Is the Civil Service (and public procurement) at crisis point?

As regular readers know, I’ve been a civil servant in my time (for 3 years only I should say) and have a lot of sympathy with people working in that challenging environment. We’ve supported their cause often here - “Free the West Cost Three”!  Or “Enemies of Enterprise Stupidity”!

But, and this is not a criticism of the civil service, I’m wondering if we are getting to some sort of tipping point. Are resignations, down-sizing and demotivation leading to a situation where the service is no longer fit for purpose? A few recent announcements and comments push us towards this view. The recent National Audit Office report “Managing budgeting in government” was pretty critical in some areas, but the point that hit me was this comment about Treasury (the UK’s Finance Ministry).

 The Treasury’s main contact with departments is through spending teams which make valuable contributions to spending control. However, their ability to challenge proposals is hampered by limited information and high staff turnover – with only eight out of 52 staff members still in place 20 months after SR10.

You cannot run a function with staff turnover running at those levels. It is impossible. Now it is not clear whether some of those moves are within Treasury or the civil service, but if you’re the boss of that team, it doesn’t really matter – you just can’t function like that.

Bernard Jenkin, Chairman of the Commons Public Administration Select Committee pointed out that in the last two years, 14 of the 16 Permanent Secretaries who run Government departments have been newly appointed. (He talked about a “crisis of confidence”).  And the government hasn’t even taken the opportunity to bring in stars from outside, or take new approaches – there have been a lot of internal promotions, some good and well deserved I’m sure, but with this number of new people.. I have my doubts. Certainly some people have made it to that top level earlier than even they would have expected!

Then we saw two key resignations this month. Alan Cave, the SCS2 with a key operational role in the Department of Work and Pensions Welfare to Work programme has gone to run Serco’s business in that field, whilst Jim Easton, who had been running the QIPP (Quality, Innovation, Productivity and Prevention ) in the Department of Health, at SCS3 level, (seriously important), is going to run private heath provider Care UK.  Now two individuals might not seem to make much difference, but I know they were both respected guys doing very important roles. They will be missed.

So what’s happening?

Well, if you freeze salaries, re-negotiate pensions and benefits, stop recruitment (putting people under more pressure) and clamp down on engaging contractors and consultants who might fill the gaps, you have an intrinsic issue of motivation.  In psychological terms, we’re getting close to the bottom of the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs – these are basic motivations that are being disturbed.

It’s not unmanageable, but I’d suggest a highly skilled CEO in that scenario would be doing all he or she could to make staff understand that they’re valued, try and motivate them in ways that don’t cost much, and paint the picture that this is necessary and short term pain.

But of course we haven’t been seen that. We just see more criticism of the civil service, sniping about lack of capability from politicians and press, promises of wage freezes carrying on into the future, and little respect or praise from anyone really. Bernard Jenkin, mentioned earlier, is at least raising the issue, but when he talks about the calibre of senior civil servants being “at a low” it is hardly motivating. And Francis Maude thinks the civil service is blocking all his wonderful plans...

So what would you do if you were actually a smart, capable executive, with a value in the private sector based on your experience and capability way above your (frozen) salary? Or a top civil servant with he prospect of early retirement, a couple of non-exec roles and a decent pension?

Good people are bailing out, with increasing rapidity, and we’re reaping the rewards of the hostility being shown to the civil service.  And of course it is those who are most capable and most valuable who find it easiest to go.  Think about Treasury again, home to a cadre of seriously bright young things, just the sort that the banks, private equity funds and consultancies look for.  44 out of 52 staff leaving within 20 months.

I don’t know where this ends, but it doesn’t feel good, and it is affecting procurement and major projects as well as other areas within the Civil Service.

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Voices (2)

  1. Cicero:

    Imagine a top civil servant being asked at his or her annual review ‘Where do you imagine yourself in 5 years’ time’? The honest reply would be ‘Uh, much further up the Giant Outsourcer command structure than I will be, uh, next year’.
    Top-level entry into these companies has become part of the end-game in the natural career progression of a top-stream civil servant. And procurement is in danger of becoming the mechanism which soups up this particular engine. When procurement contracts are up for grabs there must be a risk of a civil servant being subconsciously influenced in his or her decision-making by the prospect of a call from a gold-laden head-hunter some time after the decision is made.
    Meanwhile it’s win-win for the Outsourcer. Your new recruit’s high level of competence is topped up with insider knowledge of Whitehall’s ins and outs, its snakes and ladders, its movers and shakers.

    In the meantime, of course, the new incumbent over at Whitehall will often be the decamper’s ex-right-hand-man (the Department won’t have the money to attract an outsider). This new No.1 will quite likely take charge of the next round of procurement exercises. There is a risk he will have his subconscious eye on jumping ship too. His leap may be in the same direction as his ex-boss’s, who may have subconsciously thrown him a rope.

    I do not mean to suggest that such a scenario has unfolded on a conscious level, but there is an inherent danger of such a career progression becoming subconsciously institutionalised. People follow the money (and each other). We are all fundamentally insecure and subject to Maslovian urges as you have suggested. In such an economic climate as the one we are in (and I am not convinced that some are not happy with the economy’s ‘ozone layer’ registering as ‘permanently depleted’), and in view of the paths that procurement tends to smooth, there is a danger that the collective subconscious of high-flying civil servants comes to regard their public sector job as no more than temporary pain for ultimate gain.
    The government would do well to realise that Maslovian urges are the real movers and shakers when it comes to each human being’s individual road-map.

    1. life:

      Lot of repetition of “subconscious” creeping in to the analysis here… was this the intent or was this, er, you know…. 🙂

      And frankly, a lot of it isn’t very likely to be subconcious. One of the reasons they are effective people is that they are focussed and intelligent. And it doesn’t make them corrupt or improper either!

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