Sunak’s suggestions for civil service shake-up get frosty reception

Aspiring PM ‘doesn’t understand the basics’ of how government works, critics claim


Rishi Sunak’s reform plans for the civil service have been blasted by the head of a Whitehall union, who accused him of failing to understand how government works.

The Conservative Party leadership candidate this week unveiled a swathe of proposals to reform the civil service, including a plan for senior officials to spend at least a year of their career outside Whitehall. 

Sunak also announced that he would reverse the decision to suspend recruitment into the Fast Stream programme – government’s primary graduate recruitment scheme, and a key source of new digital and data talent. The aspiring prime minister said he would reform the scheme, however, it by getting fast streamers to work outside London and in public service delivery roles.

The plans include the proposed introduction of performance-related pay – which critics noted was first introduced to the civil service in 1982. The former chancellor also said he would increase scrutiny of the Scottish Government by getting senior Scottish civil servants to face MPs at Westminster select committees.

The proposed reforms will run alongside a sharp reduction in the size of government, with Sunak confirming he would press ahead with Boris Johnson’s plan to cut tens of thousands of jobs. But the leadership contender said he would focus on “back-office” roles.

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Institute for Government senior research fellow and ex-civil servant Jill Rutter called Sunak’s proposals “a package aimed at the civil service of the 1980s”.

Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union said that the would-be Tory leader’s ideas show that he “doesn’t understand the basics of how the civil service operates”.

“Once again we’re seeing a Conservative Party leadership candidate make an announcement that fails to grasp the challenges the civil service faces and fails to provide any meaningful solutions,” he added.

The FDA general secretary also questioned how Sunak’s plan to get senior civil servants to spend at least a year of their career outside Whitehall would work when the government is planning to reduce departmental headcount so severely.

“Whilst many civil servants would welcome the opportunity to gain experience outside of the civil service, this would require significant resources at a time when he states he wants to dramatically cut staff numbers,” he said.

Similar plans are already under way, with Civil Service HR last year creating a secondments unit to “improve the effectiveness of government by making use of people with skills and experience from outside, and give those within government the opportunity to develop their skills outside”.

Summarising his response to Sunak’s announcements, Penman said: “With Brexit still a work in progress, huge backlogs in public services from the pandemic, a new war on mainland Europe, a cost-of-living crisis, and now a looming recession, the country needs a prime minister who can equip the civil service with the resources and skills it needs to meet the challenges ahead, not ill-thought out rhetoric that doesn’t survive the first hour of scrutiny.”


Sam Trendall

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