The National Audit Office has warned that a combination of spending restraint and staffing capability is threatening the civil service’s ability to deliver on government demands, particularly against the backdrop of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union.
Endorsing long expressed union fears, the public spending watchdog urged ministers to rationalise their ask of Whitehall and halt those projects where the government is not confident the service has the capacity to deliver.
The NAO’s core argument in its new Capability in the Civil Service report is that Whitehall’s plans to address its capability gaps are not keeping pace with the growth in challenges it faces, all of which come against a 26% reduction in staffing since 2006.
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It said a survey of departments had seen them give themselves an average score of 2.1 out of 5 in assessing their current capability in workforce planning, at a time when it is known that more senior leaders with specialist expertise are required for policy objectives to be achieved.
The NAO identified areas such as project planning, benefits realisation and contract management as areas where there was a shortfall in skills. There was also a shortage of digital skills, where a need for around 2,000 more staff over the next five years was identified, but seen as an “underestimate”.
It said that at a time when a “challenging portfolio” projects such as Hinkley Point C, High Speed 2, and Trident renewal were poised to move forward, the government had been slow to assess the skills of its workforce in a comparable or structured way.
“This means they do not know what skills they have, whether these are in the right place and what additional skills they need,” it said.
The watchdog said that while draft departmental workforce plans it had seen showed “considerable improvement on previous attempts”, they remained focused on staff in post and contained only a high level view of how staffing requirements were likely to change.
It added that although more than 1,000 new posts had been created in the Department for Exiting the European Union and the Department for International Trade since July last year, most departments would be affected by Brexit – particularly those with large amounts of EU-derived funding and legislation – and would would need to deal with those pressures out of their existing budgets.
The NAO said that as of February two-thirds of the new Brexit-related roles had been filled, but mostly by transferring in current staff.
The watchdog concluded that while Whitehall was beginning to address the capacity issues it faced, “greater urgency” was required to make sure HR programmes had time to mature, and that it should not be assumed that the private sector could help meet any skills shortfalls.
NAO head Amyas Morse said the civil service was facing ever-increasing challenges at a time when it had acknowledged gaps in its capabilities.
“The work of government is becoming more technical, continuing budgetary restraint is putting pressure on departments and the decision to leave the EU means government will have to develop new skills and take on work previously done by others,” he said.
“Government has gaps in its capability and knows it must do more to develop the skills it needs. It is making plans to do so but the scale of the challenge ahead means greater urgency is needed.
“Without a short-term solution to its capability gaps, government must get better at planning and prioritising its activities and be prepared to stop work on those it is not confident it has the capability to deliver.”
FDA assistant general secretary Rob O’Neill said the report should be treated as a wake-up call on pay and reward within the civil service.
“Departments are being asked to take on more and more work even as staff numbers fall, while ongoing pay restraint chips away at their ability to recruit and retain the brightest and best,” he said.
“If the government really wants to prepare the civil service for the challenges ahead, it cannot ignore the growing chorus of experts calling for it to get serious about workforce planning, take a realistic approach to pay and reward and look again at outdated spending plans drawn up in a pre-Brexit world.”
Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS union, said the “cut first, plan later approach” begun under the coalition government in 2010 had left the civil service unable to cope with current workloads, regardless of the “major upheaval” caused by the vote to leave the EU.
“While the civil service is trying to deal with Brexit, there is no let-up in the demand and need for quality public services in our communities,” he said. “All job cuts plans must be halted immediately.”
Institute for Government deputy director Julian McCrae said it was impossible to pretend that Whitehall cold deal with its current agenda without increasing its capability.
“Ministers must identify key priorities and ensure the resources are in place to make them happen,” he said.
The Cabinet Office said the NAO had recognised the civil service had made continual improvements in project management in recent years, and was putting increased effort into more advanced departmental planning on skills and resources.
Cabinet secretary and head of the civil service Sir Jeremy Heywood said the UK was well placed to deal with the challenges of Brexit, and take advantage of the opportunities that also lay ahead.
“At the same time, the civil service is also working hard to make sure that all the priorities of the government are being delivered,” he said.