Keen Whitehall watchers will have observed that, a little over a fortnight ago, the government announced that it was temporarily stopping the Civil Service Fast Stream for at least a year, starting in 2023. Despite its typically managementese 'mission' to 'encourage, enable and empower' the 60,000 annual applicants to 'tackle the issues that matter to you and UK life', the Fast Stream (and the Direct Appointment Scheme, the Durham to the Fast Stream's Oxford) ensures that over 1,000 of Britain's most able, innovative and diverse graduates enter public service each year.
During a Cabinet Office Board meeting on 19 May, the Prime Minister's Chief of Staff, Steve Barclay, confirmed – seemingly with little discussion – that our illustrious premier had decided that the Fast Stream 'would be paused for a year as part of his plan to shrink the Civil Service staff' to its size in 2016: a total staff of 384,000 permanent officials. To achieve this, it is estimated that the service will need to make an (entirely arbitrary) 91,000 redundancies and probably refuse to permanently employ those who are on fixed term contracts as well as its Summer Diversity Internship Programme.
In Scotland and Wales, it appears that there will be similar pressure to reduce the devolved administrations' bureaucracy, with the number of civil servants north of the border having risen by nearly 30% since 2011, although Elizabeth Smith (the Scottish Conservative MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife) has suggested that savings that do not impact on services would be 'entirely possible through the natural process of retirements and staff turnover'.
Although proponents of this policy will tell you that size isn't everything and stress that the Civil Service could and should do more with less, the government will find that increasingly difficult to achieve with the service's morale at an all-time low. As Civil Service World
reported last month, more than 1,100 people supported an internal submission which was highly critical of the Department for Education, with DfE officials telling their permanent secretary and Nadhim Zahawi that they had 'never felt so angry' and were 'super cheesed off' with the 'toxic atmosphere' in Whitehall.
It seems unlikely that the government will agree to cut the number of special advisers at the centre (who are perhaps not as important to the day-to-day workings of government as permanent officials) but insiders fear that the cuts will mean that Whitehall will have to do without many of the subject specialists who are seconded from the private sector and academia to inform policymaking.
Although Caroline Lucas argued in 2012 that companies seconding staff to Whitehall 'expect a certain degree of influence, insider knowledge and preferential treatment', outside experts from organisations such as the National Grid, Deloitte, the Bank of England, and Linklaters have helped the service to navigate seminal moments including the financial crisis in 2007/08, the Independence Referendum in 2014, Brexit and COP26.
In addition to being remarkably short term, the government's attack on Crown Servants is – even by this administration's standards – a national own goal of epic proportions. Despite the service's imperfections – most notably the fact that, although 54.2% of its staff are women, it continues to be an overwhelmingly white, middle-class, university-educated institution – it shows an intense disregard for the highly dedicated and strictly impartial civil servants who have busted a gut to keep the country going throughout the last two years.
The government argues that it must reduce Britain's permanent bureaucracy to its pre-Brexit size to save the public purse £3.75bn per annum, but leaving the European Union has drastically added to the Home Civil Service's workload and landed Whitehall departments (particularly, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) with a mountain of responsibilities which have been shared with the EU since the 1970s.
Likewise, the government's pursuit of 'Global Britain' (and the legacy of COP26 last November) have and continue to occupy hundreds of hours of the service's time, with future presidencies of the G7, COP and the United Nations Security Council also potentially being compromised by further reductions in capacity.
Despite the government's recent flurry of draft legislation and new initiatives to reduce 'red tape', it also has not escaped officials' notice that one of the drivers behind this initiative is the 'Minister of State for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency', who could make a start on the second component of his portfolio by submitting his own resignation.
Coincidentally, as Charlotte Ivers noted in this week's Sunday Times
, the strength of Rees-Mogg's convictions that civil servants must be at their desks in Whitehall (of which there aren't enough to go around) does not 'stretch to hard work at his end', having delivered just three of the deeply patronising 'Sorry I missed you…' notes which made the news in recent months.
The government is still deciding where (and when) to cut, but it seems highly unlikely that the bulk of the redundancies will fall on the centre in Downing Street or at the Cabinet Office, following the decision to establish a 'Prime Minister's Office' (overseen by a Permanent Secretary) earlier this year. As Andrew Mitchell (the MP for Sutton Coldfield and David Cameron's very short-lived Chief Whip) told the House of Commons in February, the Prime Minister is 'running a modern government like a medieval court' and, by its very nature, a new 'PM's Department' – and the resulting more presidential style of style – will require Johnson to continue to accrue power and personnel in Number 10 in an effort not to work 'through Whitehall and through the Cabinet'.
Although Sir John Nott (Secretary of State for Defence for two years from January 1981) once famously described Whitehall as 'the ultimate monster to stop governments changing things', the Civil Service is essential to how fully a government can implement its agenda. As Dr Patrick Diamond notes, the government – which poses 'simultaneously as state interventionists and anti-state deregulators, cutting red tape and bureaucracy while still displaying new-found enthusiasm for big government' – will struggle to fulfil its flagship 'Levelling Up' agenda with a significantly diminished Civil Service.
Tom Chidwick is a contemporary historian, who splits his time between London and Edinburgh