What has been seen is the reality of what occurs when a department is ordered to downsize 40% of its civilian workforce. It’s all very well writing nice articles in the press about how the civil service can be downsized easily, and how all the useless administrators can be gotten rid of. The reality though is that these legions of mythical administrators simply don’t exist.
What is going on in the MOD Civil Service right now is a mass exodus, as thousands of civil servants leave early, as the workforce is slashed from 86,000 to 52,000 within four years. That skills will be lost is inevitability – the problem is one of working out how to make the reductions required. Although there will be a reasonable amount of posts that become redundant as a result of base closures and amalgamations, this process will not begin to cover the number of posts required to be lost as a result of the current manpower targets. Instead, civilian staff have been applying in droves for the Voluntary Early Release Scheme (VERS), which seeks to try to pay off staff and get them out of the door as fast as possible.
The challenge for MOD is two-fold. Firstly, how does MOD maintain a balanced workforce throughout this tumultuous period of change, and secondly, how does it continue making further reductions without impacting on wider UK defence?
The impression that this author has is that many of the workforce are increasingly disgruntled. Regular attacks in the media, salary freezes, pension changes, and a sense of not being genuinely valued means many people have lost the loyalty that once kept them there. The HR system that promised members of the MOD CS varied careers, and a sense of career development has gone. Career training courses seem to have all but stopped, allowances, such as the payment of moving costs to change locations for work reasons have all but disappeared, reducing upwards mobility and reducing career prospects for all but a handful of staff (namely those on development schemes). This is added to the reality of a department where mass privatisation is occurring in some areas, and where there is a sense that the work that is done isn’t valued, appreciated or understood. Somehow, the MOD has to ensure that throughout a period where 4 out of every 10 MOD staff are going to leave MOD earlier than planned, the remainder of the workforce is kept motivated.
Secondly, the next challenge is to ensure that skills are not lost forever. On many procurement projects, the civil servants on the teams are the ones with the long term corporate memory. They’ve been there for many years, and know the history and genesis of parts of the project. Given the challenge of maintaining effective archives now that paper-files are a thing of the past, these people are critical links in keeping projects going. The fact that MOD is having to bring them back in on contractors wages shows that just because there is a desire to reduce CS headcount, this does not magically reduce the workloads.
This author knows of MOD Civil Servants doing project management roles alongside private sector colleagues, who are on nearly two-three times larger salaries for doing the same job. If pay remains relatively low for people with technical skills, and if the perceived benefits of a career in the civil service continue to erode away, then it is hard to see how many people wouldn’t be tempted to leave to join the private sector.
The problem MOD has got is somehow keeping those staff with specialist skills – project managers, intelligence analysts, policy wonks, and people with experience and backgrounds that could take decades to replace. The problem is that the very people it needs to keep are seemingly the ones who are seeking to leave – not a week goes by without Humphrey hearing of friends deciding to leave the organisation and instead move to the outside. These people are sad to leave the organisation, but all are united in believing they’ve made the right decision.
This problem further compounds itself by the ticking demographic time bomb of the MOD staff age distribution. The author found a paper floating about on the internet a couple of years ago written by MOD HR (it’s still out there somewhere, but the authors google-fu is weak and he can’t find the link). It noted that in excess of 60% of MOD staff are over 40, but that 75% of resignations are coming from the under 30s. In other words, the MOD has a civilian workforce getting ever older, with the bulk of staff leaving coming from the younger generation. Now though these statistics would be skewed by two things, firstly the near total external recruitment ban preventing people from joining the department, and also the large number of leavers through VERS.
This situation means MOD faces the worst of all possibilities – it has a workforce shrinking rapidly with no real ability to prevent the loss of skills. The staff who are left are getting a lot older. It is haemorrhaging the younger talent in the workforce who would represent the MOD of the future. It is not recruiting in anywhere near enough numbers to bring new staff in to replace the older staff departing over the next 3-5 years. Those staff who do join find themselves working in a system where the lack of an active career management system for all (merely a couple of hundred development scheme members) means they have no ability to be moved into the right jobs to learn skills to help them later on. The fact that the MOD has struggled to find a suitably qualified PUS from within its home-grown talent pool should be of real concern. The fact that the talent pool seems to be shrinking each year means that over time, it will be ever more difficult to recruit and retain the genuinely brilliant future PUS from within the Department.
This is a problem as while it is easy to recruit admin staff at junior levels, growing the deep specialists such as intelligence analysts, rocket scientists, policy experts etc is a process which can take decades. If the replacements aren’t in the pipeline, then at some point the UK is going to lose expertise and experience which can never be replaced.
While recruiting and training civilians is never of much interest or concern, the reality is that as the MOD relies more heavily on civilians, and less on military personnel, it will be ever more reliant on this workforce. If there is not sufficient training, career development or staff in the right age bracket to be grown into the future senior leaders and mandarins of the 2020s and 2030s, then there could be very serious implications indeed.