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Saturday, January 04, 2020

PM's attempts to shake up civil service off to stuttering start

Having read Tim Shipman's account of the 2016 EU referendum it was already clear to me that Boris Johnson's SpAd, Dominic Cummings does not think much of the civil service nor of the way that we are governed.

It is no surprise therefore that he has already put in motion calls to recruit his sort of people to take some of the key positions in the new Tory Government, blogging in particular that he is keen to work with “weirdos and misfits with odd skills”.

Johnson is also proposing changes to the way that the civil service operates, including making those in the most senior positions take regular exams to prove that they are up to their jobs, and ending the “merry-go-round” of officials changing jobs every 18 months. He also wants to restructure government departments. He and Cummings believe that senior government officials are “woefully unprepared” for the sweeping changes they want to implement.

As sure as night follows day however, the institutional conservatism of government has kicked back, and given what is being proposed is the politicisation of our civil service, that is not necessarily a bad thing.

The Guardian reports that one of the UK’s top employment lawyers has said Cummings' blogpost - in which he describes who should apply for jobs at No.10, and which circumvented the usual Whitehall recruitment process, being peppered with the type of combative language Cummings has become known for – is “quite outrageous from an employment law perspective”.

Meanwhile, Mark Serwotka, the head of Britain’s biggest civil servants’ union, said that Cummings’ comment: “I’ll bin you within weeks if you don’t fit – don’t complain later because I made it clear now”, implied that he “wants to hire and fire at will” and revealed an anti-trade union mentality that would be “strenuously resisted”.

In another article in the Guardian, Prospect’s deputy general secretary, Garry Graham, whose union represents government-employed specialists and scientists, said a previous test applied to Home Office staff before promotion was discriminatory:

“The idea of annual exams may be a good headline, but it risks putting the cart before the horse and introducing more bureaucracy and potential discrimination into the system,” he said.

In March, the government paid out £1m to 49 Home Office employees who had been told they would need to undertake a core skills assessment (CSA) if they were to be considered for promotion, which they all subsequently failed.

CSAs have been long criticised by unions that support Home Office staff, which say success rates for BME workers, or those older than 35, have been significantly lower than that of other employees.

Tribunal claims were initiated against the Home Office, which disputed the claims but agreed partway through the hearing, on 27 February, to settle, without admission of liability, and pay the claimants compensation totalling more than £1m.

Graham also questioned whether the new reforms announced by “diktat” will be successful without consultation of staff.

“Ultimately any civil service reform package stands the best chance of success if it is conceived together with civil servants, rather than issued by diktat from the centre,” he said.

If this sounds all very 'Yes, Prime Minister' then that maybe because it is. However, the objections are not without merit. Our system is designed to prevent the likes of Johnson and Cummings riding roughshod over it for a reason, to better protect the democracy that we hold sacrosanct and to ensure that those administering government stay above the fray.

If Johnson and Cummings are determined to take on the establishment then this may be a battle worth watching. I will go and buy some popcorn now.
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