US boosts protections for career civil servants, top officials call for ‘elitist’ UK Foreign Office to be replaced, and more

By on 09/04/2024 | Updated on 09/04/2024
A picture of OPM director Kiran Ahuja
Kiran Ahuja Photo: OPM

Welcome to this month’s Global Government Forum Management and Workforce Monitor. This is the second of our monthly roundups of the latest news on this topic from governments around the world.

We want these newsletters to provide insight on the work of government and we always want to hear from you, so please get in touch to let us know about your challenges and how you’re addressing them.

In this edition:

  • US government ‘reinforces protections’ for nonpartisan career civil servants
  • Powering up: workforce and management session at GovernmentDX
  • Former diplomats call for ‘elitist’ UK Foreign Office to be replaced – and ditch colonial art
  • Civil service relocations discussed at Innovation 2024
  • Boost your skills with Global Government Forum training courses

US government ‘reinforces protections’ for nonpartisan career civil servants

The US government’s Office of Personnel Management has issued rules intended to protect career civil servants across the federal government from changes to their job protections.

Why? The new rules are intended to “advance the important policy goals” of ensuring that decisions to hire and fire are based on merit, not political considerations.

These measures build upon actions president Biden took in his first week in office to reverse an executive order issued by his predecessor Donald Trump intended to convert a number of existing nonpartisan career civil service roles into political appointees.

What Trump planned: Currently, only the top ranks of the American public service are appointed by the president, but Trump’s executive order in October 2020 sought to move federal workers in policy-orientated roles from the government’s main federal pay scale (known as the General Schedule) to ‘Schedule F’. This would be a new category under which the usual civil service protections would not apply, making it easier for the president to remove federal employees at a time when Trump was describing the permanent federal civil service as part of the “deep state”.

Next time: Trump was unable to move any workers to Schedule F before January 2021, when Biden took office and rescinded the directive, but both Trump and other potential Republican presidential nominees have said they would reintroduce Schedule F. Speaking at a UK Institute for Government event on global approaches to civil service impartiality, professor Donald Moynihan, McCourt chair of the McCourt School of Public Policy at Washington DC’s Georgetown University, warned that Republicans could politicise 50,000 civil service jobs.

Putting in place protections: The Biden administration warned that Schedule F would have stripped career civil servants of their civil service protections and undermined rules that career civil service appointments are based on merit, not political considerations.

The new rules: The OPM rules make three clarifications of the protections for career officials:

  • Accrued protections for civil servants cannot be taken away by an involuntary move from the competitive service to the excepted service, or from one excepted service schedule to another.
  • Clarifying that the phrase “confidential, policy determining, policymaking, or policy-advocating” position – what the OPM describes as a “term of art to describe positions that lack civil service protections” – specifically refers only to noncareer, political appointments. The rule prevents this exception from being misapplied to career civil servants.
  • Establishing procedural requirements for moving positions from merit-based appointments to political appointments.

Expertise, not political loyalty: Setting out the new rules, OPM director Kiran Ahuja said that career federal employees deliver critical services for Americans. “This final rule honours our 2.2 million career civil servants, helping ensure that people are hired and fired based on merit and that they can carry out their duties based on their expertise and not political loyalty,” she commented.

Will it work? Speaking after the updated regulations were published, a senior administration official quoted by Government Executive said that any future administration would have to “justify how a different rule would ensure that decisions to hire and fire were based on how well federal employees served the American people” when asked about potential attempts to revive Schedule F.

“If another administration were to disagree with the policies that are reflected in this regulation, first, they would have to follow that full rulemaking process themselves.

“They would have to justify how a different rule would ensure that decisions to hire and fire were based on how well federal employees served the American people, as is required by the merit system principles that are enshrined in the law, rather than on their political allegiance.”

‘A necessary step’: Responding to the updated rules, the nonpartisan, nonprofit Partnership for Public Service said that the American public “benefits tremendously from having a career federal workforce hired for their skills and free from political interference to equitably serve all Americans”, and that the rule “maintains a commitment to a bedrock principle of our democracy: that civil servants serve their country based on merit, not their political beliefs”. The rule is a necessary step to prevent partisan abuse of the civil service rules and a return to the failures and corruption of the spoils system of the 1800s, Partnership for Public Service president and chief executive Max Stier said.

Hiring rules still need updating: However, Stier said further updates are still needed. “Streamlining processes for hiring, performance management and accountability, and preparing managers to support the workforce through the talent lifecycle are just some of the ways the federal government can better serve while adhering to merit principles,” he added.

