Responding to the Brexit challenge: a round table debate
The UK’s civil servants are working hard to understand the likely impacts of Brexit, and to help forge a UK government position. But at a round table debate bringing together officials from across government, Matt Ross hears calls for greater clarity about the direction of travel
“This is a really challenging time for the civil service,” said the senior official. “We’re used to putting up three options, being told which is the preferred one, then going off and doing it. Now we’re in a world where we’re having to take forward all three options, potentially legislate for three different policy decisions, and only know what the decisions are in a couple of years’ time.”
2016 has been a difficult year. Continental Europe is experiencing its biggest refugee crisis since World War II. Donald Trump’s victory is routinely described as the biggest political upset in American history. And the UK must grapple with Brexit: the country’s biggest challenge – according to commentators as diverse as senior public servants’ union the FDA and the Financial Times – since the postwar period.
Nor is the environment an easy one: Britain is enduring its longest period of flatlining real incomes for 70-100 years, and both main political parties are internally divided on Brexit. Yet British officials are charged with making a success of Britain’s historic vote to leave the EU. So with the support of professional services firm EY, Global Government Forum brought civil servants from various departments and agencies together for a round table discussion, with the aim of identifying the strategies, skills and systems that the UK civil service will need in the coming years. The discussion was on the record – but our goal is to explore the issues, not to embarrass ministers or officials; we have chosen not to attribute quotes.
Following the referendum, civil service bodies’ first task was to create structures and teams to manage and coordinate their responses to Brexit. They had two immediate goals: communicating to central and lead Brexit departments their priorities for a settlement with the EU; and planning out how to deliver whatever settlement we arrive at.
Most big departments have created dedicated Brexit teams, some incorporating strategic and delivery units; others have upgraded existing strategic or EU-focused teams. These central units commission research from policy and operational teams, develop a set of departmental priorities and concerns, and provide an interface with the key departments at the centre: DEXEU, tasked with leaving the EU; DIT, responsible for building new trade agreements; plus Number 10 and the Treasury.
Departments and agencies are also working together to understand each others’ needs and build common positions on cross-cutting issues. And government bodies are talking to key partners in business, public services and the voluntary sector to pull in their views and expertise. “We’re trying to find potential allies or people with similar concerns, both elsewhere in government and within the broader economy, through which our objectives might be advanced and our concerns tackled,” explained one official.
Much of this thinking eventually – once agencies have fed into departments, and departments have worked up a corporate position – lands in DEXEU, the brand new department charged with building a common UK negotiating strategy. This, said one official, has been “firing out commissions requesting information”; another explained that DEXEU convenes events at which departments “present our priorities and explore different scenarios, so that they fully understand the operational side of the impact of Brexit”. What DEXEU does with all this information, however, is not yet clear – for departments are not receiving guidance as to what a final EU settlement might look like. Currently, commented one participant, all the data provided to DEXEU “gets sucked into a black hole.”
Like DEXEU, the Department for International Trade and HM Treasury are keeping departments busy by commissioning research and information. And as time-pressed officials analyse the potential impacts of Brexit, they must remember their own minister’s stance: one document transmitting the views of an economic sector, said a delegate, “got pushed back [by a Brexiteer minister] as not sufficiently emphasising the various opportunities and benefits; the industry was asked to revise its submission.”
Meanwhile, government bodies are trying to make plans for the many possible outcomes of Brexit – everything from crashing out of the union without an Article 50 agreement, to remaining in the Single Market through a Norway-style deal. Here, civil servants are working with tight resources and, in many cases, little expertise in areas of policy managed by the EU for over 40 years – including the crucial field of international trade as well as topics such as fisheries, agricultural subsidies and markets regulation policy.
Given the level of uncertainty about how EU talks will proceed, departments must prepare for every eventuality; and because the government hasn’t set out its strategic priorities, officials can’t narrow their work down to focus on the most likely outcomes. Nonetheless, civil servants are intensely aware of the cost of researching unlikely scenarios, as budgets continue to contract under the government’s austerity policies: “The very act of spending money or putting resource into a Brexit issue takes resources from somewhere else; there is an opportunity cost,” noted one official.
