From the editor: At a time of discontinuity, leadership is at a premium

As job cuts loom, civil service leaders have their work cut out. But it’s a challenge that they will be better equipped to meet than their political masters
Photo: Miguel Á. Padriñán/Pixabay

At a time of discontinuity, leadership is at a premium. When the future is simply an extrapolation of the past, so that we are all tramping over familiar ground, the choice of someone to lead the procession may not be critical. But if we are setting out on unfamiliar terrain, we look for leaders who, at the very least, appear to have imagined what that terrain would be like.”

These words, written in a 1977 policy document for the then-leader of the opposition, Margaret Thatcher, are strikingly relevant as we face economic challenges at home and the discontinuities caused by climate change and technological shifts.

 Our political leadership, consumed with self-preservation, doesn’t seem to have given that terrain much thought. “I wouldn’t mind his attempts to cling on if he had any clue why he wants to be there,” is how one official described Boris Johnson’s vision for the country to CSW.

As for the government’s plan to reform the civil service, there is a map in The Declaration on Government Reform. But Jacob Rees-Mogg, the minister who is apparently overseeing the reform plan, seems to not have much personal interest in it. 

One topic about which he and other cabinet ministers are voluble, however, is the plan to cut tens of thousands of civil service jobs. 

Cuts have grown from around 28,000 (as announced in last year’s Spending Review) to 65,000 (as told by Rees-Mogg to The Times in February) to 91,000 (as announced in May). 

Have we seen a comms plan helping civil servants moving towards this rocky terrain? An organisation-wide memo to officials or, at the very least, an email to perm secs explaining how ministers saw these cuts fitting into wider reform? No. The first staff and perm secs alike found out about the latest target was in the Daily Mail

A couple of weeks later, the prime minister did email all civil servants, seeming to tell them they had a “moral duty” to lose their jobs because of the rising cost of living. There was no comment about what huge price rises in food and fuel might mean for officials themselves. 

It was hardly a missive which suggested the prime minister puts a premium on leading his staff.

Of course, ministers are right to consider whether government is the right size to deliver their objectives, and to enact change according to their democratic mandate. Civil servants are known for their ability to turn on a sixpence and operate with high levels of ambiguity. But they still need direction.

Perm secs, who do understand their leadership responsibilities, have the tough job of leading an exhausted workforce towards moving goalposts. Senior leaders are never going to be able to motivate everyone. But something they can do is be as visible and as open as possible.

Perm secs do have a vision of what the terrain will look like for the civil service over the coming years – whether from the DGR or their own core departmental missions. And for many of them the context of job cuts and sweeping change is not new – they remember it from the early 2010s, so they know what is needed, and what risks lie ahead. 

There are great leaders in the civil service. In recent weeks we have seen at least one permanent secretary publicly defend their staff from attack, while others used internal comms to acknowledge how worrying the spectre of swingeing job cuts must feel. 

These leaders have their work cut out. But it’s a challenge that they will be better equipped to meet than their political masters. Who aren’t very good at leadership. In case you hadn’t noticed. 

Pick up your copy of CSW's summer edition at Civil Service Live events around the country

Read the most recent articles written by Jess Bowie and Suzannah Brecknell - From the editor: Is it really only five years since the last general election?

Share this page