this point, no matching resources to commitments and absolutely no logic."

He asked: "Can you imagine the chief executive of any private sector organisation of the size and complexity of the civil service saying to shareholders – before they’d even set out their plans for the next five years – 'I know exactly the number of staff I’ll need in 2030?'"

Professional football 'could teach No.10 some lessons'

The revolving door of ministers in recent years has been a further source of turmoil, stacking the odds against civil servants, Penman said.

"In under a decade we’ve had an entire football team of ministers for the Cabinet Office who could, of course, have played the 11 secretaries of state for education from the same period," he said.

"This is not just as a consequence of the chaos under Johnson and Truss. [Rishi Sunak] changed three Treasury ministers, including those with direct responsibility for HMRC, in his reshuffle last November, only a year after appointing them."

Penman said professional football clubs could teach Sunak some lessons about effective management and good use of resources.

"Owners who are constantly switching managers end up with less success and crucially waste money – as they’re constantly changing plans and priorities," he said. "It’s no different in government.

"Regardless of who wins the next election, we need a return to good government. Ministers say they want a smaller but better paid civil service. I’ve got some news: it’s entirely in your gift.

"Give the civil service the stability it craves: clear objectives with the right resources and, crucially, the freedom to manage them. Fair reward to recruit, retain and motivate committed public servants. Then rightly hold the civil service to account for the outcomes it's committed to delivering – but no more micromanaging and no more trashing the brand."

High Court challenge over Rwanda deportations 'not a political act'

Penman also used his conference speech to defend the FDA's decision seek a judicial review of  the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Act 2024. He said the union had “no choice but to ask the courts for clarity”.

Last week, the Cabinet Office confirmed new guidance had come into effect requiring officials to disregard European Court of Human Rights rulings blocking deportation flights to Rwanda if told to do so by a minister.

Penman said that while government is "perfectly entitled" to instruct civil servants to ignore international law, this is only the case if parliament passes the necessary legislation. He said ministers had instead attempted to "fudge" the issue and "dump it onto the lap of civil servants".

"When members in the Home Office ask us if they’re being asked to break the civil service code, they deserve an answer," he said. "You don’t work in the Home Office and not realise that’s the day job, regardless of the political persuasion of the government.

"But they rightly expect to know, without a shadow of doubt, whether they’re being asked to break the civil service code. Ambiguity is not acceptable and so our action is to bring clarity for those members.

"It is not, as is being painted by some ministers and the usual suspects in the press, a political act. We have pleaded with government to avoid this, but avoiding this means being honest about what they’re doing – and that apparently is a step too far."


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