FDA union chief slams government’s approach to civil service reform

By on 07/01/2020 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Dave Penman: “The people of Northern Ireland deserve better and that requires a strong, permanent, professional and impartial civil service.” (Photo by John Wellings).

The UK civil service reforms being trailed by Tory advisers risk undermining government’s effectiveness while creating “huge destabilisation” at the top of the civil service, the head of the civil service managers’ union has told Global Government Forum. Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union, warned yesterday that the ideas coming out of Number 10 are “not based on what the civil service is now, but what it was 20 years ago” – so risk focusing on the wrong problems, while undermining some of the UK civil service’s traditional strengths. And Penman criticised the way that policy ideas and job adverts are emerging in blogs, leaks and articles by party advisers, rather than being set out by ministers and feeding into established policymaking and recruitment processes.

News of the reforms began to emerge in the days after the 12 December general election, with the Daily Telegraph – for which PM Boris Johnson used to write – using unnamed sources to report that the government was planning radical changes to the civil service, then publishing an article by Tory manifesto co-writer Rachel Wolf setting out a path forward. The following day Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s chief adviser, published a rambling 3,000 blog advertising jobs at Number 10 – prompting criticisms from former civil service leaders.

The critical tone of these articles, said Penman, risks undermining support for the government’s reform programme even before it’s been clearly defined. In his former role as a Department for Education special adviser, Cummings used to talk of ‘the blob’ – arguing that the educational establishment was blocking all reform. “And people are still talking about ‘the blob’,” said Penman. “Is there a more insulting way of describing public servants than as a group that gets in the way? Actually, these people are dedicated, working hard to deliver public services and changing people’s lives. The government’s rhetoric really has got the potential to get in the way of any reform programme.”   

Creating resistance

What’s more, said Penman, the fact that civil servants are reading about planned reforms in newspapers, “not hearing it from their ministers and managers”, is making them feel “really quite unsettled.” Wolf’s piece warned that civil servants are “woefully unprepared” for the coming changes, but those changes have not been set out in any official documents or plans. So officials lack the “certainty of knowing whether what’s come out in the press actually represents the settled view of government,” Penman said. “Whatever the reform programme is – and it is as yet undefined – this is the wrong way to get people on board and implement it. All you’re going to do is get people’s backs up”. 

Penman compared the current government’s approach to reform to that adopted by the Coalition government in 2010-15. Radical changes were implemented to centralise powers in fields such as digital and procurement, improving delivery and addressing the austerity agenda – “Departments had to work out how to deliver the same with 25% less” – but Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude achieved his goals through established government processes, Penman argued. 

“Although Maude ended up battling civil servants towards the end, for the most part that reform programme was delivered by working effectively with the civil service,” he said. “The government set out clearly what the challenge was and what it wanted the civil service to do. And even if civil servants didn’t agree with it, they had clarity around what was expected of them and it was their job to go off and do it. That’s how you go about delivering change.”

He added: “A number of commentators over the last few days have all said the same thing: ‘you’ve got a reform agenda? That’s great, the civil service will deliver it for you. But you have to work with them’.” 

The informality of Cummings’ recruitment blog also risks contravening processes designed to eliminate discrimination and protect merit-based appointments for permanent civil service posts, said Penman, explaining that it “clearly contravenes every aspect of best practice and civil service appointment rules.” Penman would be “astonished” if the Civil Service Commission, which regulates recruitment and works to ensure appointments are made on merit, “didn’t have something to say about it,” he added. 

The impartiality issue

On the substance of the mooted reforms, Penman warned that some appear to be based on a lack of understanding of the drivers behind the flaws in civil service operations. Wolf, for example, criticised the fact that civil servants often move roles regularly, claiming that the civil service prioritises “transferrable skills over knowledge” – but Penman argued that this phenomenon has been caused by pay stagnation, which means that civil servants have to “move around the system” in order to get a rise. The problem has been getting worse in recent years, he added, but governments have “refused to do anything about it”. 

Some of the plans outlined, said Penman, suggest that the government is planning to “fundamentally change some of the long-term, settled positions of an impartial civil service” – perhaps by increasing political control over the appointment of departmental leaders, and through bringing more political appointees into ministers’ private offices. Both ideas risk undermining the core values of the UK civil service, he warned. 

“One of the reasons why a permanent, impartial civil service works is because officials have the ability to ‘speak truth unto power’, and can do so without fear or favour because ministers do not control their employment,” he said. “If you change that, you change something pretty fundamental. You could end up with something like the Australian or US models, and there are huge dangers around that.   

“If a minister is surrounded by people who are appointed on the basis of ideology rather than ability, essentially all they’re going to get is the reinforcing of their own ideas without the calibre of advice and the challenge that comes from an impartial civil service.”

In his blog, Cummings talks of recruiting people who are different and creating “cognitive diversity” in the workforce, but Penman argued that essentially what he – and, by extension, the PM – want is to appoint a whole host of people “who think like them”. 

Cummings’ ideas, said Penman, risk fundamentally undermining the strengths of a permanent and impartial civil service. In the Australian model, he noted, ministers are surrounded by political teams and often based in separate buildings to civil servants; and in the US, senior civil servants move on when the president leaves office, causing the loss of “institutional memory”.

Repair, don’t demolish

Like other commentators, Penman pointed out that the UK civil service ranked top in the 2019 International Civil Service Effectiveness Index, adding that it “continues to deliver for government in extraordinary circumstances”.

“The government doesn’t seem to recognise the incredible reforms that have already taken place,” he said. “You look at the [graduate management trainee] Fast Stream intake and it’s incredibly diverse in every aspect, increasingly [including] socio-economically. These are some of the brightest people in the country, they’re from an increasingly diverse range of backgrounds, and they want to come and work in the civil service. Dismissing that by saying: ‘Not enough of you have science degrees’ [as Cummings does in his blog] creates a whole host of problems that the government doesn’t need. It’s not an effective way of doing things.”  

Nevertheless, Penman is hopeful about the future. “Every new government comes in with assumptions about the civil service and ends up understanding the strength and value of it. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect but ministers begin to see, on a practical level, what the service does every day,” he concluded. “I hope that starts to happen: that it balances the chaos theory from a small number of individuals at the centre, and that the PM asks himself ‘do we really need to disrupt this?’ We need reform, yes, but we don’t necessarily need to turn everything on its head.”

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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