Civil Service praised for agility amid extreme Brexit pressure

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The civil service has become more agile and put more onus on employee wellbeing, as a result of the immense pressures placed on it by Brexit.

According to a new report by the Institute for Government the past few years have seen large numbers of staff seconded to other departments and tens of thousands of civil servants change roles with the redeployment of officials to staff emergency operations centres.

The number of job shares increased and large numbers of employees became mental-health first aiders.

Despite major difficulties, the report says the civil service’s model proved to be one that was relatively easily adapted and this has helped it mount an effective coronavirus response, with officials and ministers quickly positioned to work together on a cross-departmental basis.

“We have seen the civil service at its best in the sheer scale and complexity of the work it has done, often in new, innovative ways and at breakneck speed. But we have also seen some of its weaknesses exposed – extreme pressure has highlighted issues in its workforce model and policy making,” the report said.

“The immense scale of the Brexit task also drove innovations that should help the government response to the coronavirus pandemic. No-deal preparations saw the introduction of faster decision making, the rapid relocation of large numbers of officials onto priority projects, and closer working relationships with the governments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.”

An independent thinktank, the IfG interviewed Whitehall sources including officials, ministers and special advisers to produce its report.

It pinpointed several failings during the Brexit process in Whitehall, stating: “The task of delivering Brexit also exposed weaknesses in the civil service. Senior officials failed to confront ministers with the implications of not making key decisions, and both ministers and officials refused to be upfront about the severe political and economic consequences no deal could have in Northern Ireland.”

The report found that both Theresa May and Boris Johnson failed to defend civil servants such as former chief Brexit negotiator Olly Robbins who became the target of political and personal attacks.

“The prime minister [May] was notably silent: she offered no support to her key adviser, who was taking personal and professional attacks as a result of her policy decisions,” the report stated.

Excessive secrecy prevented staff from carrying out their jobs properly at times, the report stated, and the stress generated by the pressures meant that an offer of a “firebreak” holiday after the second no-deal deadline on 12 April 2019 led to droves quitting their jobs because they were unable to face a return to the Brexit bedlam.

Maddy Thimont Jack, senior researcher at the IfG, said: “Brexit demonstrated the very best of the civil service. It managed to unpick a 47-year relationship with the EU in less than three years, working under immense pressure and to extremely tight timelines. But the task is still not complete and the tensions that Brexit exposed – particularly, between ministers and officials – have not necessarily gone away.”

When Michael Gove was appointed as head of exit operations (XO) and no-deal planning, the IfG found that many issues eased. Secrecy levels were lowered and a dashboard involving 350 milestones was implemented. The process became more like one from “a programme management board … than a cabinet committee”, said the report.

However, the task given the civil service between 2016 and this year was too great and the pace was unsustainable, the study stated. The civil service’s focus was narrowed down to simply averting the immediate chaos of crashing out of the EU; the longer term ramifications for the country of Brexit had been neglected, it said.

The study recommended that the civil service “should continue to support the mental health and morale of officials, particularly as the government manages both the coronavirus response and Brexit this year”.

This recommendation’s relevance is heightened by forthcoming employment tribunal hearings involving former Home Office permanent secretary Sir Philip Rutnam and home secretary Priti Patel. Rutnam has said he would make a “protected disclosure” under whistleblowing laws.

Before resigning on 29 February, Rutnam wrote to all senior civil servants in the department highlighting the dangers of workplace stress and sought to remind ministers that civil servants should not be expected to do unrealistic work outside office hours.

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