Do Rishi Sunak’s civil service reform proposals stack up?

The leadership candidate's plan includes existing measures, interesting suggestions and "sensible but hardly groundbreaking" proposals
Sunak's pledge to relocate civil servants from London continues the levelling up agenda. Photo: Matthew Bridger/Alamy Live News

By Jordan Urban

17 Aug 2022

As the Conservative leadership campaign continues towards its conclusion, Rishi Sunak has set out his agenda for civil service reform. It is a mix of existing measures, some interesting suggestions and proposals which are sensible but hardly groundbreaking. There are also real problems which will make achieving any of this more difficult.

Sunak’s proposals can be categorised into four strands: cutting the size of the civil service; increasing the interchange of knowledge and talent between the service and the outside world and attracting the best talent into the civil service; better rewarding high performance; and continuing with the relocation of civil servants outside London.

Cutting the size of the civil service

Perhaps the most eye-catching of Sunak’s proposed reforms is the aim to cut “non-frontline civil service headcount”, echoing the language in last year’s spending review, before the 91,000 headcount reduction target was announced. 91,000 job reductions cannot be achieved by painless-sounding efficiencies to back-office roles alone. So this is either a return to something closer to the spending review target (around 20,000 jobs) or implies that Sunak thinks he could cut 91,000 back office staff without seriously undermining the government’s capacity. It is important for Sunak to clarify which he means.

As the Institute for Government has previously written, an arbitrary headcount target is the wrong place to start, whether 91,000 or otherwise. If the aim is to save money, then money saved should be the metric that civil service leaders are judged on. Any reductions in the size of the civil service should be based on serious workforce planning: a clear sense of what Sunak envisions the government doing and an analysis of the skills and jobs the civil service will need to do it.

Increasing interchange and attracting the best talent

The commitment to increase interchange – the exchange of people between the civil service and the outside world – is sensible. A large body of research shows that teams with a diversity of ways of thinking are better able to identify problems and find and enact solutions. Broadening the experience of senior civil servants via compulsory secondments outside Whitehall is a first step towards improving this diversity.

But Sunak would need to grapple with the fact that increasing secondments has been a goal for generations of reformers and has not happened. Most recently, the Declaration on Government Reform pledged to "develop a pipeline of secondments from the civil service into major organisations within the UK and internationally" – but a February 2022 update from then Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Steve Barclay indicated that little progress had been made. The Sunak campaign has suggested it would "[relax] the requirements to produce bureaucratic business cases for every secondment" – a lot hinges on what this means in practice.

"Any reductions in the size of the civil service should be based on serious workforce planning: a clear sense of what Sunak envisions the government doing and an analysis of the skills and jobs the civil service will need to do it"

The decision to reintroduce the Fast Stream is sensible. It is a proven vehicle for attracting talented graduates into the civil service and, having been ranked The Times’ top graduate employer for the last three years in a row, is an asset to the civil service brand. It has also been an effective tool to improve the diversity of the civil service – being at least as, or more than, representative on the grounds of sex, ethnicity, disability and sexual orientation. The scheme is not perfect, but ministers should embrace and reform it rather than cast it aside. In this context, Sunak’s proposals to improve the regional and professional diversity of the programme by "creating Fast Stream assessment centres in every region of the UK" and "encouraging fast streamers to work in operations and outside of London" are to be welcomed.

Any future Sunak administration’s drive to get the best talent into government might be undermined by an opposition to flexible working, however. That the Sunak campaign’s press release noted that the Treasury had a higher proportion of staff in the office compared to Truss’s FCDO suggests he may continue the Johnson administration’s opposition to hybrid work.

Government has long struggled to attract outside entrants with specialist skills in areas like digital and data who can earn a considerably higher salary in the private sector. While a sense of public service is appealing it is not enough – the civil service needs to match or go beyond what other sectors can offer in other ways. It is clear employees value the flexibility of hybrid working and large swathes of the private sector have rejigged their expectations of in-person attendance to attract the best talent. The civil service needs to at least match the offer of its competitors to compete for top outside entrants.vii

Better rewards for high performance

A focus on rewarding high performance is sensible, but it is difficult to see what is new in Sunak’s proposals beyond a vague pledge to reform performance management payments and a mistaken commitment to end pay rewards on the basis of longevity, which do not currently exist.

Sunak’s central offering is to enable officials to achieve performance-based pay rises while remaining in post, in part to combat churn – the rapid movement of staff between roles. The government already has plans to introduce capability-based pay for the senior civil service to help tackle churn, allowing staff to increase their salary in post if they are judged to have increased their capability to do the job. But its introduction has been delayed.

If Sunak is proposing to push it through, possibly in a modified form that rewards performance not capability, then that is to be welcomed. But alone it would do little to reduce churn. Institute for Government research found that the main driver of excess turnover was the cultural expectation that moving jobs quickly and ranging widely is the best way to advance a career. Financial incentives are not the only ones at play.

Civil service relocation outside London

Sunak has also pledged to continue the government’s existing relocation agenda. First announced while he was chancellor at the March 2020 budget, it was formalised in the Declaration on Government Reform which set a target of relocating 22,000 civil servants and half the SCS outside London by 2030.

Relocation will help to attract talented people who could contribute substantially to the civil service but cannot or do not want to work in London. It should also produce beneficial (albeit highly localised) "levelling up" effects on regional economies. But a third argument for relocation that ministers have previously put forward is that it will help shift the civil service away from an "urban metropolitan" mindset. The jury is out on whether more policy and senior work outside of the capital will achieve this goal.

Sensible, but often unoriginal

Sunak has diagnosed some real problems with the civil service and in some areas set out sensible – albeit often unoriginal – solutions. In others he has made pledges that he may come to regret. Arbitrary headcount targets and opposition to hybrid-working may be popular in some quarters, but they undermine wider reform efforts and will do nothing to support effective government.

Jordan Urban is a researcher at the Institute for Government, working in the civil service and policymaking team

Read the most recent articles written by Jordan Urban - Civil service reform: How do the manifestos stack up?

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