Government reform: Suspending Fast Stream will deprive departments of key tech and data skills, critics claim
Reported plans to pause graduate scheme are criticised by unions, former ministers and think tanks
The government is halting recruitment to the civil service’s flagship Fast Stream graduate programme as part of efforts to reduce departmental headcount to 2016 levels, according to leaked minutes of a recent cabinet meeting.
The mooted suspension has already met with fierce criticism, with union chiefs, former ministers and think tanks claiming government’s transformation plans will now be stymied by a lack of key technology and data skills.
Including the Fast Stream in a recruitment freeze aimed at helping to deliver 91,000 job cuts was known to have been discussed at the cabinet meeting on 12 May in Stoke-on-Trent, but earlier reports suggested the plan was not being progressed.
However, a story in the Daily Telegraph said leaked minutes from the meeting contained proof that Fast Stream recruitment was being paused, potentially for multiple years. It said the document contained the sentence: “The chair confirmed that the prime minister had decided the fast stream would be paused for at least a year.”
More than 3,000 graduates have joined the Fast Stream over the past three years, with applicants outnumbering available places in excess of 50:1.
Finding talent for the digital, data and technology profession is a key strand of the scheme; of the 1,072 people that comprised the Fast Stream’s 2021 intake, 100 joined the specialised DDaT track. This made the digital profession the second-most popular specialism, behind only project-management, which recruited 103 fast streamers.
Applications for the 2022 scheme closed in October last year. It is understood that the 2023 intake would be the first to be affected by the pause, if it goes through.
Dave Penman, general secretary of civil service leaders union the FDA, said the decision to freeze Fast Stream recruitment smacked of “virtue-signalling short termism”.
“The Fast Stream attracts some of the most capable graduates in the country and is about the next generation of leaders – this is venturing on vandalism for the future of the civil service,” he said.
Garry Graham, deputy general secretary at the Prospect union, said pausing Fast Stream recruitment was a “chaotic and damaging” move – particularly in regard to its impact on key technical expertise.
“The government’s reform agenda highlights the importance of STEM and data skills and the need for the civil service to promote new thinking and recruit the best and the brightest,” he said. “This announcement runs counter to that. It is also not clear whether the announcement refers to central Fast Stream recruitment or other initiatives run across the civil service, or whether this is a cabinet decision or the whim of certain ministers. What is clear is there is no centrally driven and coherent manpower plan for the civil service and this is strategy by headline and dog whistle.”
Former Cabinet Office minister David Lidington said the stopping Fast Stream recruitment was a “very foolish” plan.
“As a minister I found it improved policy making and implementation to have super-bright young officials around the table who'd challenge departments’ orthodoxy and present fresh thinking,” he said.
Institute for Government programme director Alex Thomas said any pause to Fast Stream recruitment would have knock-on implications for civil service diversity and skills – impacting departments’ ability to improve public services.
He added that focusing on headcount reductions rather than budget savings could create perverse incentives, “skewing towards losing the cheaper and younger talent rather than making bigger efficiencies elsewhere”.
A government spokesperson said the prime minister had “made clear” that the civil service worked hard to implement the government’s agenda and deliver for the public. But they stressed that headcount could not be maintained at its current level.
“Our focus is on having a civil service that has the skills and capabilities to continue delivering outstanding public services, which is exactly why we have changed recruitment rules to bring in the very best talent and are investing in the professional development of our people,” the spokesperson said.
"It is crucial that all aspects of taxpayer spending demonstrates efficiency and value for money. It was right to grow the civil service to deliver Brexit and deal with the pandemic, but we must now return it to 2016 staffing levels and have asked all government departments to set out how this might be achieved.”
Barclay and Sunak say there are “no exemptions” from headcount cuts
Separately, a letter to secretaries of state from Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay and chancellor Rishi Sunak last week stated that all executive agencies and non-departmental public bodies were expected to contribute to the 91,000 job-reduction target.
'Deploy new technology'
PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World reported last week, perm secs and their secretaries of state have been given until 30 June to complete returns with detailed scenarios for delivering headcount reductions to be delivered between now and 2024-25.
“We want to see a step change in our ability to workforce plan, ensuring that temporary surge activity is unwound, and that every single civil servant – whether on the frontline or non-frontline – is working on the government’s priorities,” Barclay and Sunak said.
“We need to use this plan to remove duplication, and deploy new technology to reduce our reliance on manual and time-consuming processes.
“In thinking creatively about how we best deploy our people, we are determined to deliver for the public, and continue our efforts to relocate civil servants outside London so that they better represent the communities they serve.”
Barclay and Sunak said they recognised departments would need to “consider reprioritisation” to meet ministers’ aspiration for 20% staffing cuts.
“To ensure these decisions are evidence-based, we are requesting detailed scenarios that set out headcount outturn and forecast by business unit through to 2024-25, the impact of those scenarios on budgets and outcomes, and the levers that you will deploy to deliver them.”
Barclay and Sunak stressed that the “profile” of the proposed reductions should be “relatively even across the spending review period”.
They said they expected headcount plans to be finalised at department level by the autumn and urged departmental leaders to show restraint in recruitment – although they actively discouraged blanket bans on new hires, particularly where key technology expertise is needed.
“We expect you to show discipline in your recruitment, while recognising the need for specialist skills – such as software engineers and data analysts – and that controls cannot be applied in a blanket fashion if we are to avoid disruption to key programmes,” they said.
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