Brexit report - the impact on the Civil Service, digital and major projects

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez February 4, 2019
The Institute for Government has published an interesting report with data that gives us some insight into the impact Brexit is having on areas such as digital, Civil Service turnover and delivery of major projects.

Brexit EU
Think tank Institute for Government has published its Whitehall Monitor 2019 report, which reveals some interesting data on the impact of Brexit on Civil Sector hiring and retention, digital delivery and major projects.

Although I missed the report upon release about a week ago, I thought it worthwhile sharing the stats for the record, given the ongoing Brexit coverage on diginomica/government. The data provides some good context for the level of ‘output’ we are seeing across Whitehall at the moment and rings true for the anecdotal evidence that we are hearing - i.e. Brexit is causing major disruption to the ongoing operation of government.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, by way of background, the UK is set to leave the EU on 29th March this year, less than two months away. Prime Minister Theresa May has thus far failed to get her Brexit deal through Parliament (the Withdrawal Agreement) and is currently seeking concessions from the EU on the controversial Irish backstop arrangement.

If no deal passes before the 29th March, the UK is set to crash out of the EU with no deal and will resigned to trading on WTO terms. If a deal passes through Parliament, the UK will then enter a 21 month transition period, giving business and government more time to implement the necessary changes.

The key message from the Institute for Government report is that the uncertainties of Brexit are having a serious impact on government and the day-to-day delivery of public services and management of major projects. In other words, all eyes are on Brexit and resources are being pulled away from other vital areas.

Key findings

The reports findings have been summarised as follows:

  • Brexit is fuelling a recruitment drive of the Civil Service, reversing a shrinking trend. In June 2016 the number of civil servants in Whitehall stood at 384, 260. However, in September 2018 this figure had risen to 404,160. This recruitment drive has reversed one in give of the job cuts between 2010 and the referendum.
  • Theresa May’s minority government is struggling to pass legislation - just five of the 13 bills which the government needs to pass ahead of Brexit have made it through Parliament.
  • The number of ministerial resignations has been unprecedented (21 in total from the election to the end of 2018). This means that more than half of the current Cabinet and half of all ministers took on their role in 2018 - some of which are responsible for major projects, such as Universal Credit.
  • Despite the Civil Service recruitment drive, there are high levels of Civil Service turnover. It is costing up to £74 million each year. Isn’t he last year, some departments lost one in five of their civil servants, either to other departments or to roles outside the Civil Service, partly due to Brexit. The Institute for Government rightly notes that this is “disruptive, as knowledge and expertise is lost”.
  • Civil Servants across Whitehall have also been redeployed to focus on Brexit, with a third of Treasury staff working on the UK’s exit from the EU.
  • The number of major projects (of which there are 133) at risk from not being delivered on time and on budget is growing. Less than a fifth of major projects are currently rated green (successful delivery is likely) or amber/green (successful delivery is probably), compared to almost half in 2013.

The report dedicates a whole section to the delivery of digital services, where it states:

“Digital services on GOV.UK have expanded from 25 ‘exemplar’ projects in the early days of GDS to nearly 800 now, allowing UK citizens to perform a wide range of tasks, from renewing their passport or driving licence to subscribing to flood alerts.

“But some of the more ambitious initiatives aimed at transforming government have stalled. GDS espoused the idea of ‘government as a platform’, developing common components – which would allow citizens to provide proof of their identity, make payments and be notified by government bodies – that could be used across a number of services. In particular, Verify has run into problems, with uptake being less than expected and the Government cutting any further funding.

“Other aspects of the Government Transformation Strategy, published in 2017, also remain unfulfilled. And questions abound about the future of GDS, with Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee the latest to raise concerns.”

My take

None of this should come as a huge surprise, but it’s good to put some data behind the anecdotal evidence. And it’s unfortunate. Whatever your political view of Brexit, as the UK begins to untangle itself from the EU, it should have been seized as an opportunity by those at the centre to rethink public service delivery and digital should have been placed at the centre. Instead, politics has been allowed to dictate the agenda and we are beginning to see positive trends begin to be reversed (e.g. a shift away from procuring with SMEs, towards outsourcing and large contracts).