HMRC’s debt management and banking team (pictured above) won a Civil Service Award for innovative delivery the day after redundancies were announced.
An HMRC spokesperson told CSW that “an increasing number of customers are choosing to do business with us through our online services, which has reduced our need for physical sites. This change has seen the nature of our work shift away from mass-processing work of the past to more specialist, but less labour-intensive, roles required in effective policing of the tax system.”
Asked about the plans to cut 480 debt management and banking staff, the spokesperson said that “the vast majority of these roles are administrative assistants. Once the voluntary exit scheme has closed, we will be in a position to review take-up and finalise our future plans.”
Some civil servants make the transition to another sector after getting to know a company by working closely with them through their day job, or by doing a secondment. Rutter recalls, for example, that the Treasury lost talented staff to the City when it was doing a host of privatisations in the 1980s.
But secondments are also a good opportunity to open up the civil service to new ideas. The Cabinet Office describes them as a way to help “support civil servants to be able to work confidently with other sectors, developing partnerships and enable individuals to develop skills that can be brought back into the public sector”.
They can be a good way to gain insight into the sectors in which a department works. The Department for Communities and Local Government, for example, organised 56 secondments for its staff between 2012 and 2017, with local authorities the most popular destination. The Department of Health organised 63 secondments between 2015 and 2017, more than half of them to NHS organisations including NHS England, NHS Improvement and NHS Trusts.
But not all departments hold data on where they send secondees, and it is difficult to assess how far they are making the most of these opportunities.
It seems logical that the civil service would want to send staff out to learn about digital, one of Whitehall’s most coveted skills, and Green Park’s Trainer suggests this might happen more in the future. “As digital and technology continues to mature as a profession, we should start to see more secondments… Departments may wish to consider placing conditions within their contracts with big technology providers, which commit them to offer secondments to their staff.”
But Greenway doesn’t think secondments with suppliers is such a good idea. “There’s a cosiness to that,” he says. “I think it is quite dangerous.”
He is sceptical in general of the approach to secondments taken by the civil service, which “notoriously sends its best and brightest out to banks” (Jeremy Heywood went to the American bank Morgan Stanley). Banks are institutions with similar bureaucratic problems to the civil service, he says.
Instead, he wants to see the civil service send people to a wider range of organisations, including start-ups. “Put them out of their comfort zone… It’s about understanding different ways of working.”
Senior leaders in the service can also broaden their understanding of other sectors through schemes such as the WIG Exchange, which was developed by the Cabinet Office and Whitehall and Industry Group (WIG). This provides an opportunity for directors general and perm secs to exchange perspectives with peers from the private and wider public sectors.