Powering up: Workforce and management session at GovernmentDX

At next week’s GovernmentDX conference in Washington DC, global government leaders will come together to share insight on how to successfully transform services in the digital age.

See you on 18 April: Among the sessions on 18 April – see the agenda here – is one looking at ‘Powering up your people: developing and hiring the right skills and inspiring others to serve’. This session will look at how agency leaders in the US and further afield are working to recruit, retain and inspire technologists to serve the public – and how departments and agencies can make sure that their federal employees have the digital skills and literacy required to work with modern technology.

Speakers include:

  • Thomas Beautyman, deputy director, Government Digital Capability, Government Digital and Data, Cabinet Office, United Kingdom
  • Brenda Darden Wilkerson, chief executive officer,
  • Catherine Manfre, chief transformation officer, Office of Personnel Management, United States
  • Seeyew Mo, associate national cyber director for workforce, training and education at the Office of the National Cyber Director, United States of America
  • Kirsten Tisdale, managing partner, EY Government and Public Sector
  • Chandler C. Morse, vice president, Corporate Affairs, Workday

The session will be chaired by Jennifer Anastasoff, executive director, Tech Talent Project. Register here to attend the conference, which will also cover:

  • Improving design and delivery of public services for customers 
  • Leveraging data and AI 
  • Modernising government technology
  • Integrating cybersecurity from the beginning

Former diplomats call for ‘elitist’ UK Foreign Office to be replaced – and to ditch colonial art

A host of former senior UK civil servants have called for the UK’s Foreign Office to be replaced with a new international department in order to tackle what they call the department’s current “elitist” identity.

Who? The report from UCL Policy Lab and Hertford College, Oxford is based on a series of in-depth roundtable discussions. These discussions were led by UCL honorary professor and former director general at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Moazzam Malik, to debate the UK’s approach to international affairs and ideas for reform.

As well as Malik, the co-conveners of the project were Mark Sedwill, former UK cabinet secretary and national security adviser who is now a member of the House of Lords; and Tom Fletcher, the former Downing Street foreign policy adviser and HM ambassador to Lebanon who is now principal of Hertford College, Oxford.

What? The report examined the international challenges and trends shaping the UK’s future prosperity, asking what the world will look like in 2040 and how the UK’s approach to international affairs will need to adapt.

Change is going to come: The report identified a number of global trends that mean the world is in flux:

  • The balance of geopolitical power is shifting alongside economic power: The report highlights that the world’s economic gravity is moving back to the East, driven by growth in China, India and South-East Asia. This is leading to an increasingly multi-polar world – less predictable, more insecure and fragmented.
  • No singular political and values system will dominate:It follows that, although a rules-based international order retains wide appeal, the experts convened for the report say the landscape will be characterised by shifting issue-based alliances driven by national and local interests.
  • Adjust to the UK’s status: Compared to the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the UK’s power has waned, and this trend is likely to continue due to what the report calls “the simple arithmetic of demography and compound economic growth”.
  • Potentially existential transnational challenges must be addressed: Amid the changing international order, challenges that must be addressed across national boundaries include climate change, conflict and insecurity, pandemics, irresponsible use of technology and artificial intelligence, and a global economic system that is seen by many as unjust as well as inefficient and wasteful. As the challenges governments grapple with become more transnational, established political models are struggling to provide solutions.

What these mean for government: To adjust to these changes, countries need to develop a national narrative and identity, but the report says that the past decade has seen the UK wrestle with its national identity and place in the world. “Regaining a sense of confidence requires greater self-awareness of our position as an ‘off-shore’ nation. As a mid-sized power outside the European Union, there is potentially much to learn from countries like Norway, Canada, Switzerland and Japan who are able to use their size and independence to leverage significant influence on the international stage.”

How to make the changes: Realising the changes needed requires “a clear-eyed view – and confident narrative – on what the UK has to offer and what it stands to gain from international engagement, economic cooperation and diplomacy”, according to the report. This needs greater consistency between domestic and international policies in areas such as climate change and human rights, and pragmatism about future international alliances.

Recommendations: The report makes four recommendations for government:

  • Focus on issue-led smart alliances and invest in long-term partnerships, particularly with non-traditional partners
  • Strengthen multilateralism by sharing some rights
  • Show not tell in our international engagement
  • Achieve a balance between leading and following and supporting

But the Foreign Office can’t deliver: The report concludes that “in its current form, the Foreign Office is struggling to deliver a clear mandate, prioritisation and resource allocation” and too often “operates like a giant private office for the Foreign Secretary of the day, responding to the minister’s immediate concerns and ever-changing in-tray”.

