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

By on 29/05/2022 | Updated on 08/06/2022
A picture of the Cabinet Office building at 70 Whitehall in London
The Cabinet Office at 70 Whitehall in London. Photo Mikey via Flickr

Former top officials in the UK civil service and experts on Whitehall have discussed how the government might achieve its aim to cut 91,000 jobs, with warnings that the “arbitrary” figure is not a good way to plan for the future of public services.

Prime minister Boris Johnson announced the plan to reduce the civil service headcount on 13 May, saying it had become “swollen” due to Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic.

Two weeks on, Global Government Forum brought together a panel of experts to discuss the plans – looking at how the jobs to be cut will be identified, whether the 91,000 target can be achieved, and what the impact will be.

Watch the panellists’ discussion here:

Philip Rycroft, the former permanent secretary at the Department for Exiting the European Union, said that the planned reductions amounted to “using the civil service as a whipping boy” in light of political pressures faced by the government. He said the civil service is an incredibly resilient organisation but that he did not want it to have to go through such cuts.

“My worry is that this is a very politicised move, and you may wonder, therefore, whether the political energy will be there to see it through,” he said.

Rycroft said that bureaucracies “do have a tendency to expand”, adding it is “perfectly reasonable for governments the political side of the equation to apply the breaks from time to time”. However, he wanted to know how the government had arrived at the target to cut 91,000 jobs, which is around a fifth of the total civil service. “What they put in place is essentially an arbitrary number, and this is a very odd way of doing your workforce planning.”

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

Dame Una O’Brien, former permanent secretary at the Department of Health, said that workforce planning works best when looking across the entire civil service rather than at individual departments.

She discussed a possible process for planning reductions, highlighting examples from history such as the late 1980s Next Steps programme and the 2004 Gershon review into public sector efficiency, which led to 2.5% savings.

She said there were a series of questions that were asked as part of the Next Steps initiative that could be used as the basis for decisions about the civil service.

“The questions that we used in those Next Steps reviews [were]: is this task needed at all? Does it need to be done by the state? If it needs to be done by the state, could it be done in another way? And can it be privatised?

“This is a sort of fundamental sequence of questions which have been refined over the years and are still available… and should be used when we come to look at some of these bigger challenges. These questions are really helpful when we come to look at the future of a department or a chunk of work in central government.”

Rhys Clyne, senior researcher at the Institute for Government (IfG) think tank, highlighted that the targeted job cuts were deeper than those first proposed in last year’s Spending Review, which proposed reducing non-frontline civil service headcount to 2019-20 levels by 2024-25. The IfG estimated this would amount to around 30,000 roles, depending on how the government defined ‘frontline’.

However Clyne said the scale of the 91,000 job cuts is such that it would have to include frontline roles. Indeed, such is the extent of the reductions that they equate to closing ten whole departments. “That’s absurd and that’s not going to be the approach, but it illustrates the difficulty in the trade-offs that are at stake,” he said.

He agreed with Rycroft’s point that overarching targets are “not an efficient mechanism for workforce planning”.

“They’re a blunt tool, partly because they’re blind to the false economies that can be created in this process. So they’re blind to the costly boom and bust of contraction [then] expansion of the civil service, and they’re blind to increased use of contractors when there are issues created by under staffing.

“Ultimately, if the aim is efficiency, then we need to factor in the resource required to achieve priorities. If the aim is financial savings, budgetary targets are more direct mechanisms. To rely solely on head counts is to see one particular means as the ultimate end,” he said.

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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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