Public Administration CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Public and Commercial Services Union (CSR 4)

Introduction and Summary

1. The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), the largest civil service trade union, represents over 270, 000 members in government departments, non-departmental public bodies, agencies and privatised areas.

2. We welcome the opportunity to comment on the civil service reform plan, which was drawn up without any consultation with the civil service trade unions. We would also welcome the opportunity to provide oral evidence to the committee as we are in a unique position to comment.

3. We note that a formal report on the reform plan was published only after parliamentary pressure was brought to bear. The detail on many of the topics remains sketchy and the impacts are obscured by vague language. Announcements of other proposals separately makes tracking which changes relate to the reform plan difficult.

4. The civil service reform plan presented an opportunity for the government to inspire civil servants, restate guiding principles and set a course for change to meet the demands of the 21st century. It should have set a course for a new era of rational change whilst upholding the traditions of independence, probity and professional standards that have gained citizens’ trust and international respect.

5. It could have broken with the political culture of attacking and blaming the civil service that has prevailed over recent years, which has caused demoralisation across the workforce—as the civil service people survey demonstrates.1 The plan should have clearly stated the important role played by the professional central administration and individual civil servants in implementing democratically decided policies and in creating a secure and prosperous UK.

6. There should have been more emphasis on being a good employer; emphasis on equality, diversity and the positive advantages of maintaining and advancing policies to support this; and greater prominence of the work carried out by civil servants in helping communities to create a prosperous economy. It failed to do this and has largely presented a series of negative messages.

7. The introduction highlights the strengths of the civil service, including its values and its diversity. These have not been easily achieved: much of the strength now apparent is the result of consultation and joint working with trade unions over many years. Cuts in staff and resources undermine these strengths, and jeopardize the diversity of the workforce.

8. The plan contains statements by the minister and the head of the civil service about the civil service’s “real strengths”: “It exists to implement the policies of the government of the day, whatever its political complexion, its permanence and political impartiality enables exceptionally rapid transitions between governments. The majority of civil servants are dedicated and hard-working, with a deep-seated public service ethos”. The civil service is “open, diverse and professional”. They say that we must keep and build on what is good and there is a welcome focus on skills development and enabling civil servants to do their jobs better. PCS shares the government’s commitment to the vision of a civil service “trusted and respected by the public, the government of the day and future governments as an efficient, effective organisation building on [its] reputation for integrity and impartiality”.

9. However, there are also reiterations of unhelpful stereotypes, comparisons with the supposedly more effective private sector and ideological assumptions about the type of change that is needed and what it will deliver. There is no demonstration that what is proposed in the Plan really reflects the type of change which the public and civil servants themselves are asking for, or that it will achieve the modern public services it wants.

10. Areas of particular concern to PCS members as government employees—skills, deployment, organisational performance and the employment offer—are outlined in chapters 4 and 5 of the plan. These sections include commitments to learning and skills but also outline changes to terms and conditions which will undermine the unity of the civil service and break up the total rewards of the “civil service offer”.

11. The select committee’s questions do not focus on this aspect of the plan, but we wish to draw the committee’s attention to the absence of national consultation with the trade unions which has contributed to proposals that will not help to create a productive and engaged workforce.

12. The National Trade Union Committee (NTUC), and its predecessor the Council of Civil Service Unions (CCSU), have for many years pursued a positive agenda on productivity, engagement and reward based on the Whitehall ll research carried out by Sir Michael Marmot and his team.2 PCS would have expected that the government would have sought to make use of trade unions’ expertise and insight.

13. The NTUC has sent a formal response to the head of the civil service and continues to seek discussions with him on this matter.

14. The select committee asks specific questions and we offer PCS’s views on these questions below.

Is the civil service in need of radical reform?

15. Generally PCS is critical of the constant radical change that governments have imposed on the civil service in recent years. “Reform” is positioned as being a solution to a perceived “problem”. We reject this perception. As recognised by the minister and the head of the civil service in the reform plan document, the UK civil service is much admired as a model. This would not be the case if it was failing to the extent that the government seems to wish to portray

16. PCS also challenges the manner in which “reform” and “modernisation” are used to imply that the structure and ways of working of the civil service are inappropriate and out of date. An unhelpful tradition has grown up of believing that the civil service must do things in the same way as the private sector (which in itself varies greatly depending on the goods or services provided).

17. “Radical” reform is not helpful when services have to be maintained. Changing everything constantly, especially during a period of reduced resources, is a recipe for chaos. Recent difficulties such as those in the UK border agency and the department for transport reflect the pressure that cuts in resources and changes to procedures can cause.

18. The government proposes to review the delivery landscape and arms length bodies every three years to identify innovation and different delivery opportunities. Such bodies have been subjected to constant change over many years, often to the detriment of consistent policy and service delivery—this has been of particular concern in the education sector. Innovation needs to be balanced with stability in order to ensure that effective services are maintained.

