‘A very curious own goal’: UK ministers criticised for civil service fast stream pause

By on 01/06/2022 | Updated on 02/06/2022
Around 1,000 graduates are recruited through fast stream every year. Photo by Ekrulila via Pexels

The UK government’s move to pause its civil service graduate recruitment scheme represents “a curious own goal” that will have management consultants “rubbing their hands that they don’t have to compete with the civil service anymore”, a former department permanent secretary has said.

Dame Una O’Brien, who led the Department of Health between 2010 to 2016, warned about the impact of the planned pause to the fast stream graduate programme during a Global Government Forum webinar.

Speaking before the scheme’s one-year pause was confirmed but after reports had emerged of the plan, O’Brien said that although the fast stream “shouldn’t be sacrosanct”, the government “should have second thoughts” about putting it on hold.

Around 1,000 graduates are recruited through fast stream every year. Many permanent secretaries and other senior officials have come through the programme.

Amid the government’s plan to reduce the civil service headcount by 91,000, “every part needs to be looked at”, O’Brien said, and “it probably does need a refresh in some way to see if it is really meeting that crucially important goal of bringing people from more diverse backgrounds in every possible respect”.

Read more: UK civil service to shrink by 91,000 jobs as Boris Johnson takes aim at ‘swollen’ Whitehall

“But make no mistake about it, all big organisations need a graduate recruitment scheme,” she added. “If we walk away from that I think other major employers like management consultancies and so on will just be rubbing their hands to think that they don’t have to compete with the civil service anymore.”

The government confirmed yesterday that fast stream would be paused for at least one year, with a spokesperson telling the BBC that all taxpayer spending must show “efficiency and value for money”.

They added: “Our focus is on having a civil service that has the skills and capabilities to continue delivering outstanding public services. Which is exactly why we have changed recruitment rules to bring in the very best talent and are investing in the professional development of our people.”

Capability concerns

Other participants in Global Government Forum’s webinar, Civil service job cuts: how will government identify them, can they be achieved, and what will the impact be, also said that halting the fast stream could hit government capability.

Rhys Clyne, a senior researcher at the Institute for Government think tank, said that it would be “a blunt tool” to control staff numbers that could “cut off these effective ways for talent introduction into the civil service”.

He added: “The fast stream is a great example of that but so are other ones like the apprenticeship scheme.

“The consequence of all that is that the pledges in Declaration on Government Reform [a policy paper published in June 2021] to improve delivery skills, science, and digital and data are all questioned in that context.”

Read more: Exclusive: experts on the impact of 91,000 job cuts in the UK civil service

Clyne also highlighted that the fast stream and apprenticeships are “very effective ways of making sure that the civil service is representative of society… If you block those routes off you also lose the mechanism to carry on progress on diversity and inclusion”.

Philip Rycroft, former permanent secretary at the Department for Exiting the European Union, said that the planned reduction in civil service job numbers was “a very politicised move, and you may wonder, therefore, whether the political energy will be there to see it through”.

He added: “The context in which it has been announced, I think this is using the civil service as a whipping boy in I way I think is just disgraceful personally. But the civil service is an incredibly resilient organisation. It is also still top of the pops in terms of choice of career for folk coming out of university, so there are still a lot of people who want to come into the civil service, and the civil service has weathered these sorts of storms before.

“My heart just sinks for all my former colleagues – I just don’t want them to have to go through all of this to come out the other end, to sustain that professionalism and to continue to deliver for the public, when ministers have been, I think, irresponsible in the way that they treat the civil service.”

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About Richard Johnstone

Richard Johnstone is the executive editor of Global Government Forum, where he helps to produce editorial analysis and insight for the title’s audience of public servants around the world. Before joining GGF, he spent nearly five years at UK-based title Civil Service World, latterly as acting editor, and has worked in public policy journalism throughout his career.

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