AI and automation will allow civil service to shrink by two-thirds in next 15 years, former HR chief predicts

Rupert McNeil suggests ‘radical’ opportunities could include merging DWP and HMRC

Credit: Piotr Majewski/Pixabay

Government’s former chief people officer has claimed that greater use of technology could enable the civil service to be reduced in size by two thirds in the next 15 years.

Rupert McNeil, who served as Whitehall’s HR leader from 2016 to 2022, this week told a committee of MPs that he believed that the target of cutting 91,000 jobs across departments set out by Boris Johnson had represented “a sensible number”.

He added that the workforce reduction plan “raises much bigger issues about the size of the civil service… [and] there’s a question about how big should the whole system be”.

McNeil, who was giving evidence to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee that the use of automation platforms could allow government to shrink even more drastically – perhaps by as much as two thirds when compared with its current tally of almost 490,000 full-time equivalent employees. 

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The ex-HR chief claimed that there are “well-established” principles that no organisation should have more than nine layers.

“If the top layer is the top of the executive – the prime minister, cabinet secretary – and the bottom two layers increasingly in modern organisations have been done by bots and AI, then you’ve actually got a much flatter structure,” he said. “The question is how many should that actually be? And the number that I reached was that by the mid-to-late 2030s, the civil service should be about 150,000 people if you take all those things into account.”

To achieve such a huge cutbacks would require “all sorts of investment in technology… and also an acceptance that maybe you don’t need as many departments”, according to McNeil.

“To be a bit radical, HMRC and DWP essentially do very similar activities. So really, should they not actually be one entity? There are real opportunities like that… as we move into dealing with the challenges the 21st century offers, we do need to look at that type of type of question.”

Read more of the former chief people officer’s thoughts on topics including civil service pay and Partygate on PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World

PublicTechnology staff

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