19. The plan advocates “different delivery models” but the only example given is that of MyCSP, which has not been a success and was undertaken without the support of the staff of the organisation. Public ownership is a mutual model in itself and maintains the accountability that can be lost in other models. No evidence is presented of other innovative governance ideas.

20. The path of outsourcing, shared services and privatisation is not the correct way to take civil and public services into the future. Democratic accountability can only be guaranteed if there is a direct reporting line between citizens and those carrying out publicly funded work.

Are the government’s plans for reform, as outlined in the civil service reform plan and related documents, likely to lead to beneficial changes?

21. The plan lists factors that affect the environment in which the civil service operates as evidence of the need for change. Greater consideration is needed of whether the proposals really do address the problems raised by these factors.

22. The plan neither sets a coherent vision nor addresses immediate concerns about job cuts, redundancies, pay and pensions. It summarises a number of worrying trends and initiatives already in train and presents further changes as low-key when they could lead, without proper debate, to radical shifts in the role of the civil service. Time is not being allowed for proper consideration of the effects.

23. PCS does not accept that cuts to the public sector are the right way to tackle economic problems caused by bad practices in the finance sector. The answer does not lie with reducing the civil service to such an extent that it cannot deliver the infrastructure that the public rightly demands its government provides, such as collecting taxes.

24. PCS has concerns arising from our experience of attempts to establish mutuals out of services currently delivered by civil servants. There has been little evaluation of whether the steps taken are really resulting in the benefits predicted. There is significant evidence that these initiatives are not appropriate in the public sector. The government nonetheless continues to instigate further initiatives.

25. The themes listed by the minister in his Foreword do need attention: “To strengthen accountability. To build capabilities where they are missing. To transform performance management and career development. To tie policy and implementation seamlessly together. To require better data and management information to drive decisions more closely”. PCS does not believe that the changes that are needed have either been identified correctly or “set out with sharp clarity” as he claims.

26. There is no evidence that “opening up” policy making to external providers will lead to better policy or implementation. Any improvements required can be more cost-effectively achieved by retaining this function within the civil service. PCS strongly believes that good policy making depends on:

making it easy for a wide range of stakeholders to make their views known;

allowing sufficient time for submissions to be gathered, discussed and considered; and

those making proposals being willing to adjust their own thinking in responding and deciding how to move forward.

27. Involvement of those with specialist knowledge and delivery expertise is important, but this is best encouraged by a system where all interest groups submit views rather than the policy making itself being contracted special interest groups. Analysing responses and drawing up policy documents is best done (or at least controlled) by neutral civil servants whose terms of reference include considering long term public interest and are set by Parliament or by ministers accountable to Parliament.

28. Many policies that prove not to be implementable actually originate from ministers or lobby groups. Part of civil service role is to examine barriers and expectations and provide objective and practical advice. Ministers are likely to encounter greater difficulty in understanding the practical implications of policy proposals if this step is removed from the process.

29. PCS is concerned about the trend in the reform plan and related documents to move the civil service towards a more commercial model—for example the emphasis on shared services, commercial skills and the narrow pool from which non-executive members of departmental boards are drawn. Will this really benefit the general public, citizens and users of services or simply the suppliers and contractors who seek to make profits from the public purse?

30. In terms of benefits to civil servants themselves and the ability of the civil service to attract highly skilled and committed employees, PCS supports some aspects of the learning package that is being proposed—particularly the accreditation of qualifications. Other proposals will undermine the reward package and hinder the recruitment, diversity and effective deployment of civil servants.

31. PCS rejects the proposal to introduce local pay rates. Such a system will prove divisive, inequitable and inefficient. Most large, multi-site private sector companies have national pay structures. HR professionals in companies with branches throughout the country state that national pay structures and national pay determination provide simplicity and efficiency. To pay civil servants less in the poorer parts of the country is unjust. The jobs they do require the same level of skills and qualifications as in wealthier areas and there are often factors in low income areas which make the demands faced more challenging.

32. The employment offer should encompass a clear vision for the role, responsibilities, rights, rewards and recognition for all civil servants, with a sustainable balance between innovation and stability that allows them to understand what is required, acquire skills and expertise and perform well against objective criteria.

33. Public service should be encouraged, celebrated, and fairly rewarded. The civil service should be a good employer. Civil servants need to feel valued and given the necessary resources to provide excellent public services. Promoting equality and diversity through inclusive workplaces, flexible working and excellent learning opportunities is an essential element of this approach.

34. National bargaining and pay rates would support a coherent national civil service where employees can develop their careers across departments and different localities without unnecessary financial constraints or barriers.

35. A modern employment offer should recognise the right to join and participate in a trade union and put in place proper consultation and negotiation channels to inform how change is managed. Attacking trade union and facility time agreements at the same time as cutting jobs, reducing HR resources and changing terms and conditions is asking for further confusion and resentment as the changes required under the plan are implemented.

