In order to prevent civil service staff numbers creeping up again despite heavy job cuts, it will be crucial to revamp business processes and enable people to work “smarter”.
This is one of the key findings of a report entitled ‘Managing early departures in Central Government’ published by the Commons Public Accounts Committee.
The document warned that, even though Whitehall had lost 35,000 posts so far as a result of the coalition government’s 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review, in a cost to the public purse of £600 million, it had so far failed to find new ways of working that did not threaten the provision of services.
The matter would appear particularly pressing as the Cabinet Office estimates that “half of the required headcount reduction is yet to come”. This means that the use of compulsory redundancies is likely to increase as a result, the report stated.
But Conservative MP and committee member, Richard Bacon, called for a “fundamental redesign” of working practices to ensure that government departments could cope.
“I think most people would accept that government had become somewhat bloated over the years and, with the financial threat from the size of the deficit, there was obviously a need to do something and do it quickly,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
A real risk
But the downsizing exercise was now moving into a second and more difficult phase - that of cutting more staff that weren’t simply “easy, low-hanging fruit”, and “making sure that it beds down so that it doesn’t start to creep up again”, Bacon said.
The only way that this phase could successfully be negotiated, however, was by “redesigning how work is done: not doing things that don’t need to be done, working smarter, making it more normal to do things digitally – in other words, on the internet – while at the same time protecting the people who don’t have access to the internet”, he attested.
Bacon indicated that other departments could learn from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency’s online service that enabled drivers to review their tax discs as well as HM Revenue & Customs’ online facilities, which helped save money and made it easier for tax payers to access services.
But the report warned: “The widespread absence of any new operating models, coupled with the pace and scale of the reductions, means that there is a real risk to departments’ ability to deliver services.”
The document estimated that it would take between 11 and 15 months to recoup the cost of making civil servants redundant, after which time departments would save about £400 million each year.
However, the figure contrasts with that of Cabinet Office Minister, Francis Maude, who predicted that savings would be more like £630 million per annum.