Civil servants across multiple government departments are reporting major issues in recent months caused by high turnover of ministers.
A union leader has hit out at “incompetent politicians” for changing policy “on the hoof,” leading to disruption for civil servants in delivering vital services. One source told NationalWorld recently that their department has been unable to do “any work in the last two weeks,” while officials in another department are waiting on a backlog of decisions which dates back to early summer.
Many government officials have struggled in recent months as a result of ministerial churn and changes in policy direction, even before the coronation of Rishi Sunak this week, who has once again reshuffled the cabinet. The running of government has been badly impacted by the unprecedented level of upheaval in recent months, according to sources across the civil service.
Civil servants in one department reported a number of issues, including extensive time and energy going into specialist recruitment in order to support work on an initiative which was launched by former Prime Minister Liz Truss and has now been scrapped. Before the coronation of Sunak as Prime Minister, civil servants in the department described a backlog on decisions dating back to the early summer, prior to the Conservative leadership election.
Speaking before Truss’ resignation, a government source told NationalWorld that after almost two months it was “not yet clear what the new administration wants”, and there is “real disaffection” among civil servants over a major policy U-turn in particular.
After being appointed by Sunak, Gillian Keegan became the fifth education secretary since July. This means that there have been the same number of education secretaries in the last six months as there were in the previous five years.
Since the wave of resignations in early July which triggered Johnson’s announcement that he would step down as Prime Minister, only Ben Wallace and Alister Jack have remained in their roles, as Secretary of State for Defence and Secretary of State at the Scotland Office, respectively. Alok Sharma has retained his role as the minister for Cop26 throughout this period, although he will no longer attend cabinet under Sunak.
While Jeremy Hunt has remained in place under Sunak after replacing Truss’ first pick as Chancellor earlier this month, he is still the fourth person to hold what is considered to be the second-most important cabinet role since July.
Speaking to NationalWorld recently, a government source said they’d been held up on a project which required Treasury sign-off only for the Chancellor to then be sacked, delaying the project even further.
The real impact of ministerial churn
Jonathan Webb, senior research fellow at IPPR North, told NationalWorld that ministerial churn has a serious impact on the government’s ability to develop solutions and deliver policy. He said: “Even if ministers aren’t experts when they go into a role they are generally able to build up an expertise quite quickly, thanks to the support of the civil service. But you lose that every time a minister comes in; you’re resetting that.”
Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS union, which represents civil servants, said members of his union suffer, “when incompetent politicians flail around changing policies on the hoof, failing to deliver”. He said: “The people who rely on the services our hard-working members provide also suffer at the hands of a government that is unfit for purpose. The government should invest in the civil service, employing more, not less, people who deserve an above-inflation pay rise to help them through the cost-of-living crisis and beyond.”
Political journalist Lewis Goodall reported earlier this month that he’d received a text from a civil servant describing meetings with ministers being cancelled because “they are too focused on their infighting and leadership campaigns”.
“This madness means that absolutely nothing can be done, and even if they get a new leader, we’ll get new ministers and every time there’s a new minister all our work halts and we have to spend months getting them up to speed,” the source reportedly said.
The difficulties facing civil servants in government come at a time when morale is already at an all-time low due to threats of job cuts, changes to redundancy schemes and perceived attacks on the civil service by government figures.
Speaking to NationalWorld, FDA Assistant General Secretary Amy Leversidge highlighted “all the recent turmoil,” in government and said that the civil service has been working to ensure that “the country keeps running amidst the current chopping and changing of ministers”.
She said: “This is against the backdrop of uncertainty around jobs, with the announcement of cutting 91,000 civil servants looming in the background, real terms pay cuts and the uncertainty of the upcoming Treasury announcements on public spending.
“Civil servants are dedicated to public service and will always work incredibly hard for the country, but morale is at an all-time low and the new Prime Minister, as the Minister for the Civil Service, will need to address this. I would urge the incoming Prime Minister - whoever it is – to treat the civil service with dignity and respect. They can do this by ending the culture of ministers attacking the impartiality of the civil service, appointing an independent standards adviser, and addressing the real-terms pay cut across the civil service.”
A government spokesperson said: "We are incredibly grateful to the civil service for the outstanding job they have done and are continuing to do in serving the public. Ministers and departments across government will continue to deliver for the people that they serve."