DfID merger hasn’t worked: When the then-prime minister Boris Johnson decided to merge the UK’s Department for International Development into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, creating the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in September 2020, it was presented as an opportunity “to leverage the strengths of both departments: short-term diplomacy and a long-term strategic focus on real world challenges”, the report highlights. But the experts say it has struggled to deliver, meaning that wider reform is needed.

Time to create an international affairs department: The report recommends a mew international department that brings “overall coherence” to the UK’s foreign policy, bringing together trade policy and economic diplomacy as well as traditional international affairs.

This department should be guided by agreed core objectives and long-term mandates (potentially through a legislative process) that endure beyond the tenure of individual ministers. These could include: promotion of UK prosperity and security, addressing climate change and biodiversity loss, supporting international development, and championing rights and responsibilities. A standalone agency could also be created to focus on international development and climate change cooperation.

Brand Britain: A new department would also help illustrate the UK’s “forward-looking ambition for the 21st century”. The report highlights that the very name of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office was anchored in the past, particularly as reference to Commonwealth was formerly a reference to colonial administration.

A new Department for International Affairs (or Global Affairs UK, mirroring the name of Canada’s foreign department) would signal a potentially quite different role.

Moving on from King Charles Street: A new building for the new department is also suggested. The department’s current HQ on King Charles Street “hints at the Foreign Office’s identity: somewhat elitist and rooted in the past”, the report said. “Modernising premises – perhaps with fewer colonial era pictures on the walls – might help create a more open working culture and send a clear signal about Britain’s future”.

UK seeks ‘even greater impact and influence on the world stage’: Responding to the report, an FCDO spokesperson told the BBC: “We are maximising the benefits of merging diplomacy and development in the FCDO to better deal with global challenges, as seen in our responses to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and in the Middle East.

“We are committed to having an even greater impact and influence on the world stage – which is why we recently completed a review across the department to ensure we are effectively directing our funds, streamlining all our international policy work, and building our capability for the future.” 

Civil service relocations discussed at Innovation 2024 – with UK moves ‘ahead of schedule’

The UK government has relocated 18,283 civil service roles from London to locations across the United Kingdom as part of its commitment to relocate 22,000 roles by 2027.

The target was initially set to relocate 22,000 jobs from the UK’s capital to other cities by 2030, as part of the government’s plans to level up economic activity across the entire country but was brought forward three years – and the latest figures indicate the target is well on its way to being reached.

Where are they going? According to the latest figures from the Cabinet Office, the region benefiting the most from role relocation is the North West, followed by Yorkshire and the Humber, with 3,720 and 3,392 roles relocated since 2021, respectively. Leeds, Manchester, Glasgow, Birmingham and Sheffield are the five UK cities that have received the most roles. Over 7,300 roles have been relocated to these cities collectively since 2021.

‘Progress at pace’: Setting out the new figures, Cabinet Office minister John Glen, said that the work of moving government roles outside of London was happening “at a pace”, adding: “Month by month, we are seeing the transformation of our civil service into an organisation that better reflects the perspectives of people from across the United Kingdom.”

Getting the right skills: At a recent session on day 2 of GGF’s Innovation 2024 conference on how moving civil service jobs out of London and the southeast can drive regional rebalancing, one attendee said that it could be difficult to attract staff and skills needed in new locations.

Long-term shift: Panel members said that the shift away from London was “a long-term play”, and in his statement Glen said that he remained focused on the government’s additional commitment to ensure half of all UK-based senior civil servants are based outside of London by 2030. This will “create opportunities for talent from all corners of the country to rise to the highest levels of the civil service,” he said.

Making hybrid working work for all: Another session at the Innovation 2024 conference looked at how government departments are adapting to the post-pandemic hybrid working trend.

Hybrid working and women: The session looked at the topic from a range of angles but was held in partnership with the Global Government Women’s Network. Research last year from consultancy Public First found that hybrid working has encouraged large numbers of professional women to move to full-time work. Separate research in February from the Unison union revealed that almost a third of women working in the UK public sector who have asked to work flexibly – including hybrid working – have had requests denied.

Read all about it: This session was covered in the latest Global Government Women’s Network newsletter – read more about it here. You can also become part of the Global Government Women’s Network here.

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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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