Editorial: Whitehall is weakening

Starved of investment, the civil service is losing key skills.

By Matt.Ross

30 Jan 2014

In November, this column warned that as the recovery creates jobs and pushes up private salaries, the civil service – its pay and benefits shrinking in real terms – will find it ever harder to attract and retain the professional, technical and managerial specialists so crucial to coalition agendas. We recalled comments by former cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell, lead non-executive Lord Browne and NAO chief Amyas Morse, who’ve argued that pay controls are damaging recruitment.

We pointed to remarks made in 2011 by then-DCLG chief Sir Bob Kerslake: as jobs markets recover, he said, we must “constantly think: ‘Why do people choose the civil service?’” And we argued that it’s time for ministers, loudly, to answer that question.

We didn’t have long to wait: on 6 January, the chancellor set out plans to cut departmental budgets by a further £13bn if the Tories win the 2015 election. The cash could be found via major organisational reforms or axing public services, of course – but realistically, it means more pay cuts.

Yet this week brings more evidence that pay controls are damaging the very capabilities most demanded by politicians. PASC chair Bernard Jenkin calls for higher pay to “recruit and retain the long-term and committed senior leadership the civil service needs”. Civil service commissioner Sir David Normington argues departments need the “flexibility to pay more to get the best candidates”. In our round table, officials and suppliers alike blame pay caps for stifling recruitment, hastening a skills exodus, and damaging delivery in outsourcing. Even former government procurement chief John Collington murmurs diplomatically that contract management requires an “appropriate level of investment” in staff.

Enough, though, of opinion: just consider history. As papers released under the 30-year rule reveal, in 1984 defence secretary Michael Heseltine warned that pay controls and ministerial attacks on the civil service were leading to “wastage among scarcity groups like computer programmers”. The cabinet secretary advised the PM to address the pay gap, and said ministers should highlight the civil service’s good work.

Governments need officials capable of delivering their policies – and currently, that means improving capabilities in fields such as commercial, digital and technical. When the civil service embarks on huge and complex projects without those skills, the costs of failure quickly exceed the price of capabilities. But history threatens to repeat itself. If the government doesn’t rapidly improve the reasons why skilled professionals might choose a career in the civil service, ministers will find their staff increasingly incapable of tackling the important, novel and challenging tasks put before them.

Read the most recent articles written by Matt.Ross - Kerslake sets out ‘unfinished business’ in civil service reform


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