Professionals attack dumbing down of civil service

Professionals attack dumbing down of civil service

The main political parties have lost their way in a mad dash to cut the civil service, says the union representing professional workers in a new report published on 1 September, ‘Intelligent Staff, Intelligent Government.’

Published by Prospect, the report accuses the government of ‘dumbing down’ the civil service by the application of policies driven by cash savings instead of quality of service.

It argues that the real problem facing the civil service today is not size but skills, in particular the steady haemorrhaging of professional talent from all levels of the service.

This has created a government machine in the UK that is dangerously short of technical and scientific expertise and is constantly at risk of being ambushed by new scientific problems like GMOs, BSE, foot and mouth and MMR.

"The government is busy trimming its housekeeping bills while the fabric of the building is subsiding," said Paul Noon, general secretary of Prospect. "Professionals working for government are down in number by more than a third over the last 10 years. Physicists, chemists, engineers, electronic experts, veterinary staff, environmentalists and other important specialisms have all suffered. This has reduced government’s ability to respond to the demands of an increasingly knowledge-based society.

"It is time to bury the image of the bowler-hatted civil servant and recognise that in the 21st century government depends on highly-qualified professionals for most key services to the public."

Privatisation has been the single biggest factor in the dumbing down of government, says Prospect. The current administration has privatised air traffic control, defence research, medical advice on disability benefits, engineering support to the navy and horticulture research. It plans to sell off the Forensic Science Service and the Silsoe Research Institute, world leaders in crime detection techniques and agricultural engineering.

"These policies are almost as damaging and dispiriting to professionalism and the public service ethos as those of the previous Conservative government," said Noon.

Prospect’s report calls for a halt to further privatisations and PPPs, clear criteria for assessing the merits of competitive contracts, and a fairer system of determining pay across the civil service. It says the government should publicly recommit to the civil service partnership agreement and consult fully on the outcomes of the Lyons and Gershon reviews before they are implemented.

The professionals’ union will take its message to TUC 2004 in Brighton later in September, with a motion warning that the Gershon efficiency review will result in cuts to essential services, including regulation, law enforcement, national security, public health and safety at work.

Measures for even greater cuts advocated by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, such as closing down entire government departments, "show a wanton disregard for the duties of the state to its citizens," said Noon. Prospect argues that the consequence of current policies is:

Monopoly creation. Privatisation and contracting out often fail to generate competition. Many public services have been turned into privatised monopolies and substantial power has been concentrated in groups of private contractors. Experience of PFI schemes in the civil service shows that in many cases risk transfer is not achieved as government cannot allow its projects to fail.

Damage to collaboration. Ability to co-ordinate is often more important than competition. Competition can lead to unnecessary duplication of activities; blockages to the free flow of information and resources; and inability to co-ordinate action from the centre.

‘Dumb’ customers. Insistence on an institutional split between purchaser and provider can denude departments and agencies of the resources to be an intelligent customer and deprive the centre of independent policy advice.

Short termism. Dispersal of work among different contractors leads to fragmentation, discontinuity and short-term perspectives. These can severely damage the service provided, eg long-term data gathering and research and development.

High costs. Transactional costs involved in the contract culture can heavily outweigh any benefits.

Loss of facilities. The lack of a level playing field results in external contractors being chosen and a consequent loss of civil service facilities which are more efficient and effective.

Intelligent Staff, Intelligent Government calls for a reskilling programme with:

  • participation by users and staff in developing services
  • recognition for the essential role of professional staff in providing advice and support to government
  • investing in the development of higher skill levels to keep up with change
  • proper resourcing for the government’s role of ‘intelligent customer’, both atcontract level and in delivering policy advice to government
  • recruiting a critical mass of technically qualified staff to deliver on tasks and inform decision-making
  • more effective parliamentary control of the civil service by the Public AccountsCommittee and the National Audit Office.