The government has agreed to publish more information about its job-relocation strategy after MPs called for greater detail and transparency to enable proper scrutiny of the programme.
A damning report from the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs on the government's Places for Growth programme, published in July, accused the Cabinet Office of exaggerating its achievements and failing to provide “key measurements” for its success.
Responding to the report’s concerns, the government has committed to aid transparency and scrutiny by refreshing the information publicly available for Places for Growth, and the lesser-known Plan for London programme, on GOV.UK.
The government also said it will assess the impact of its civil service relocation programme on departmental policymaking in its next spending review.
The PACAC report looked at Places for Growth, which aims to relocate 22,000 civil servants out of London; its Plan for London, which seeks to cut the London headcount by 25,000; and its Government Hubs programme, which is aiming to open 30 new regional offices outside the capital. All of the programmes have a target of 2030.
Commenting on the report back in July, PACAC chair William Wragg said the government needed to provide "greater transparency and accountability of what seems to be a haphazard approach to reforming the government’s estates and its workforce”.
The committee asked the government to set out the the programme’s rationale, key objectives, and evaluation plan and maintain a dedicated webpage on GOV.UK with updated metrics of progress, as well as other corporate announcements related to the programme. It said the government should also commit to updating the page with metrics of progress at regular intervals, at least annually, and should clearly show how Places for Growth and the Plan for London "fit together".
The government has agreed to publish “relevant” programme documentation for Places for Growth and the Plan for London and to “refresh the appropriate pages to ensure that purpose, objectives, critical success factors and performance against these for the Places for Growth Programme and the related Plan for London are included”.
Wragg said the committee is "pleased" that the government has agreed to some of its recommendations, "in particular those which enable further transparency and scrutiny", but said it is "a shame" that the response did not allay all of its concerns.
"Crucially, there’s a lack of clarity on the government’s aims, and therefore criteria to evaluate its success, and the response does not address our inquiry’s conclusion that the Cabinet Office’s approach is lacking consistency," Wragg added.
The July report claimed the Cabinet Office had "not done the basics of launching a programme well, notably failing to be clear and consistent in framing the rationale underlying the programme and the targets it is aiming to achieve".
The government's response said the details of the programme’s rationale and objectives had been set out in the Declaration on Government Reform and in the Government Property Strategy.
More economic benefits analysis 'to come'
PACAC had also expressed concern that, despite being badged as part of levelling-up efforts, the Cabinet Office had not clearly set out the evidence base for the economic benefits it has said Places for Growth will have.
The department said it has already published research demonstrating the economic benefits of the Places for Growth programme but would conduct a “further early-stage analysis of the benefits delivered by the programme” later in this financial year.
“This work will contribute to the evidence base and help to inform the future trajectory of the programme,” the government said.
MPs had also said the Cabinet Office had not estimated the economic impact of closing regional offices, often located in smaller towns, and replacing them with hubs in major cities and towns.
The government said it considers the socio-economic impact of the Hubs Programme for "all recent and proposed regional hubs".
It said its approach “releases costly London property, reduces the space required to meet the civil service workforce need, creates jobs in the regions, and brings staff from several departments together in a smaller number of high-quality, digitally connected buildings supporting collaboration and productivity”. Hubs “add value to the local economy and are active contributors to local communities”, the response added.
The government admitted the closure of smaller offices would have “some” economic impact on those locations, but said those taking up posts in, and travelling to, a hub would be expected to continue their normal activities where they live.
Committee 'unsatisfied' over job-cuts messaging
The PACAC report also warned that mixed messages from the government over flexible working for departmental officials and the scale of planned civil service job cuts were hampering the Government Property Agency’s ability to plan for future office-space needs. They called on the Cabinet Office to provide a “definitive statement” of government policy on the flexibility civil servants should have around how often they must work in the office, as well as the size of headcount reductions the government is modelling.
Since the report was published, the chancellor has announced plans to "freeze" civil service expansion and then get the workforce down to pre-pandemic figures.
In its response, the government said it has been consistent in saying that civil servants should be in the office “where needed to drive delivery and to meet their contractual obligations”, with departments individually responsible for how this is ensured.
It also said it has been clear that it would not pursue Boris Johnson's plan to cut 91,000 and that any reductions will be decided by departments “based on business need and delivery priorities”.
However, Wragg said the new headcount cap and ambition to reduce numbers to pre-Covid levels “provides yet another example of how the government’s strategy towards this topic lacks long-term strategic thinking”.
“It is very difficult to plan the future of the government estate if you do not know how many civil servants you will be working with,” he added.