Civil service blame games

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Who should take responsibility for civil service underperformance? Judging from past experience, ministers will just blame the infantry

Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, says it should be just as easy to sack badly performing civil servants as it is to sack private sector workers. Which is to say, in today’s Britain, pretty easy. In truth, it is already just as easy to sack civil servants (at least in the lower echelons) – so if it doesn’t happen it’s not because of the rules.

Sir Bob Kerslake, head of the civil service, says that ‘the vast majority’ of civil servants ‘work hard and do a good job’. But he also says the government needs to do more to tackle poor performers.

So who could object to that? Certainly not me, but let’s take little step back here and think about this – as opposed to having a knee-jerk reaction. What sort of ‘problem’ is being tackled?

First, let’s assume all civil servants’ work is equally important (a big assumption, which I’ll come back to later).

Second, let’s assume that a minority are underperforming – we’ll be ‘generous’ and assume that’s 10%. Let’s also assume that this 10% are only working at 50% capacity. So, if you followed that logic the civil service as whole would be performing at about 5% below par.

The civil service costs about £20.5bn a year (in staffing costs). So if we assumed an underperformance by staff of 5%, that would be a loss to the taxpayer of about £1bn a year.

But of course the loss in terms of salaries being paid for work not done is only a tiny part of the story. It is the loss of output that is really expensive. And this is where the issue of the inequality of civil servants” roles becomes so important.

Of the just under half-a-million civil servants, the vast majority are in low ranking jobs, doing relatively routine work that does not carry responsibility for a great deal of money. ‘Under-performing’ at these levels can have important, but not exactly disastrous, consequences.

For the 5,000 senior civil service (SCS) grade staff the picture is rather different. Many of these people are responsible for, or make a big contribution to, important decisions about multi-million or even multi-billion projects and programmes. ‘Under-performing’ at these levels can have dire consequences.

The major IT project that get’s a rubber stamp without proper scrutiny and ends up costing three or four times as much, or not working at all; the un-security-cleared official who gets access to material he shouldn’t (the ‘he’ is deliberate, you know who I’m talking about); the defence purchasing decision that turns out to be completely wrong; the failure to ‘speak truth to power’ and tell ministers a policy is heading for the rocks; I could go on.

Let’s be clear then – losses to the ‘public value’ of tens of billions of pounds that can be caused by ‘the Mandarins’ will dwarf any losses sustained by the hundreds of thousands of ordinary civil servants, a small minority of whom might be under-performing.

But take a guess as to where the focus of the new drive to tackle ‘poor performers’ and reduce civil servant numbers will be directed? At the poor bloody infantry.

As Martin Stanley points out over on his useful ‘How to be a Civil Servant‘ website, the last time there was a drive to reduce civil servant numbers the numbers in the SCS actually went up.

This post first appeared on Whitehall Watch

About Colin Talbot

Colin Talbot is Professor of Government in the School of Social Sciences (Politics), University of Manchester, and a former adviser to the Treasury select committee. He writes and comments widely on public management reform. Colin has worked with numerous national and international public sector organisations, as an adviser, consultant and researcher. He blogs at Whitehall Watch.

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