Just when you think the near relentless attempts by the media to demoralise and demonise the Civil Service have reached a new low, there was depressing news in the Telegraph blames the MOD for failing to cut the number of Civil Servants, which apparently means the Armed Forces are being denied the ability to raise funds for new equipment (LINK)
Reading this sort of ‘news’ is a damning indictment on just how poor the levels of research and analysis are in many media outlets these days, and how desperate they are for a story that tries to give ‘bad news’.
The actual story relates to the news in the 2015 SDSR which imposed a nearly 30% cut on the overall headcount of the MOD Civil Service from roughly 55000 to roughly 40000 in a review which was politically barred from downsizing the Armed Forces, in order to save funds. The key point to note is that an SDSR is the entry review to a five year process of actions and tasks – and the commitment was to reduce numbers by 2020, not by 2017.
That this figure came as a shock to many in the Military was a bit of an understatement – Humphrey recalls vividly their reaction when they realised the reality of what reductions of this scale meant, and how difficult it would be to achieve it.
This difficulty isn’t because the Civil Service was reluctant Turkeys voting for Christmas and trying to prevent it happening, but instead because the scale of cuts represented massive changes to the way Defence had to do business, and at a point where it was also trying to generate efficiency savings.
Its often forgotten that the MOD Civil Service is arguably two distinct bodies – the ‘industrials / Skill Zone’ workers, who do a wide range of practical work such as dockyards, munitions depots, and all manner of physical and skilled work to directly support military units. Then there is the wider non industrial civil servants, who do the policy work, office support, intelligence analysis and all the other tasks required to support the armed forces.
If you want to reduce your workforce by 30% you have two real options – either stop doing stuff wholesale or do it differently or close sites down and make lots of people redundant. If you want to stop doing stuff, you need to identify what process is being done in Defence now that doesn’t need to be done in future. Do you privatise elements of support, reducing the headcount but not the money to spend on overseeing the work (e.g. could logistics be done differently). Do you stop doing some kinds of policy work or close offices down – but what is being done that is discretionary that can easily be stopped or merged?
The sort of change required is vast, it needs a lot of clever thinking to ensure that work being done isn’t forgotten about – what happens for instance if you fire all the people doing logistics contracts, but then have no one left to manage said contracts? You cannot just overnight say to one in three CS – ‘thanks chaps, don’t bother coming back in tomorrow’.
One only has to think back to the last big round of departures back after the 2010 SDSR when over 10,000 civil servants took a generous redundancy scheme and left. Morale was so low, and the terms reasonably generous that they managed to hit the three year target for reductions in the first year alone just with voluntary applications. This saw an exodus of very experienced people who left for either early retirement or other work.
The consequences were challenging – one only has to look at the near total dismembering of DE&S in Bristol to realise that a lot of very good people had gone, often without replacement and before a credible plan was in place to manage the work they’d left behind – usually it was a case of ‘gap the vacancy and hope to divvy the work up’. This in turn led to skills loss and an increasing reliance on contractors and consultants to do work at vastly higher cost to the taxpayer than before, and in turn it damaged the ability of the MOD to support the Armed Forces.
A further 30% reduction of staff in 2015, on top of a substantial reduction in 2010 was the last straw for many civil servants, who felt fed up, demoralised and tired of being blamed for the perceived failings of the Department – which many of them had no control of influence over. Humphrey recalls being a guest at a formal dinner a few years ago when the person to his left blamed him personally for the failure of MOD to support the troops in Afghanistan – it got to the stage for many of his friends where they were almost ashamed to admit they worked for the MOD for fear of the response they’d get.
Today the authors sense is that many good civil servants have left, others are biding their time. Part of the challenge in restructuring and downsizing will be trying to keep as much of the department as intact as possible – which is likely why no voluntary redundancy scheme has yet been announced – the uptake would be enormous and the loss of people hard to sustain.
This is perhaps the real problem – too many out there think of the MOD as supernumeraries who add nothing and do little. There is no real understanding of the value they bring, the skills they offer or the loyalty they show to the armed forces. It all comes down to tired clichés and silly arguments about ‘equivalent rank’ or fundamentally failing to understand that a civil servant is a civilian and not a military officer – one of the (several) breaking points for Humphrey was an poorly judged intervention by a junior staff officer outside London when he was sitting outside having a conversation with another civilian and failed to ‘come to attention’ as a very senior serving officer walked past him – apparently being a civilian wasn’t an acceptable excuse for not bracing up.
Until it is possible to have a sensible discussion that recognises the huge skill set in Defence, that the workforce has been through near constant change and reduction now for years and without much sense of a coherent ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ its going to be hard to raise morale of civil servants. Many are tired of being whipping boys in articles like this, many more are fed up of low pay, an until recently appallingly designed and implemented performance management system that seems designed to insult the intelligence of anyone who suffered it (friends who are HR professionals described the MOD appraisal system as arguably the single worst system they had ever seen), and finally a sense that the CS is the convenient whipping boy to protect ‘our brave boys’ from any form of criticism or attack, regardless of who was to blame, with no one willing to step in and stand up for them.
It is absolutely right to hold publicly funded organisations to account, but the relentless attack on the MOD CS is having a dangerous effect on the nations defences. People we need to have working in the system due to their skills, knowledge and experience are leaving. Recruitment is down meaning its impossible to replace them – at a time when much of Government is growing to handle Brexit, the MOD is reducing its staff by ever greater numbers. The overwhelming sense on leaving though is one of relief in walking away from an organisation that seems to go out of its way at times to devalue the efforts of its workforce.
The irony is that the savings from these reductions will be minimal – given the inability to reduce military headcount, it means the work will still need to be done, but the military left will be doing the work on top of their existing jobs, and at vastly higher cost to the taxpayer. Until the uncomfortable reality is accepted that military personnel costs are enormous, and that the only way to save money is to reduce headcount, this situation will continue. Comparing capitation rates and average salaries, we seem to be replacing people on one salary with someone on three times the total capitation rate to do exactly the same job – how does that make much sense?
Had MOD just made 30% of the workforce redundant in 2016 post SDSR, there would have been chaos today and it would be under attack for failing to show proper strategic workforce planning. But by trying to do this sensibly and work out what changes, what stops, and what has to be done differently in order to meet these targets, it is attacked for failing to make 30% of its workforce redundant in 2016…