Downing Street is facing a showdown with the civil service over radical plans to overhaul how government is run.
Setting out the details of potential changes to the way Whitehall operates in The Daily Telegraph, Tory manifesto co-author Rachel Woolf said officials and special advisers should be forced to take exams to ensure they become competent in fields such as data science and forecasting and the “revolving door policy” of staff changing jobs every 18 months could be brought to an end to stop “institutional memory and expertise” being lost.
Claiming officials are “woefully unprepared” for wholesale reforms being planned by the prime minister, she added that widely reported plans for merging, creating or abolishing departments represented just a “tiny fraction” of the revolution that Boris Johnson and his chief aide Dominic Cummings will implement in the spring once Britain has left the EU.
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Cummings, described by the Telegraph as “the most powerful unelected official in the country,” is now likely to have a “major influence over the reforms” says the New European.
The Independent says he “is a long-standing critic of Whitehall” and has in the past said that the principle of a permanent civil service was “an idea for the history books” and complained that “almost no one is ever fired from senior posts due to involvement in failed projects”.
However, there is growing concern the reforms could politicise the famously neutral service, making it much more like systems of government seen elsewhere around the world modelled on the US.
Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA union which represents senior civil servants, told the PoliticsHome website: “Tired old rhetoric of ‘civil servants being promoted to a level of incompetence’ is not only insulting, but demonstrates a lack of understanding of the modern realities of the civil service”.
“All senior civil service jobs are externally advertised, meaning anyone promoted has not only competed successfully against their peers, but also with external candidates. Indeed many of the issues the civil service faces are of the government’s own creation. Churn in senior civil service roles is a result of a decade of pay stagnation, with movement between jobs the only route to a pay rise”, he added.
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Many of the suggested changes outlined by Wolf, “will not come as a shock those who have been following the issue of civil service reform for more than a decade”, writes Jane Merrick in iNews.
A report by the Institute for Government last year found that this “excessive” staff turnover cost the government up to £74m a year in recruitment, training and lost productivity, with several departments consistently losing between 20 and 25% of staff every year.
“It is worth remembering that bold civil service reform agendas from incoming administrations are not actually that new,” says Politico’s Annabelle Dickson.
Plans by David Cameron in 2010 to speed up the levers of power were “unsurprisingly, resisted by the machinery of Whitehall itself”, says Merrick.
“The difference 10 years on is that Johnson now commands more power than Cameron with an 80-seat majority, but while this gives him control in Parliament, his Downing Street team will be confronted with the same hard Portland stone of Whitehall”.
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