Ministers' ideological obsession, not efficiency or effective government, is driving civil service reform

Ministers still view officials with suspicion and resentment, and at worst views them as pawns to score a cheap headline
Photo: PjrNews/Alamy Stock Photo

By Dave Penman

13 Apr 2022

In many ways, Simon Clarke’s speech to the Institute of Economic Affairs last month felt like a breath of fresh air. After two long years of Covid, it felt like very old school politics from the chief secretary to the Treasury. Much of it could, and indeed has, been said before – © Francis Maude, who really should add copyright infringement to his ever-increasing portfolio of consultancies.

It’s what you normally get from spending ministers, the usual rhetoric of “how, not how much”, as if civil servants only look to spend money, regardless of how wisely. There was, of course, a “bonfire of the quangos” that I’m calling bingo on. Honestly, I think even Frankie boy stole that one from Gordon Brown. What gets me is every government announces these things as if it was someone else who created the arm’s-length vodies in the first place. Is Clarke actually having a surreptitious dig at Maude for his poor ALB pyrotechnics?

It was, however, the first insight into some of the longer-term thinking of this government when it comes to the civil service and its budgets and headcount. With money tight post pandemic and a chancellor announcing tax cuts two years in advance, departmental budgets are clearly going to be the gift that keeps on giving – © George Osborne.

Clarke is a serious politician, so it was disappointing to hear him echo the Minister for Sunny Uplands rhetoric about the number of civil service jobs that have been created since 2016. This was, as you may recall, not a point when suddenly departments were awash with money. Instead, in the middle of an almost unprecedented period of austerity, Brexit happened.

"Clarke is a serious politician, so it was disappointing to hear him echo the Minister for Sunny Uplands rhetoric about the number of civil service jobs that have been created since 2016"

As the government negotiated its exit from the EU, reality bit. Not only was the preparation for the negotiation and the full impact of Brexit costly in terms of resource, but the significant additional responsibilities that now fell to the civil service inevitably resulted in extra staffing. Some of this was temporary but much of it was permanent. Departments like Defra, HMRC and the Home Office have seen a huge increase in demand. As the government ponders triggering Article 16 over the Northern Ireland protocol, Brexit may not fill the headlines like it used to but that doesn’t mean it’s gone away, nor that tens of thousands of civil servants aren’t working on it.

It was also interesting to hear Clarke talk about the pandemic’s impact on the civil service. Being a minister in this government, he couldn’t help himself from having a dig while feeling obligated to say something nice, saying it showed “the best and worst" of the civil service. 11 million workers supported through furlough, a sixfold increase in Universal Credit claims and supporting the NHS and local authorities to cope with a once in a century pandemic was apparently cancelled by some parts of Whitehall being resistant to change.

With Brexit still a thing and backlogs across public services as a result of Covid, Clarke was short on detail for how those extra demands would be met. “Streamlining”, “freeing up resources for the frontline” or “digital by default” – ©Frankie goes to Singapore – are just soundbites. If,in reality, you’re just saying departments will get less and have to live with it, at least be honest.

His speech also laid bare the hypocrisy of this government. He lauded the move of 22,000 civil servants out of London under Places for Growth, which was predicated on the very idea that ministers and civil servants didn’t need to be in the same building to work effectively. How does that fit in with the cabinet’s fixation on where civil servants sit when they’re talking to their colleagues on Teams? A government serious about efficiency would be celebrating the innovative new working arrangements and exploiting the benefits of a smaller civil service estate for the taxpayer but instead we have a cabinet hell-bent on micromanaging how many days individual civil servants sit in an office.

And finally, as we recover from the pandemic, enter a new Cold War and cope with a cost of living crisis, the government’s priority is to re-open old wounds on cutting redundancy pay. Never mind they reformed it in 2010, saying it was a once in a generation reform – ©Frankie M again. Never mind they tried again in 2016 but it was judged to be unlawful. Never mind they’ve been pretending to consult about changes for four years and we haven’t even met to discuss it for three.

These reforms are not about efficiency or effective government. They are based on ideological obsession, which at best views civil servants with suspicion and resentment, and at worst views them as pawns to score a cheap headline.

I think I preferred Frankie the first time around.

Dave Penman is general secretary of the FDA union

Read the most recent articles written by Dave Penman - Q: What do lanyards have to do with delivering public services? A: Absolutely nothing


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