78% skills exodus is ‘dumbing down government’, says Prospect report

14 March 2012

Britain’s civil service has lost its professional edge and needs urgent reform, Prospect said today (Wednesday) in a hard-hitting report, Government That Can – needs people who know how.

Released to coincide with National Science and Engineering Week, the report warns of a critical shortage of expertise at all levels of the service.

Speaking at the launch at the Royal Society in London, Dai Hudd, deputy general secretary, accused the government of putting partisan political interest ahead of genuine reform.

“All the changes so far to public administration are about short-term cost savings that will fail to deliver a better service to government or public. The result will be a growing number of operational and ethical crises – like we have already seen with the A4e welfare-to-work scandal, the failed IT programme for the NHS, the missed EU farm payments programme and the Nimrod aircraft disaster in Afghanistan.”

Prospect fears the civil service is losing its ‘intelligent customer’ capability because of a huge rundown in the number of professionals of all disciplines working for government, especially scientists and engineers.

Since 1992 the pool of qualified technologists working for government in defence, transport, energy, research, environment, food, justice and overseas has fallen 78%, from almost 36,000 to 8,100. From senior managers to technical assistants, departments do not even know how many specialists they employ and have to rely on self-identification by staff.

On top of this, skilled individuals with a degree or equivalent qualification in the public sector earn on average 5.7% less than their counterparts in the private sector (July 2011, Office for National Statistics) – the only public sector workers to have a pay lag on the private sector.

This disregard for the value of specialist knowledge has been compounded by privatisations of key government functions. Since 2000, specialist organisations in fields like defence research, air traffic control, communications networks, nuclear energy, forensic science, public sector auditing and agricultural research have been privatised or closed down.

“There is a brain drain in Whitehall going by the name of ‘small government’,” said Dai Hudd. “This loss of expertise is dumbing down government and will only store up long-term problems for the taxpayer.

“The coalition claims to be giving public services back to the professionals, but in practice it is doing the opposite. Every privatisation, every closure of a research lab, every cut to a core government service strips away another layer of know-how.

 “It is scarcely credible that in 2012 – the age of synchrotrons, H5N1, broadband and the iPod – the UK government has only a quarter of the technological expertise it had 20 years ago.”

A round-table discussion at the launch of the report was led by Martin Narey, formerly chief executive of the National Offender Management Service and Barnardo’s. Also taking part were Peter Riddell, formerly of the Times and Financial Times and now director of the Institute for Government; and Prospect DGS Dai Hudd. It was chaired by Joanna Woolf, chief executive of Cogent Sector Skills Council.

Government That Can argues that the civil service needs scientific and technical knowledge represented at all levels of the hierarchy so that ministers can better understand the implications of decisions and the technical challenges presented by issues like climate change, GM crops, digital Britain, safe food and transport networks.

It calls for government to invest in a skills programme that would:

  • raise standards of professionalism and career development throughout the civil service
  • value the contribution of specialists in both policy making and delivery
  • recognise the importance of the government’s role as an ‘intelligent customer’
  • implement fair employment practices that respect the skills needs of the service and those of the wider labour market
  • develop a reward strategy for specialist civil servants that closes the pay gap between professionals in the public and private sectors.

Sue Ferns, head of Prospect research, said the union welcomed the review of science and engineering professions announced last week by the government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir John Beddington.

“We look forward to working with the Government Office for Science and the Cabinet Office to strengthen professional capability and ensure that the future civil service has the skills it really needs – including at the most senior levels.”