UK civil service urged to develop workforce plan before making up to 55,000 job cuts

By on 02/02/2022 | Updated on 04/02/2022
Credit: Steph Gray/Flickr

Leading UK civil service observers have called on the British government to develop plans on the staffing requirement for the post-COVID public sector before it goes ahead with plans to cut thousands of jobs.

In its Whitehall Monitor report published on Monday, the Institute for Government (IfG) think tank said that there was a need for fundamental changes to the UK state to avoid the government being knocked off course when faced with shocks to the system, such as the pandemic.

As well as developing a targeted workforce plan to underpins it goal of reducing the size of the civil service by as much as 55,000 roles, the report also calls for reforms including clarifying ministerial and civil service accountability and improvements to both data and transparency in government in light of pandemic response difficulties.

The report highlighted that plans set out in the cross-government Spending Review in October last year to “reduce non-frontline civil service headcount to 2019-20 levels by 2024-25” would be difficult to achieve without damaging service capability.

According to the report, reducing the civil service to its 2019-20 headcount would mean cutting approximately 55,000 jobs by 2025. If around half the workforce are defined as ‘frontline’ – although the government has not yet defined what it means by non-frontline – it would still leave around 28,000 roles to be cut. This needs to be done “without undermining the government’s capability or restricting skills the government wishes to prioritise in the future,” the report said.

However, it noted that the pressures of Brexit and COVID that caused the growth of the civil service have not abated, with both the need for the UK to undertake regulatory duties returned from the EU following Brexit, and the need for public sector resilience likely to be long-term trends.

Four key factors government should consider before cutting public sector jobs

Decisions about civil service staffing levels must therefore be informed by a clear view of the workforce the government will require to achieve its plans, the IfG said, highlighting four factors that should be considered before staff cuts are made. These are:

  • Learning lessons from the response to the pandemic
  • Ensuring new post-Brexit responsibilities are properly resourced
  • Improved understanding of existing civil service workforce needs
  • Clear decisions about which skills need to be prioritised

Such an approach will need better data on civil service skills, which should then be used to inform a long-term workforce strategy. The think tank said that this new plan should describe the skills government will need to achieve its aims in the years to come, including digital, data, science, engineering, and project and commercial delivery skills. It should identify those skills in short supply and those that will be needed less in the future, based on department-by-department workforce planning.

The authors said that progress on the government’s priorities such as boosting less prosperous areas of the UK, known as levelling up, and moving carbon reduction targets towards net zero has been limited due to the need to focus on the coronavirus pandemic in the last year.

Read more: UK civil service lacks science skills, admits cabinet secretary

Rhys Clyne, IfG senior researcher and report author, said that the UK government got bigger in 2021, with a 10% increase in the number of civil servants and spending topping £1 trillion (US$1.3 trillion) for the second year running.

“Whatever happens in 2022, if the government is going to be able to achieve its priorities before the next election, the next year needs to see an urgent shift from making plans to delivering results,” he said.

Alice Lilly, the IfG’s senior researcher and report author, added: “If ministers want to achieve lasting change, government reform is still needed to improve transparency, accountability and the way the government uses data. But the time and energy the government is spending on its response to scandals will make delivering its long-term priorities harder.”

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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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