Asked which skills civil servants most need in this unprecedented situation, one participant named “the ability to strategically scenario-plan; risk management; and good programme management.” Working through different scenarios, said another, “helps people think themselves into a position where they can anticipate what their [various] impacts might be, and even what indicators you might need to develop”.
It is, though, “very hard to scenario plan when you just don’t know what’s going to happen,” commented another official, adding that “the evaluation and analysis aspect of this is quite important, because there’s quite a lot of data we can draw on.” Then there’s the need for “negotiation skills and networking: we’re very much at risk of becoming siloed, so knowing who to talk to and when is incredibly important.”
Developing these skills would help civil service bodies to manage some of the immediate challenges, such as considering how to deliver new services that may be required – a customs force to manage the borders with Ireland and the Continent, say, or a new agricultural subsidies scheme. But in many areas, new skills are little help in making key decisions. For example, many civil servants are still working on delivering EU policies which have reached the UK statute book and are set to go live before the UK’s anticipated exit in 2019. Abandoning these projects would mean missing delivery deadlines and could make the UK vulnerable to EU fines; so, in the absence of clear political direction, civil servants continue to put scarce resources into moving forward EU policies that may be scrapped soon after implementation.
Meanwhile, departmental Bill teams and the Office of Parliamentary Counsel – the civil service’s legislation-writers – are gearing up to dismantle the whole edifice of EU law within the UK statute book, under a legislative strategy set out by government. “We’ve got to get the Great Repeal Bill through as soon as possible next year, so that we can start work on thousands and thousands of pages of secondary legislation,” said one participant, noting that this task will be particularly massive within the environment, business and transport departments. These decisions are not made easier by the fact that the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland governments take a very different line on many issues, noted one delegate.
The biggest challenge identified by participants, then – and the one lying behind most of the more immediate complexities – is the lack of a coordinated, cross-government strategy setting out clear objectives for this vast programme of work. “We’ve heard various people saying this is the most serious crisis or opportunity that the government has had to face since World War II,” commented one official. “If that’s the case, are we expecting a command-and-control approach from the centre, much as we would coordinate a war effort?”
Another civil servant pointed out the problem with this strategy: “During World War II, there was a unity of common purpose,” they said. “Whereas there are extremely divergent ideas of what Brexit could and should be around the Cabinet table.”
Does this mean, asked the first, that “we’re almost immobilised until we get that key decision and Article 50 is triggered? So what do we do in the interim? How can we proceed with limited resources and knowledge capabilities? What preparation could or should we do?”
Concentrate on building skills and expertise, gathering data and conducting research, replied one civil servant: “During the referendum campaign, there was quite a denigration of experts. I’d like to bring the experts back. We’re all novices at this, but there are people out there who’ve been working on European policy for some time and genuinely are experts in the field.” Another said they’ve been repurposing existing research to inform scenario planning: “We could lift it and convert it to our interests. That was good enough as a starting point.”
Participants also called for the public to be made more aware of the scale and nature of the task facing government, “giving as much information as possible so people can see the size of the job and what we’re doing.” And some asked for more openness around the different roles of civil servants and politicians: “Sometimes I get the feeling that ministers are expecting us to help them make the political argument,” one said. “If you give a civil servant a task, they’ll do it well. So ask us a question and you’ll get the answer. If you don’t like the answer, don’t tell us to change it; you just need to ask the right question.” There’s a need, they added, for more openness “about what it is that we can deliver, and what it is that politicians need to deliver.” For officials can only work out how to realise a politician’s goals; it’s not their job to develop political arguments.
Civil servants are only too aware of the challenges they face – both in developing the skills and capabilities required for Brexit, and in pushing through the vast amount of work required to deliver it. But they’re working hard to build the capabilities and systems they’ll need; and there was a feeling around the table that these challenges – like the many that have preceded it – will ultimately be overcome. “Whilst we need to be realistic and we face a lot of challenges, we need to think positively about what we can do,” said one official. “The British civil service is world class, and we’ll get this done in one way or another,” commented another.
Civil servants are, as ever, committed to delivering the government’s policy goals. Now they just need to know what they are.
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