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Cutting off your nose to spite your own face is one of those idioms that rarely gets a mention these days. In the case of the government’s dealing with the civil service, however, it’s perhaps still as prescient as ever.

I was reminded of this issue last week when I attended an RSA lunchtime lecture on the US Presidential Election. At the Q&A towards the end of the event, a question was asked about the extent to which it mattered whether Romney or Obama was elected, given that the administration of influential advisors and White House staff is unlikely to change dramatically in the event of a switch in President. This is based on the common understanding that the government underlings hold nearly just as much sway as the leaders do in shaping (and certainly in delivering) policies.

Based on the behaviour of the past few years, it appears that this isn’t a rule that much of the government subscribes to. Not long ago, I published a blog post identifying a number of worrying trends running throughout Whitehall – most notably that senior civil servants had left in droves since the coalition took power. To take one example, the Department for Work and Pensions – a department dealing with some of the most significant welfare changes in years – had lost as much as 35 per cent of its senior staff in the space of just over a year.

The exodus is in part to do with the natural turnover of olds hands that occurs when a new government comes to power, and in part to do with the attractive offers of more lucrative contracts to be had in the private sector. Yet it is hard to imagine that these two factors could account for the sheer size of the civil servant loss.

Surely we also have to add to the equation the poor relationship between the civil service and the government, which the latter appears to have mishandled with predictable consequences. Witness, for instance, David Cameron’s labelling of the civil service as the “enemies of enterprise”. Or look at the survey undertaken last year by the Department of Health which found that only 14 per cent of respondents gave a positive response to the statement, ‘when changes are made in the department they are usually for the better’. Nor is this a contained problem. Private discussions with various civil servants indicate that the feelings of animosity and disillusionment are present across different departments.

The result of all of this is not only that existing civil servants – particularly senior ones – are jumping ship, it is also that the career of a civil servant becomes increasingly less appealing to the younger generation. After all, in spite of the generous benefits, how many young people want to work for an institution whose staff are publicly denigrated on a regular basis? In a recent PwC survey of 4,000 millennials (people aged under 30), 11 per cent of respondents said they did not wish to work in government and public services solely because of their image. This figure is just behind the insurance and defence industries and a couple of points ahead of the banking and capital market sector (see diagram below).  This is perhaps no surprise, given that the reputation of the organisation was reported as the second most popular factor in determining whether the respondents accepted a job.

To return to the original idiom, the reason why all of this is a problem is because without a motivated, engaged and highly-skilled civil service, the government is largely hamstrung in its capacity to develop and implement effective policies. That the spate of U-turns now characteristic of the coalition government occurred during a significant downsizing of the civil service and a breakdown in relations is no coincidence. What is surprising is how such an elementary rule of thumb – that you need a decent set of foot soldiers to get the machinery of government working  – is so easily forgotten in the higher echelons of power.


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