Yesterday, the Institute for Government (IfG) published a report, based on government data, looking at the overall performance of the Civil Service, its readiness for the challenge of Brexit, and how transparent it is.
It concludes that Whitehall is largely performing well, but it suggests a lack of clarity in departmental priorities and a lack of coherence in the activity of the main Brexit-focused departments. The IfG also argues that the Civil Service could be more transparent. In fact, on most of the recognised open data indicators we are ranked in the top three, globally.
I think we can all agree that the Civil Service has rarely faced a more challenging set of circumstances.
It is responsible for implementing one of the most ambitious government programmes for decades, at the same time as making preparations for Brexit – itself a project virtually unprecedented in our modern peacetime history in both scale and complexity.
And the Civil Service is doing this while fulfilling its responsibility to maintain the day-to-day business of government and provide the services that people rely on, while all the time bearing down on costs.
Each of these weigh equally with us, and the Civil Service is adapting to their different demands with the flexibility and professionalism that are its hallmark.
In a tight fiscal environment, the new Single Departmental Plans provide a focus for the most effective and efficient use of departmental resources and capabilities to meet our priorities in delivering the Government’s agenda. They clarify policy responsibilities and also highlight where departments should collaborate to achieve their goals more effectively.
On Brexit, the Civil Service has been working as one since 23 June to ensure that we have the capacity and capability to deliver the best deal for the whole of the United Kingdom, supporting the Government to deliver on the mandate given by the British people in the EU referendum.
After the referendum, the Civil Service moved quickly to create two new departments, the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU), and the Department for International Trade (DIT). These have clearly defined and distinct purposes, roles and responsibilities in managing, respectively, our withdrawal from the EU and establishing our future global trading relationships. It is inconceivable, as some have suggested, that these substantial new functions could have been taken on by the Cabinet Office and its ministerial team.
The demands of Brexit have drawn a clear and unified response from the Civil Service. DExEU and DIT are acting as hubs for Brexit and global trade-related activity. The Foreign & Commonwealth Office and DIT are working together to identify our new trade capability requirements. Defra and DIT ran joint bulk recruitment through Civil Service Resourcing to fill senior roles in both departments. Everyday, I see close collaboration across departmental boundaries with teams working seamlessly together to deliver the collective goal.
Right across government, we are mobilising the people with the skills, experience and leadership qualities we need for the task ahead. To date, we have created over a thousand new roles specifically to prepare for Brexit. Two-thirds of these have already been filled.
Where the Civil Service needs to boost its specialist expertise, in legal and trade negotiation for example, we are doing this through additional external recruitment. So far, nearly a hundred new lawyers have been taken on to bolster our legal team, and we have just launched another external competition to add more. At the same time, we are building up our internal capability through the development of the Diplomatic Academy Trade faculty, an excellent DIT/FCO ‘joint venture’.
Although the overall number of civil servants has fallen by over 20% since 2010, this has run in parallel with an ongoing digitally driven transformation in the way we work. Over the same period, the size of the government estate has shrunk by a quarter, reducing running costs by over £1 billion. So, as we continue to work smarter, more digitally and collaboratively, we have been able to use some of the savings to ramp up the numbers working on Brexit and build our skills and expertise in this area. Overall we have increased the number of senior civil servants working on Brexit-related issues. We will not allow resource constraints to get in the way of this vital work.
As well as the many offers we have had from outside government, large numbers across Whitehall have expressed an interest in being part of this generation-defining work. This is testimony to the public service commitment of civil servants and their appetite for a challenge. Far from being daunted or distracted, there is genuine excitement at the professional opportunities Brexit presents and a will to make a success of it.
The people of this country should therefore have full confidence in a Civil Service that works for everyone in tackling the big issues of the day. The ongoing transformation of the Civil Service, to be the ‘Brilliant Civil Service’ the public deserve - more efficient, more responsive, and more reflective of society at large - has a major part to play in building that confidence.
At the same time as gearing up for Brexit, we are putting plans into action to shape our workforce for the future. Earlier this week, we published an Apprenticeship Strategy. This aims to attract talent to the Civil Service from all backgrounds and develop expertise in areas like commercial, project management and digital. Giving current employees opportunities to refresh or gain new skills is also a fundamental part of the strategy. The Civil Service is already the largest employer of higher-level apprenticeships in the country. But we will build on that over the coming years.
The Civil Service is now more diverse than at any time in its history (women make up over 40% of senior civil servants – how many private sector companies can say as much?); and more than one in ten of the top 100 employers for LGBT people in Stonewall UK’s latest list are government organisations. There’s much more to do, but we are making good progress towards realising our ambition to be the most inclusive employer in the UK by 2020.
As Head of a Civil Service that is constantly trying to improve its performance, I am always happy to hear what the IfG and others have to say. But I am very proud of what the Civil Service has achieved so far, as we work to implement Brexit successfully. And I have absolute confidence in the ability and preparedness of civil servants to rise to the challenges we now face.