Couldn’t possibly downsize

16 May 08
PETER HETHERINGTON | ‘Humphrey,’ I said. ‘We simply have to slim down the civil service. How many people are there in this department?’

‘Humphrey,’ I said. ‘We simply have to slim down the civil service. How many people are there in this department?’

‘Oh, we’re very small.’

‘How small — 2,000? 3,000?’

‘About 23,000, I think, minister.’

Jim Hacker can contain himself no longer: ‘Twenty-three thousand administrators all to administer other administrators?’

OK, this is 1981. The manipulative, obfuscating Sir Humphrey is in his prime while, in the real world, the civil service is facing an ideological and cultural revolution that could consign some departments to history. Thatcherism is beginning to bite. The corporate state appears doomed. Privatisation of telecommunications, British Airways, British Leyland, steel, shipbuilding, gas, electricity, water and much else is being mooted. ‘Small government’ is the new mantra.

But the civil servants need not have worried. Like the smooth-talking, fictional permanent secretary in the BBC series Yes, Minister — promising the earth and, somehow, delivering little — the civil service generally survived unscathed, give or take an outsourcing tweak here, or the creation of a ‘next steps’ executive agency there, to take the heat off ministers when things go wrong.

To be fair, the Cabinet Office — perhaps the equivalent of Jim Hacker’s Department of Administrative Affairs — employs a mere 1,610, not 23,000. But the

overall strength of the civil service remains a relatively constant 520,000, with approaching 80% in four departments (Work and Pensions, Justice, Defence, and Revenue and Customs).

Easy meat for the tabloids, scourge of Sir Humphrey and Jim Hacker, but an important element of UK plc and of any liberal democracy — processing welfare payments, handling income tax, running prisons, dispensing justice, and defending the realm.

But at the centre of government, change — for so long mooted — has failed to materialise, apart from ritual rebrandings: out last year went the departments of Trade and Industry and Education and Skills, in came Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and Children, Schools and Families. Oh, and there’s no Office of the Deputy Prime Minister because we don’t have one any more. So now it’s Communities and Local Government.

A year or so ago, Christopher Hood, professor of government at Oxford University, compared the workforce of the former DTI with its equivalents in Germany and Japan — two of the world’s industrial powerhouses. ‘We found the DTI had many more people although its German equivalent spent much more money,’ he recalled. ‘It was the same in Japan.’

Although numbers have dropped a bit since then — 3,800 at the latest count, with a further 3,200 in the insolvency service and in Companies House — Hood believes Berr is

top-heavy. And for this department read the rest of Whitehall.

Hood recalls the promises of efficiencies, with the obvious implications for staffing levels, when IT systems were taking root in the civil service. Yet he finds it interesting that little has changed and that ‘numbers remain as large as they are’. Given that the traditional role of a department is to allocate central funds, regulate, organise and create policy, he sees no reason why central departments cannot be slimmed down and their functions dispersed to other agencies as appropriate.

Early next year, Whitehall will witness one of the biggest shifts from a department to an executive agency for some time. All the delivery functions of the DCLG — including work on the decent homes standard, homelessness and housing market renewal — will move to the new Homes and Communities Agency, which will also embrace the Housing Corporation and the regeneration body, English Partnerships. Its programme budget of around £17bn for three years from 2008 will dwarf the DCLG’s finances. But its staff will be relatively small — a little over 800 — compared with the current 3,150 at the DCLG, although some will transfer.

The irony of a relatively small but generously staffed department acting as the commissioner for a larger but tightly staffed agency has not been lost on some close to Whitehall. Will the move sound the death-knell for DCLG, if not now, then under the next government?

Government today is a different animal to the administrations of the late 1970s, when the state controlled the commanding heights of the economy, actively intervening rather than being a relatively passive bystander. But it micro-manages, regulates, monitors as never before, and regulation and inspection remain an industry in their own right.

So, as this government promises to devolve more power from the centre to councils and localities beyond — and like all oppositions, the new Tories are also on this track, promising the earth — surely it is time to consider slimming down government beyond the efficiency targets all departments have to meet. A fine sentiment, maybe. But will it happen? Just ask the new Sir Humphreys.

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