Civil Service at risk of institutional failure from unrealistic Brexit timetables says the Better Government Initiative

Posted on: December 11th, 2017

Social Mobility is not the only policy area at risk from the inevitable domination of government business by issues around Brexit. The Better Government Initiative (BGI) have raised concerns about the impact of Brexit on the civil service in evidence to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee.
The BGI are concerned that the civil service is being asked to do a job that it is simply not resourced to deliver against potentially unachievable timescales for delivery and that this runs a real danger of institutional failure, particularly in those departments where our EU membership is central to their activity. They point out that if Brexit is to be delivered with an acceptable level of risk, the development of our negotiating stance needs to take full account of advice from those with delivery experience and programme and project management expertise. Ministerial decisions on plans, programmes and resources to support our departure from the EU need to recognise the demands arising from the nature and timetable for EU exit, which are being determined by negotiation, and mitigate the risks by setting realistic priorities for departments: some existing initiatives need to be stopped or scaled back and others in the pipeline halted.
The BGI, which comprises former senior civil servants, is an informal group set up to promote better decision making in government. Its Chairman, Sir Richard Mottram, said “Our concern is that the policy making process is robust and fully reflects the advice of those who will have to deliver the administrative and other changes necessary to support our departure from the EU. Delivery risks need to be properly considered in thinking through the timetable for our exit. It is down to ministers to reset priorities so that essential work is done properly”.
Other key points from the BGI’s recent submission to the PACAC Inquiry on Civil Service Effectiveness and Capacity include:
• The approaches in the Civil Service Workforce Plan will not effectively tackle the loss of subject expertise and corporate memory caused by excessive churn in staff deployment.
• The aims of civil service reform in relation to recruitment and retention cannot be met while the reward package, particularly for those with scarce skills and those at more senior levels, is so out of line with the rest of the economy.
• Policies and programmes to improve the capability of the civil service, including in leadership and management skills, have not been applied consistently or resourced adequately.
• The BGI does not believe the civil service has become more politicized but the political impartiality of civil servants is at risk from greater personalisation of appointments.
• The BGI see little evidence that Departmental Boards generally are fulfilling the prospectus advanced when they were reformed under the coalition government. Departmental Boards could play a bigger part in assessing risk across departmental programmes as a whole.
• The growth in special adviser numbers at the centre of government risks bolstering a quasi-presidential style of government.
• The code of conduct for special advisers provides adequate guidelines for their roles and behaviour but there is no effective mechanism to ensure that the code is observed in practice. There is a case for a more regulated system.