‘These cuts will have to include frontline roles’: can the UK government reach its target to cull 91,000 civil service jobs?

By on 20/06/2022 | Updated on 21/06/2022
Statue of King Charles I in Trafalgar Square, looking down Whitehall in London towards Big Ben.
Statue of King Charles I in Trafalgar Square, looking down Whitehall towards the Houses of Parliament. Photo by Tom Blackwell via Flickr.

In response to the UK government’s plan to cut 91,000 jobs, Global Government Forum brought together experts to discuss how government will identify the reductions, whether they can be achieved, and what the impact will be. In this third and final report from the session, we look at how the plan compares to previous government job cut proposals

Read the previous articles here:
Exclusive: experts on the impact of 91,000 job cuts in the UK civil service
‘A very curious own goal’: UK ministers criticised for civil service fast stream pause

When the UK government announced plans to cut 91,000 civil service jobs on 13 May, it created a firestorm of media coverage and trade union fury. But it was not the first time ministers in Boris Johnson’s government had set out plans to reduce the number of officials.

In the Autumn Budget and Spending Review 2021 published last October, ministers set out plans to reduce “non-frontline civil service headcount” to 2019-20 levels by 2024-25. This move, which the Institute for Government think tank has estimated would mean cutting 30,000 roles, was intended to help fund increases to frontline roles. “This will mean a more productive and agile civil service, taking advantage of new ways of working to continue to reduce inefficiencies and deliver better outcomes for the public,” the Treasury documents said.

Fast forward seven months, though, and the scale of the reductions is much greater – and the rhetoric around the reductions much stronger, with prime minister Johnson saying action was needed to tackle the “swollen” civil service. Ministers want to cut the service from its current level of 475,020 full-time equivalent (FTE) civil servants back to its post-war low of June 2016 – before the impact of Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic saw an increase in departmental headcount – of 384,260.

Global Government Forum brought together former senior officials and experts for a webinar on 27 May to look at how the reductions could be made. Rhys Clyne, senior researcher at the Institute for Government, started the conversation by highlighting that “this will mean deeper cuts than the one first proposed at the Spending Review”.

He added: “We first heard in October that the government was aiming for a return to pre-COVID headcount, while protecting frontline roles. We calculated that would have probably meant in the region of about 30,000 roles depending on how the government defined frontline.

“The obvious difference that has been noticed now is that we’re going back to pre-Brexit headcount and the reference to protecting frontline roles seems to have been dropped.”

This seems to be a recognition from government that these cuts will “have to include frontline roles, and they will have to include some back office skills the government is separately trying to prioritise”.

Around half of civil servants work in frontline jobs, according to Clyne, covering roles such as Department for Work and Pensions staff working in job centres, prison staff employed by the Ministry of Justice, tax collection officials based in HM Revenues and Customs, and Border Force officials in the Home Office.

The challenge of using the 2016 civil service headcount as the planning basis for reductions is that many people that have been recruited subsequently for Brexit are in these operational frontline roles, so the mix of skills that the civil service needs have changed.

‘Arbitrary headcount targets’

This is why “arbitrary headcount targets are not an efficient mechanism for workforce planning”, Clyne said. “They are a blunt tool because they’re blind to the false economies that can be created in this process. They’re blind to the sort of costly boom and bust of contraction and expansion of civil service that we’ve seen throughout the civil service history and they’re blind to any increased use of contractors [who are not counted in the civil service workforce figure], such as in the government’s major projects where there might be issues created by understaffing.”

The government needs to decide the aim of the reductions to make them deliverable, he said. “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 and more direct mechanisms, to rely solely on headcounts is to see one particular means as the ultimate end, I think.”

Philip Rycroft, the former permanent secretary at the Department for Exiting the European Union, agreed that job reduction targets were “a very odd way of doing your workforce planning”.

He added: “You’d have thought we’d have learned by now – with quite sophisticated people with sophisticated bureaucracies, sophisticated government – a better way of doing this, where you relate the size of the resource that you have, to what you want to achieve.

