UK’s top civil servant demands end to ‘Blob’ slur; third of Canadian public servants say work suffers due to staff churn: management & workforce news in brief

By on 20/07/2023 | Updated on 20/07/2023
A profile picture of Simon Case
Image: Gov.UK

Global Government Forum’s digest of the news you need to know but might have missed

UK cabinet secretary calls for end to “dehumanising” term to describe officials

Simon Case, the UK’s cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, urged politicians to stop calling the civil service “the Blob” in an appearance before the House of Commons public administration committee on 12 July.

Case called the term brought into popular use by secretary of state for levelling up and former education secretary, Michael Gove, “insulting” and “dehumanising”. He added that he was not aware of any current ministers who use it to deride officials.

He did however stress that attacks on civil servants by “significant political figures” had increased in the past five or more years, and had stirred up “vindictive” language in political debate. Attacks on officials “individually and collectively” had increased, Case said, adding that the resulting climate had “undoubtedly undermined the good functioning of government”.

“I’m very happy to say that under this prime minister things have changed very significantly.”

Case also referred to former senior official Sue Gray’s appointment to the role of chief of staff to Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, which he said had been “weaponise[d]” by Labour opponents. In June, Gray was cleared to take the role by the appointments watchdog.

The term ‘Blob’ has been used by Conservative politicians to describe a civil service some see as resistant to the government’s policies or anti-Brexit.

Read more: Row as top UK public servant moves to join opposition as political adviser

Third of Canadian officials say work suffers due to churn

A third (33%) of Canadian federal employees have said that the quality of their work has decreased in recent years because of high staff turnover, according to the latest Public Service Employee Survey (PSES).

This contrasts with responses from the 2020 survey, where 24% of officials said the same.

The 2022/23 PSES, released in the spring, gathered feedback from nearly 190,000 federal employees from around 90 government departments and agencies. The survey is run by Statistics Canada in partnership with the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat.

Other results were more positive. For example, 81% of public servants (just over four out of five) said they liked their job, and around 78% said they felt supported in their life-work balance.

Just short of three quarters (72%) of public servants said they were encouraged to be innovative and take initiative in their work, and 83% indicated that their ideas and opinions were valued by colleagues.

New analysis published in The Hill Times by Jake Cole, a former federal public servant, showed that two agencies stand out as being top employers – the Canadian Human Rights Commission and the Prairies Economic Development Canada, each with a score of 67. Those ranked lowest were the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (17), Correctional Service Canada (19) and the Canada Border Services Agency (23).

By comparison, the US Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS), published in December 2022, showed that federal employees were significantly less satisfied in their jobs than in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Just under two-thirds (62%) of feds reported satisfaction in their work, down seven points on 2020. The Office of Personnel Management attributed this to pay lagging inflation, as well as reluctance on the part of feds to return to the office after more than two years of remote working.

Read more: Job satisfaction of US federal officials falls, annual survey finds

UK civil service pay could be linked to performance under reforms

UK civil servants could be paid more for doing more work as part of a plan to boost productivity in government, a cabinet minister has said.

At an event hosted by the UK-based Policy Exchange think tank, Jeremy Quin, minister for the Cabinet Office and paymaster general, said that capability-based pay would bring the “rigour” of the private sector into Whitehall.

Under planned reforms, the civil service could be made to imitate the reward incentives of private firms by benchmarking officials’ performances against colleagues from other departments.

Quin said his aim was to finalise the new pay regime for government officials within a year, adding that it was “an absolute priority” for government.

“If you can do something with 10 people rather than with 100 people that is a net gain for the taxpayer that should be reflected,” he said.

“I’ve got no problems with us paying civil servants more for being more productive, more capable and ensuring that the taxpayer gets a better deal.”

The plan emerged amid concerns raised by UK chancellor Jeremy Hunt, who ordered a review in June to find ways to improve the civil service’s productivity.

Quin admitted that though it was harder to judge outcomes in the civil service compared to the private sector, the plan was intended to counter a system in which qualifications are valued above output.

“What [the system] can’t be is ‘I’ve been on six courses and therefore I’m worth more than an individual who has been on three courses’”. That doesn’t work for anyone,” he said.

Read more: UK top officials get 5.5% pay rise but departments must find ‘efficiencies’

AI project could affect millions of Universal Credit applicants

The UK government has expanded the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to identify fraud in its welfare system.

The government has not formally announced the project but according to audit documents seen by the Guardian newspaper, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has made a £70m (US$93m) investment in an advanced analytics project that harnesses machine learning to scrutinise requests for Universal Credit. The aim of the project is to save more than £1bn (US$1.2bn) from the estimated £8bn (US$10.3bn) or more lost to fraud and error in 2022.

More than 5.9 million Brits claim Universal Credit social security payments.

Using AI to decide who receives welfare payments has been criticised by rights organisations, and UN experts have warned that a primarily digital system in the UK risks blurring transparency around outcomes produced.

Read more: CIA chief sets out era of US-China ‘strategic competition’ in AI and beyond

One civil liberties campaign group, Big Brother Watch, said it was concerned by the government’s use of “opaque AI models” to determine who it helps.

Jake Hurfurt, head of research and investigations at Big Brother Watch, said DWP “consistently refuses to publish information about how they operate bar the vaguest details”.

According to the auditor general, the DWP had admitted its “ability to test for unfair impacts across protected characteristics is currently limited”.

In Australia, use of automation to recover social security debts led the government to unlawfully demand that more than 400,000 claimants pay back inflated or non-existent debts in a scandal dubbed ‘Robodebt‘.

Robodebt has been the subject of considerable controversy with critics saying it exacerbated mental health illnesses in some of the country’s most vulnerable people and may have led to suicides. It has been the subject of an investigation by the Commonwealth Ombudsman, two Senate committee inquiries, and several legal challenges. Last year, a federal court judge awarded victims a AUS£1.8bn (US$1.2bn) settlement. Global Government Forum will delve into the findings of the Royal Commission into Robodebt in an article published next week.

Read more: Australian PM calls inquiry into ‘robodebt’ scandal

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About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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