What is the best approach for achieving consensus on the future size, shape and functions of the Civil Service?

36. The core values of the civil service—integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality—are set out in the civil service code and are generally accepted as the basis of good governance. Adherence to these values should be central to any reform or change that is proposed.

37. The civil service has a constitutional role in providing governance as part of the fabric of a civilised society. Size, shape and functions should follow the needs of the democratic structures that it has to service and its responsibility for delivering its ongoing operational role including collecting taxes, delivering benefits, laws and justice and ensuring national safety and security.

38. The civil service carries out on-going functions on behalf of the state and its citizens, as well as working for the government of the day. Its size and shape should be based on a full assessment of what resources are required to fulfil those responsibilities.

39. Creating a smaller civil service is an ideological commitment of the current government. It has already backfired, for instance in the Border agency, DWP and HMRC, where job cuts have been followed by large recruitment exercises when a reduced workforce was found to be unable to deliver the government’s programme.

40. “Reducing bureaucracy” raises a number of governance issues. Accountability and democratic control rely on reporting and recording mechanisms, which give rise to a certain level of administration. This creates tension between speed, efficiency, accountability and effectiveness. The plan’s proposals on accountability could change the nature of the constitutional role of civil servants and should be subject to much more detailed and thoughtful consideration.

41. PCS believes that it is time for governments to recognise that the role played by the civil service and the functions it carries out demand a different approach than simply importing business and management techniques from the private sector. Many who have moved between different sectors are quoted as being highly impressed by the way that civil servants deal with the political and financial constraints and the stricter accountability regime that they operate within.

42. The public expects civil servants to use their expertise in the longer term and wider interests of the state and its citizens, and to continue to deliver such services regardless of changes of government. The thrust of the reform plan is to improve the way that the civil service delivers the specific policies of the current government and fails to take sufficient account of its longer term, impartial and constitutional functions.

43. PCS accepts that updating is needed to take account of changes in structures, demands and technology, and that allocations of resources will vary as governments decide on different priorities. Such change should be incremental and put in place through consultation with appropriate parties—not simply driven by political ideology and media caricatures.

44. PCS has sought to address change through working with management to improve services and employee engagement whilst supporting the wellbeing and skills. Joint initiatives on learning, flexible working and green issues have demonstrated that serving the needs of citizens and taxpayers does not have to be done at the expense of the health, security and fair reward of civil servants themselves.

45. The lack of consultation with trade unions and other appropriate stakeholders has undoubtedly contributed to the weaknesses in the plan. Better consultation should be built into processes for future change.

46. It is PCS’s view that radical change should not be based on party political decisions without wider parliamentary and public consideration of its impact. The reform plan intends to change significant aspects of the civil service’s functions, size and shape. There should be much broader consideration of whether this really is the direction that citizens wish to follow.


47. The reform plan notes that “The civil service has sustained its global reputation over many decades because it has changed successfully with the times: and it can do so again now”. This demonstrates that accusations that civil servants are barriers to change are unfounded. The other side of this coin is that the civil service has retained core values that protect its constitutional role. Some of those values are threatened by proposals in the reform plan.

48. The “reform” agenda and the transfer work and responsibilities to the private sector followed by this government and previous governments is based on a perception that public sector bodies can and should behave in the same way as private sector companies and that competition drives better outcomes in policy and performance. This view makes no allowance for democratic constraints and public accountability. It gives rise to an erroneous view that private companies can deliver services more efficiently.

49. It is driven by a lobby of companies that stand to gain from outsourcing and privatisation rather than by demand from the public who use and currently own the services. The case for cutting public sector services, outsourcing delivery and adopting private sector methods has not been proven: in many cases this approach has resulted in failure.

50. Civil servants, demoralised by constant unwarranted criticism and attacks on their terms and conditions, are unlikely to be inspired by a plan that continues along this path. The plan undermines rather than builds on the factors that are central to the success and good reputation of the civil service.

51. The civil service people survey provides robust information about the experiences and engagement of civil servants which tallies with our members’ views. This evidence should be used to address the issues that matter to civil servants and create a basis for the renewed commitment, improved performance and ability to fully embrace the digital age that the government seeks.

52. PCS does not resist good change. Our members want to use their skills to benefit citizens, to improve the services they deliver and the way they carry out their work and to make sure that systems operate effectively. They have the expertise and experience to identify problems and come up with solutions. Many have gained these skills in the public sector, but equally many have worked in a variety of sectors—their knowledge and expertise is far wider than crude media perceptions. They should be fully included in shaping the future civil service.

53. The reform plan addresses the concerns of politicians, media commentators and companies that wish to benefit from outsourcing, not the concerns of civil servants, public service users and citizens.

November 2012


2 J Ferrie (ed), Work, stress and health: the Whitehall ll study, CCSU/Cabinet Office, 2004

Prepared 5th September 2013