A reduction in civil service headcount and more movement between the public and private sectors could be the answer to pressure on pay, Francis Maude has said.
Asked at an Institute for Government event how he would address frustration over pay – which has fallen significantly in real terms over the last decade, and which is driving many officials’ decision to start looking elsewhere for jobs – Lord Maude said part of the solution could be having fewer people to divide the overall paybill between.
“If the civil service grows in size by 25%, as it has done, then pay is more of an issue than it could be,” he said.
“I don't think the civil service needs to be the size that it is and I would rather have a civil service that is leaner.”
Maude's comments follow last week's Autumn Statement, in which chancellor Jeremy Hunt confirmed plans to downsize the civil service by 66,000 jobs by the end of the next spending review period.
Maude was elaborating on some of the findings of his review of civil service governance and accountability, published earlier this month, which called for greater accountability for management of the civil service. One of his key recommendations was to appoint a dedicated head of the civil service with a strong mandate and authority to make changes.
The report also called for changes to the centre of government – including a new Office of Budget and Management and strengthened functions – to enable more effective cross-government work.
“Nobody took a decision, as far as I'm aware, that the size of the civil service between 2015 and 2021, should rise by 25%. No one took that decision; it just happened. Why? No one was in charge. No one was responsible for it,” he said, referring to the period when Brexit preparations and the Covid pandemic drove a significant increase in civil service headcount.
His recommendations would aim to stop this from happening in future, he said.
However, the former Cabinet Office minister said a bigger concern than pay for many civil servants is their ability to effect meaningful change in their jobs.
He noted that during his time at the Cabinet Office in the coalition government, the civil service headcount fell by 21%; there was a pay freeze; and civil service pensions were changed to become “less generous” than they had been previously. However, “morale, as tested by the annual people survey, actually marginally increased”, he said.
“So pay matters – and you must not take the mickey with pay – but we’ve got people in this room who came to work for us in government at a fraction of what they could command in the private sector. And what's the key thing? It's the ability to make change happen. The great thing about being in government, you work on a big canvas, and you can make change happen on a historic scale. And that's a rewarding thing,” he said.
He suggested that making it easier for people to move between private sector jobs – where they can earn more – and government more frequently could make pay “less of an issue”.
“The pay thing becomes more manageable if you have much more interchange: you've got people who can come in, do some time in government and go out, do something else, and have much more to and fro,” he said.
Take ministerial appointments ‘much more seriously’
During the talk, Maude said government needs greater stability among not just officials but ministers if it wants to achieve its own goals.
Responding to a question about turnover in his own former role, Lord Maude acknowledged that the pace of change in appointments at the moment is “just bonkers”.
“The appointment of ministers should be taken much more seriously than it is – both in terms of the fit, the preparation and the time they are left in post,” he said.
There have been 12 ministers for the Cabinet Office since Maude departed from government in 2015. Presented with this figure, Maude said it was a “totally fair point”.
“Ministers have no credibility in complaining about churn among civil servants when the trend among ministers is so great,” he said.
Maude's review of civil service governance called for more care to be taken when choosing ministers to ensure there is a “good ﬁt between the individual and the role”.
“Many ministers are appointed with scant regard to their background, knowledge and skill sets,” the review said.
He said one of the “big advantages” of the coalition government was that negotiating between two parties meant reshuffles were “hard to do”. As a result, he said “many of us stayed in post – in my case – much longer than the leadership of the civil service wanted”.