“What the government is doing now is a very, very crude mechanism indeed and that I think will carry consequences which will have to be worked through.”

This includes the impact of the EU’s departure from the European Union, Rycroft said.

Read more: Brexit battle scars: in conversation with Theresa May’s chief of staff

“Taking back control meant bringing back a whole load of bureaucracy that was previously transacted, quite efficiently as it happens, on behalf of 28 member states in Brussels.

“We now have to essentially repatriated that and we have to build duplicate systems across the piece and in order to transact these systems, you need people to do it.”

This is the case across a host of areas, with Rycroft stating that “pretty much every department with an interface with the economy is going to have to grow its policy functions in order to deal with that”.  

And that’s before departments get to ministers’ ambitions to “remake the British regulatory state”, as Rycroft described it – not just administering policies inherited by the European Union, but rewriting them for the UK.

“That self-evidently requires civil servants to do the drafting of the bills and you need people, whether it’s civil servants or regulators to run those new systems. So the comparison with 2016 is not like for like – effectively, the government is asking the system as a whole to do more.”

The only way to achieve this is for the government “essentially to withdraw the state from other domains of activity”, he said, “and what I’ve not yet seen is any indication of where that might be, because I’ve not yet seen a minister saying the state can come out of these various other functions.

“This is really, really difficult territory, and I just hope that senior folk in the civil service are pointing this out to ministers.”

Una O’Brien, the former permanent secretary at the Department of Health said that the public “do not want a poorly managed state”.

“They want it to be efficient, accessible for what they need, and prompt in its response, whether it’s a payment or a registration or a piece of regulation.”

Maude’s lessons

O’Brien headed the health department between 2010 and 2016, during the period of civil service job reductions overseen by then-Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude – who it has been reported is in line to lead the civil service governance review.

Under the 2012 Civil Service Reform Plan, Maude reduced the size of the civil service by around 85,000 posts, while also developing cross-government functions to boost capability in roles like digital and technology, procurement, finance and project management.

Read more: Minister who oversaw UK civil service job cuts ‘set to lead governance review’

This process – although “extremely painful to live through” for those in the civil service – was an example of where government was able to invest to save that could provide lessons as the current government embarks on its new plan, said O’Brien. She described, for example, the focus on commercial skills and getting a better deal from procurement, sales of property that was no longer needed, and investment in digital and in civil service skills.

“These are the things that you have to do to be able to do more with less,” O’Brien said. “You have to invest to save, you can’t just reduce, because that is effectively a cut.”

However, an overarching headcount target “denies you the opportunity to look at this systematically, and come up with efficiencies that enable us to do more with less or the same with less… I wouldn’t start from here,” she said.

“If we were doing this professionally, I would say we should include the whole of the central state [of agencies and arm’s length bodies as well as departments]. They should be included if we’re looking at a comprehensive way of regrouping work or digitising work or commercialising work. Not to do so is to make it even cruder than it already is.”

Rycroft agreed with O’Brien that ministers needed to decide “what are you trying to achieve as a state?”.

Referring to his time as the permanent secretary at the Department for Exiting the European Union, he said: “I had occasion when I was working on Brexit to point out to ministers – quietly, but more than once when the civil service was under huge pressure: ‘Come on guys, you want to take back control. You need a civil service to do that, and there only is one civil service, there isn’t another one waiting around the corner. So you’ve got to look after this institution’.”

Setting out his approach to managing reductions “in an ideal world”, Rycroft said he would look at services from the user’s perspective and consider how to integrate the system as a whole in areas such as social care or education and childcare.

“I have no doubt at all that if you took that sort of approach, you could both reduce the cost of the state and improve the service to the individual, but that requires a sophisticated, mature, non-politicalised, non-partisan approach to thinking about the public service. It’s not impossible, it does happen in other countries. It can be done.”

The government’s targets were currently “using the civil service as a whipping boy” in light of political pressures faced by the government, Rycroft said. 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. “It was a very political announcement through the Daily Mail. This was part of the distraction tactics that this government uses, and the civil service is an easy target.”

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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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