IfG warns of 'fragile' civil service and public sector 'on brink of collapse'

Think tank urges political parties to address precarious "state of the state" in their election campaigns
Civil service protests. Photo: Imageplotter/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

07 Jun 2024

The next government will have to reckon with a “long and painful list of problems”, including a fragile civil service and public services on the brink of collapse, a new report from the Institute of Government warns.

Published today, General Election 2024: The Precarious State of the State, says underperforming public services, battered public finances, a strained civil service, and tensions within the union "will dominate and define the first years of the next government, if not the entire parliament".                                                  

The IfG paper warns that, to provide a credible vision for the country, parties must set out a plan to address these “state of the state” challenges, which, for the winner, will be waiting for them on their desk from day one.

The report calls for an “honest reckoning” with these problems. Just yesterday, Paul Johnson, the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, slammed the lack of transparency from Labour and the Conservatives over the likelihood of cuts to public services or tax rises after the election.

Emma Norris, IfG’s deputy director, said: “Few newly elected prime ministers will have had to take on such a long and painful list of problems. Many will require immediate attention, not least to rescue services on the brink of collapse. Almost all – from stagnant growth to a fragile civil service – will require serious reform over the next parliament and beyond.”   

Civil service turnover is 'entrenched’

The report says the civil service is strained "after years of crisis management", pointing to the upheaval of prime ministers and cabinets, the Partygate scandal, the sacking of several permanent secretaries, the challenges of the pandemic and delivering Brexit, and industrial action over pay.

Analysing the state of the civil service, it warns that high turnover is a “particularly entrenched problem”, and says there has been a “worrying and consistent fall in staff morale since 2020 – alongside, and linked to, significant falls in real-terms pay”.

It says positive developments include the relocation of civil servants outside London through the Places for Growth programme and improving diversity. But it adds that there has also been insufficient progress on improving civil service capability.

Current spending plans 'won't address' crisis in public services

The report says public services are “performing worse than at the time of the 2019 election and substantially worse than in 2010”, including hospital performance that is “arguably the worst in the NHS’s history”, prisons at “crisis point”, and a Crown Court backlog that is now the worst on record.

Other pressures set out in the report include rising demand and budget cuts forcing local authorities to cut services, an unfixed crisis in adult social care, and public services often being short of critical equipment and having to rely on outdated technology.

"Whoever forms the next government will have to grapple with the distinct challenges facing each public service, as well as their often shared and systemic causes," the report says.

It also warns that current spending plans would mean only "limited improvement" in most services, and "further decline" in the criminal justice system.

"This means they are likely to prove politically impossible to deliver, with whoever forms the next government forced to provide emergency funding, as has been done serially in recent years, in an attempt to maintain service levels," the report says.

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