Former head of the civil service Bob Kerslake has queried the basis for the government’s plans to slash departmental headcount by tens of thousands of jobs, effectively taking staff numbers back to the postwar low they hit in 2016.
Lord Kerslake said he doubted there was a robust case for reversing the growth in staff numbers driven by the twin challenges of delivering Brexit over the past six years and, more recently, responding to the coronavirus pandemic.
The crossbench peer, who was tasked with implementing deep staffing cuts when he was permanent secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government from 2010 to 2015, said workforce planning needed to take account of ongoing challenges faced by the nation.
In recent months both government efficiency minister Jacob Rees-Mogg and Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay have spoken of the need for major headcount reductions, both citing a figure of 65,000.
Staffing figures from September put the civil service headcount at just over 472,000, roughly the same level it was at before coalition-era Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude oversaw a reduction in numbers that reduced staffing levels to the 384,000 mark by 2016.
Kerslake’s observations came in a webinar hosted by Civil Service World and sponsored by Deloitte that looked at lessons learned for government over the past decade, and progress made in major areas earmarked for reform.
He said the issue for the government should be not whether a 2010 headcount or 2016 headcount was preferable, but what the right number would be for dealing with pandemic-related backlogs and longer-term issues.
“Is it the right thing to do to make a further reduction to the size of the civil service at this point in time?" he asked. “I personally have my doubts for three reasons.
“First of all, I’m not sure that we got to the right number in the post-austerity period.
“Second, when we’ve seen growth in recent years it’s been for very specific reasons: the impact of Brexit and the impact of Covid. Those rises came for a reason and the question is: has that reason gone away? And I’m not sure it has.”
Kerslake said the challenges that the civil service and the nation as a whole faced over the next decade were “enormous”, including – but not limited to – delivering on the government’s net-zero commitments and its levelling up agenda.
“I would argue that those challenges require a civil service that is confident, right-sized and indeed invested in to meet those challenges,” he said.
“We need to deal with a very uncertain world and ensure security – energy security, for example. We have health and care costing something like 40% of our public expenditure, but still the demand is going up. We’ve got to deliver zero carbon, we’ve got to deliver levelling up and rebalancing the UK economy.
“So there are some massive, massive issues that require an effective, well-skilled and confident civil service and the numbers that have been talked about here, I don’t necessarily think fit that sensible pattern.”
Kerslake added that the current government’s preferred model for public sector reform was a mystery.
“You could identify it very clearly in the Thatcher period; definitely during the Blair period,” he said. “I’m not sure what it is at the moment. And we urgently need to know how we’re going to get our public services back on track. And what our model is for doing that.”
Cuts at the wrong time “simply make the situation worse”
Former Cabinet Office perm sec and civil service chief executive Sir John Manzoni also contributed to the webinar.
The ex-oil industry executive, who is now chair of both power firm SSE and Ministry of Defence arm’s-length body the Atomic Weapons Establishment, said he firmly believed in the potential for headcount reductions to drive efficiency and boost effectiveness.
But he warned such tactics would only be successful where organisations already had the capability to deliver what was required of them, otherwise they would “simply make the situation worse”.
Manzoni said government still lacked systematic delivery capability – “what it takes to get stuff done” – and didn’t have the capacity to roll out grand, but well-considered, policy documents routinely produced by departments, such as the levelling up white paper and the net-zero 10-point-plan.
“The real question is: what does it take to deliver what’s in those documents, not how good the documents are,” he said. “[It is] where we fall down time and time again, and it’s because it takes systemic delivery capability, the human and organisational capability that is focused on delivering the outcome.”
Manzoni said the civil service needed more people at the top with both public and private sector experience, and that he regretted not putting more structures in place to make that happen.
He also urged ministers to prioritise a realistic number of issues to address during any term – suggesting five “big” priorities as potentially achievable.
“We saw it in the Olympic Delivery Authority, we saw it in Brexit, we saw it in Covid,” Manzoni said. “When the government aligns around a priority, it can work at lightning speed with enormous effect. But until it does, it doesn’t work nearly at all. No organisation can have 550 priorities.”
Current headcount “impossible to justify”
CSW offered the Cabinet Office the opportunity to respond to Kerslake and Manzoni’s observations on headcount reduction. It referred the request to the Treasury, which provided some comments from a March speech by chief secretary to the Treasury Simon Clarke at the right-wing Institute of Economic Affairs.
“Government will ensure that resource is focused on delivering frontline services and cutting bureaucracy by reducing non-frontline civil service headcount to 2019-20 levels by 2024-25,” Clarke said.
“Through a scrupulous focus on efficiencies, more streamlined processes, and a better matching of our people to our priorities, we will bring civil service headcount down to sustainable levels for the longer term, and this will be a focus of the years leading up to the next Spending Review.”
Elsewhere in the speech, Clarke said civil service headcount was up 23% since 2015-16 and had increased by almost 7%in 2021 alone, a situation he said was “impossible to justify” and something ministers were “determined to reverse”.
Clarke’s speech also flagged a crackdown on departments’ use of contractors, unless it was counterbalanced by a “commensurate reduction in headcount”.
“You can’t reasonably have both,” he said.” Otherwise what we end up with is a department that’s not shrinking, but which has a semi-permanent cadre of highly paid contractors.”