Ideology masquerading as housekeeping: UK to cut civil service

So, the UK Prime Minister has announced that civil service numbers should drop by nearly 20% over the next three years (a reduction of 91,000). This would return them to the 2016 level of peak austerity cuts (and the lowest since World War II), a level achieved before the implications of Brexit and, to a lesser extent, the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated significant recruitment.

The anouncement provided a nice headline for the PM after bad results for his party in the local elections and following the political fall out from his COVID-19 party fine. As Minister for the Civil Service, the decision on cuts is entirely in his gift. Civil service leaders were unsighted and there is no prior plan for how to make the reductions.

The public argument for the cuts is affordability and the potential for increased efficiency. The PM also set the announcement in the context of the cost of living crisis facing the population where the demand is for the government to act to help the less well off. The Prime Minister’s office was quoted as saying that the cuts were not an idelological position but simply good housekeeping. Let’s unpick those statements a little.

Affordability is always a matter of choice for governments. Talking to the press, the PM intimated that the cash saved could be used for tax cuts rather than additional investment or debt reduction. Efficiency also seems an unlikely result without a clear plan to change services. Instead the figure is plucked from the ether and the starting point will be a recruitment freeze.

The link to the cost of living crisis is a real stretch. Many civil servants are on relatively low wages. The Institute for Government data from 2021 had 55% of civil servants earning less than the median wage. These are the people currently being criticised by government and the press for struggling to process increased demands in the day to day roles of assessing tax returns, issuing vehicle registrations or passports and handling benefits.

The simplistic link made in the statements was broadly that if the public were having to tighten their belts so should the running of the government (as opposed, presumably, to civil servants doing something to mitigate the pressures on the public more directly). In the language of the announcements, one might detect a barely hidden tapping into the idea of the public sector as a protected and easy profession, which now needs to suffer too after the relative protection of employment in the sector during COVID-19.

So the announcement looks to be a continuation of an ideological position about small government and the market, wrapped up in language of hard times. The question is: why is the public sector such as easy ideological target?

It is the lived experience of engagement with the public sector which is perhaps the most powerful thing that makes it an easy target. While digitisation of services has gone some way to improving some routine processes for those who can access them, the Weberian role of the public servant as faceless processors against rules and regulations continues to bind the service to a previous era. In the iron cage of Weberian accountability the guiding principle is the operation of due process towards narrow economic efficiency and probity in the service of the government of the day. Legitimacy for the public sector is still tied to its disinterested pursuit of technocratic management to deliver the will of the government.

Unless public bureaucrats can find a more human, personal rationale, and a civic rather than technical legitimacy, they will continue to be easy targets. In new civic bureaucracy they might just find connections with the public and a clarity of purpose that has largely eluded them in the 21st century.

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