Rees-Mogg gets his hands on the MoG
But we still don’t know what a non-frontline civil servant is
Jacob Rees-Mogg has a new job. The former leader of the House of Commons is now minister for Brexit opportunities and government efficiency, but he wasn’t talking about his own role when he told The Times this weekend: “You’ve got to think, is this providing value? Is it doing something that needs to be done? Is it doing it in the most efficient way?”
No, the new minister for touring freeports1 was talking about civil servants, all of whom, he felt the need to remind us, are paid for by taxes.
“And the Ronald Reagan line, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help’, is one we should always bear in mind.”
If we can presume that The Times quote of Rees-Mogg is right, it is intriguing that his recollection of the quote is an incomplete one.2
Indeed, the government’s plan for the reduction in the size of the civil service is also a bit partial. The government has said that it plans to “reduce non-frontline civil service headcount to 2019-20 levels by 2024-25, helping to fund increases to frontline roles”. The trouble is, though, that no definition of non-frontline civil servants exists.
It has been reported by the Financial Times that a plan for job cuts is being developed by the Treasury and Cabinet Office ahead of the start of the new Spending Review settlements kicking in from April3, but if this responsibility now falls into Rees-Mogg’s remit4, we do not get many helpful hints of what frontline might mean.
The civil service grew during the coronavirus response by around 65,000 posts, according to Rees-Mogg5, who has indicated these will be cut back as a minimum.
As I have mentioned previously, it is reasonable for government to want redeploy, or even reduce, the number of roles that were needed in the emergency of the pandemic. The recruitment could not planned to make the most efficient use of resources, and the roles may no longer be needed as the country emerges from COVID. But that is not what the government has said. This mysterious introduction of the idea of frontline versus non-frontline roles continues to hang over the plans.
In the Times article, it is highlighted that the biggest rise in Whitehall civil service job numbers since 2019 has been in the Department for Work and Pensions, Ministry of Justice, Cabinet Office, and Department of Health and Social Care. Those latter two may have been in response to the pandemic, but the top two risers in the list – the DWP and MoJ – grew as a result of policy decisions, to recruit work coaches and prison officers respectively. Ministers are entitled to make these choices, but they should not then belittle the role of civil servants in helping the country through the pandemic by quoting decades-old cliches about the role of government.
Interestingly, the article also touches on another one of the reasons why the civil service grew from its record low of 384,260 full time equivalent posts at the time of the Brexit referendum to 423,770 in 2019-20. Brexit and the need for additional policy development and frontline customs work required more staff, but Rees-Mogg hints at getting rid of many checks as part of what The Times describes as making the UK “a light touch regulatory environment that accepts other people’s rules”.
He adds: “We still check 5% of apples coming from New Zealand. We have never had a problem with apples from New Zealand. Now we’re free of the EU we can suddenly start saying not only can we continue to trust cheese coming from France, but we can also trust apples coming from New Zealand. We don’t need to have anything other than intelligence-led, risk-based checks.”
This could, conceivably, lead to a reduction in the number of customs officials that have been recruited, but – again – these are frontline roles. So the mystery continues.
Links and thoughts
I was on leave last week, so am slightly out of the loop on what Global Government Forum content proved super-popular with readers, but I’ll be amazed if it wasn’t Joe Biden’s plan to propose the highest pay rise for US feds in 20 years, at 4.6%. The rise would be the biggest pay hike federal workers have seen since the George W. Bush administration granted the workforce the same increase in 2002.
Elsewhere on the site, we took a look at the UK civil service’s Success Profiles recruitment tool, and what job applicants need to know to get civil service jobs. We also took a look at the expanding pathfinding role of government finance chiefs in strategic decision-making, and helping to spot the financial risks in new policies or reforms.
Unofficial title, but you imagine that will be a big part of it.
The full quote from Reagan is that “the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the government, and I'm here to help”. Rees-Mogg seems to assume everyone knows it, which is one of the foibles of people overly-involved in politics.
It is not clear if this will be part of an overarching civil service workplan, as advised by the Institute for Government, or a standalone document.
I can’t quite match these numbers up, but there are a few different ways to calculate headcount, and often the figures lag somewhat, so that isn’t a huge surprise. When I last looked late last year, civil service employment at the end of 2020-21 (so a lagging indicator) when calculated on a full-time equivalent basis was 452,830, up from 423,770 in 2019-20.