'Difficult decisions' ahead, warn civil service chiefs as Rees-Mogg insists job cuts are 'not an attack'

Decision to cut civil service numbers by 91,000 was “not taken lightly”, Simon Case and Alex Chisholm say
Looking ahead: Simon Case says the civil service must "adapt to new realities". Photo: REUTERS/Toby Melville/Alamy

The civil service will need to make “difficult decisions” to hit the prime minister’s target of cutting 91,000 jobs over the next three years, cabinet secretary Simon Case has told staff.

But the decision to cut numbers by 20% was “not taken lightly”, Case, who is also head of the civil service, said in a joint email with chief operating officer Alex Chisholm yesterday.

“The prime minister said at cabinet that he is incredibly grateful to the civil service for the outstanding job you all do in delivering for the public. Cabinet ministers echoed this view. He was also clear that he believes we have an excellent organisation, full of people who work incredibly hard to deliver the priorities of the public. But the needs of the country are changing and we have to adapt to new realities.

“This is an ambitious target, and there will be difficult decisions to make. To succeed, we will have to deliver this through efficiencies, prioritisation and genuine transformation,” the civil service chiefs said.

They acknowledged that officials would feel "concerned" about the news. "Whilst we don’t have all the answers yet, we want to take this opportunity to share as much as we can," they said.

The memo came after the Cabinet Office confirmed to trade unions that some redundancies will be needed to hit the 91,000 target, and that exits will be on the same terms used in 2010.

Describing public sector workers as “the backbone of this country”, the memo said that while the civil service has much to be proud of, there are also “things we want to change”. These were set out in the Declaration on Government Reform – which included a series of actions to improve accountability, governance and project delivery, build skills and reduce staff churn.

“We must redouble efforts to accelerate these changes and think creatively and radically about how we build our skills and capabilities and make better use of technology and data,” Case and Chisholm wrote.

“By 2025, we will be leaner; but we will be more agile, more capable and better equipped to serve the country and respond to the challenges of the mid-21st century,” they added.

Rees-Mogg: Job cuts ‘not an attack’ on the civil service

The email also included a Q&A with the face of the reforms, government efficiency minister Jacob Rees-Mogg. 

Asked how he would respond to “negative commentary in the media about the civil service” and its impact on attracting and retaining skills, he said: “Of course there’s a challenge to keep in step and compete with the private sector, but we have set out plans to build a skilled and modern civil service.”

“That remains a very attractive proposition,” he said, nodding also to professional development opportunities like the Government Skills and Curriculum Unit.

“Our plans to reduce the size of the civil service are not an attack on it as an institution, far from it. They are a recognition that the civil service has increased significantly since 2016, for perfectly good but temporary reasons, and that now is the time – when the country is struggling with the cost of living and fiscal discipline is required – to return to 2016 levels,” he added.

Rees-Mogg – who is also minister for Brexit opportunities – said his vision for the civil service is one of “skilled, innovative and ambitious civil servants who believe in delivering better services to the public, driving efficiency wherever possible and ensuring the best return on investment for the British taxpayer” with a focus on “results not processes”.

“This can only succeed if it is a joint endeavour, equally owned and driven by ministers and officials, the centre and departments, policy and delivery, in all grades and all locations,” he said.

In his message, Rees-Mogg said he had been “continually impressed” by civil servants' work and thanked them for their “dedication; your ideas, your adaptability and support for ministers”.

“Disagreement is healthy; we should embrace it and encourage diversity of thought across government, which will naturally lead to the better development and delivery of government policy. I would like to pay tribute to the Cabinet Office’s own procurement policy team in this regard, their intellectual ability, policy understanding and willingness to debate does the department proud,” he said.

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