Civil service cuts are more than just a numbers game

Reposted from The Guardian Policy Hub

The current Civil service is now the smallest since the second world war.

In praising the reduction in civil service numbers, Francis Maude reveals a lack of understanding about the complexity of effective cuts…that’s probably because he’s a tw*t!

Never trust a man named after two women.

If, like David Cameron, your political aim is to shrink the state, you need to recognise a paradox. The way Francis Maude has been extolling cuts in civil service numbers shows he really hasn’t got it.

To cut well, you need to be clever. Contracting, the most obvious form of cutting, isn’t simple. The fuss around G4S, Serco and Atos proves that letting and monitoring outsourcing contracts is a tricky business, as is transferring functions to local government, the third sector or private individuals. Clever cutting, that doesn’t create demands for government intervention further down the line, requires public officials who are extra resourceful. They are also going to be peculiar, due to the fact that they will get their kicks from decimating their own kind. That probably means paying them extra money and not imposing artificial caps on remuneration.

The Cameron government would have been a lot more effective in its own terms if it had not been so rigid about civil service pay, as Cabinet Office ministers privately acknowledge.

The love-in this week between Maude and George Osborne conceals electric tensions. Great claims were made for efficiency savings (though they would be a lot more convincing if properly audited) and Maude manfully thanked the Treasury. He added that when officials in departments “elect to work with the centre of government from the outset, proactively and positively”, great things are accomplished.

Behind the scenes, however, he is scathing about Treasury officials’ refusal to pursue value for money in detail, or to empower the Cabinet Office to bang heads together and take really big bites out of Whitehall’s cost base. You can’t just tot up the body count among civil servants and declare the job done. It’s not “efficient” if numbers are cut and public services fail, or other parts of the public sector have to expand in compensation.

Look at the Department for Education. Maude singled it out in his speech, saying “it is halving in size, but its radical programme is changing the face of secondary education”. It turned out not to be the best week to shine Michael Gove’s halo. He is having to explain why stripping councils of responsibility for schools might conceivably have opened the door to local educational anarchy, with large cultural and possibly security implications.

A calmer, more considered approach might have been to cut the council role while you beefed up central oversight, through the inspectorate and the Education Funding Agency, the subdivision of the education department that hands out the money to schools and checks it is being well spent. But no. Councils have been cutting swathes of staff and the Department for Education has also been cutting staff. Like the class swot, eager to please teacher, Gove has been assiduous in offering up savings in departmental staff and spending.

Coincidentally, the Commons Public Accounts Committee has been following up a National Audit Office study of Gove’s central-local administrative links. Something has got to give, and in this case it’s accountability. Just how, the PAC asks, do you take on responsibility for thousands of academies and free schools while slicing administration costs? Between 2012-13 and 2015-16 the education department is set to take on 50% more schools and colleges – some 12,000 – at the same time as cutting staff by a further 15%.

As the PAC says: “Ensuring proper accountability for public spending with less resource will be a huge challenge and the department has yet to demonstrate that it can meet its responsibilities.”

We now know that Gove and head of Ofsted Sir Michael Wilshaw see the world differently, interpreting conversations between them in diametrically opposed ways. That’s not all. As Gove cuts civil servants in his department, Wilshaw is bumping up Ofsted staffing and is even abandoning the outsourcing of inspection, adding substantially to its headcount – for the sake, he says, of coherence and consistency in school visits. Effective cutting is a lot harder than slash and burn.

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3 Responses to Civil service cuts are more than just a numbers game

  1. Mike Sivier says:

    Reblogged this on Vox Political and commented:
    Never trust a man named after two women, indeed!
    Especially when he’s saying cutting the civil service is a wonderful thing while passport applications go unhonoured and benefit claims undecided.


  2. sdbast says:

    Reblogged this on sdbast.


  3. beastrabban says:

    Reblogged this on Beastrabban’s Weblog and commented:
    There are lessons in here also for the sheer cost-effectiveness of privatisation. When Maggie and Major sold off the water industry and other utilities, much was made about how they were cutting bureaucracy. In fact, the privatisation led to massive increases in bureaucracy as the regulatory authorities set up to monitor these industry had to be expanded to make sure they did their job properly. Which was hugely embarrassing for the Tories, who then embarked on a series of massive cuts in these bodies in order to please their friends in industry.


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