Congelamento del flusso veloce? È un espediente politico che costerà al talento del servizio civile

There has long been a view among some politicians that the civil service has little idea of how the real world works. “Mia figlia è entrata al Tesoro all'età di 21 e ha iniziato a scrivere politiche intelligenti, but she’s never been at the sharp end of anything in her life,” Lord Haskins told a select committee nel 2001.

He wasn’t describing me, but he might as well have been – I joined the Treasury in the same month as his daughter, nel 1987. His image of fast-stream civil servants – people with a private school background and a PPE (philosophy, politics and economics) or Classics degree from Oxford – was drawn partly from reality, and partly from Yes Minister’s Bernard Woolley. It persists today.

But reality has moved on. Not only are fast-stream recruits far more diverse by gender, ethnicity, sexuality and disability than they were 20 anni fa, but a far greater proportion have a professional background or specialism – statistics, digital and data, or economics. Only a third join, as I did, as generalists. And many of those will, as I did, develop a particular specialism later on – the era of the pure generalist, who is supposed to be able to shape policy on anything from agricultural subsidies to defence procurement, belongs largely in the past.

While today’s fast stream still needs to do more to recruit people with non-professional backgrounds, it is much better at reflecting the country it serves. And it is also much better suited to meet the needs of a government with a revenue of more than £800bn a year, which delivers services ranging from passports and benefit payments to cybersecurity and counter-terrorism.

So the government’s decision to “pause” fast-stream recruitment, in order to help it to reach its target of cutting 91,000 civil service jobs, is not just an obvious political gimmick, but a false economy. There is a reasonable case for cutting civil service numbers overall after the pandemic and the immediate pressures of Brexit, although the government’s target is entirely arbitrary and fails to account for the fact that Brexit means a permanent increase, not just a temporary one, in the regulatory capacity the British state requires.

But simply stopping fast-stream recruitment altogether makes no sense. The numbers of fast-stream recruits are relatively small. Last year the civil service made fewer than 1,000 job offers to fast-stream applicants. Ma ancora più importante, the number recruited each year isn’t constant or determined by a central target. Demand is largely driven by what individual departments need, both for people to do jobs now and in the future.

So the impact of the freeze is likely to be some combination of the following. Primo, it will make it harder for the government to get things done now – or to get them done well. Departments that are on the cutting edge of new policies, from “levelling up” deprived parts of the country to agreeing new trade deals with India, will find that they can’t fill jobs that need doing. The result will be some combination of ministerial frustration, bad or rushed policy, or simply a failure to deliver at all.

Secondo, it will make it harder, not easier, to diversify the civil service and to shift its culture and mix of skills. In a widely praised speech two years ago, Michael Gove called on the civil service to be less southern and middle class, more fluent in science and maths, and more focused on data and on delivery – objectives shared by all recent governments. None of that is likely to happen if the civil service can’t recruit people who have those characteristics and skills, while it retains the ones who don’t.

E infine, like most recruitment and hiring freezes, it will prove to be an inefficient and unsustainable way of delivering costs and numbers. For obvious reasons, such freezes, combined with real-terms pay cuts, means that you lose the best people, while having little or no incentive to do anything – in terms of performance management or redundancy – of reducing the numbers of those who aren’t pulling their weight.

The government is of course entirely within its rights to want to reduce the size and cost of the civil service. But the right way to do that is to give financial – or failing that – headcount targets, to departments and the permanent secretaries who run them, and ask them to deliver them in the way that best meets the needs of the services (o, failing that, the way that does the least damage). This would get fewer headlines, but it would put the responsibility where it belongs. All the current policy does is freeze the recruitment of talent, causing problems for the civil service both now and in the future.

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