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04.11.16

Brexit: Can the Civil Service keep calm and carry on?

Source: PSE Oct/Nov 16

Julian Smith, head of external affairs at the Association for Project Management, reflects on the recent Brexit vote and what this is likely to mean for Civil Service employees and project managers.

After the shock of the Brexit vote and the resignation of the prime minister, the head of the Civil Service wrote to colleagues across government to urge them to react with their “customary calm, integrity and commitment,” perhaps subliminally referring to the Keep Calm and Carry On meme from the War. 

Sensible people came out straight away and pointed out the sheer scale of what was going to be required. At the time, Sir Simon Fraser, former head of the Diplomatic Service, remarked on “a massive set of tasks which is going to take a very long time and consume a lot of the energies of Whitehall and Westminster. The future’s very, very uncertain”. 

Immediately the focus was on the gap in skills. In July, it was estimated that the government had just 20 officials with knowledge of trade negotiations. 

In October, the Institute for Government (IfG) published a report which said that planning (and that is not implementation) for Brexit would cost £65m and require another 520 new civil servants (which is a significant number in Whitehall). The IfG warned that having three government departments with unclear and overlapping interests in Brexit “risks creating fragmentation and incoherence”. 

As Dr Nick Wright, Teaching Fellow in EU Politics at University College London, blogged: “Britain’s shortage of experts cannot be filled simply by moving officials from one department to another, like chess pieces. If a ‘good Brexit’ is to be achieved, it cannot be done on the cheap.” 

Cheap was not a word on the lips of the big City law firms. Dominic Cook of the Saïd Business School at Oxford University observed to the Times: “This is the biggest transformational project the UK has ever undertaken. You would need a multidisciplinary set of skills from pure commercial, financial and legal experts to economists and regulatory experts. The better ones will be £200-250,000. It’s going to cost billions.” 

The focus so far has been on the shortage of lawyers and negotiators, but without top-quality project management Brexit will slip and slide. 

Sir Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, gave a speech in July which was pretty blunt on the subject. He concluded that the Civil Service is overcommitted; there is no rational process of prioritising projects in government; that Brexit is a huge burden on top of existing commitments, especially in the context of historic and planned cuts to government departments; and that the government needs to get a grip and not make it up as it goes along. 

So we can predict high demand for project managers to help find a way through the maze of rules and regulations in order to extract the UK from the EU. Secondly, project managers, depending on major investment in the development of infrastructure, have been watching the volatility in the markets and with sterling with some concern.  

There has been a lot of anecdotal evidence about companies and funds thinking long and hard about whether the UK is in fact the right place to be investing. The UK government under Theresa May has tried in recent weeks to offer reassurance that it recognises that infrastructure investment is a key way to resist recession. 

This year, more than ever, we await the Autumn Statement with keen interest to see just how far the government chooses to be activist in keeping the economy on track.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

W: www.apm.org.uk

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email opinion@publicsectorexecutive.com

Comments

H.R.Jennings   05/11/2016 at 11:23

What annoys me is the possibility of losing our democratic vote in this country of ours, if we vote as a country and some one doesn't like the vote can try and over rule the vote. the labour party leader was voted into his position by a majority of labour members but the few didn't like it and tried to force him out. Scotland voted to stay with England but one person is determined to force another referendum because it doesn't agree with her, she is using the brexit vote as an excuse evan though it was obvious we would be having the vote on europe the conservative leader is voted in to number ten by a majority but with in weeks her party were trying to force her out. How can anyone have any faith in any political party or even a member of parliament when we have politicians who are looking out for what is best for them and what they can get out of it and not what the people of this country want i think we could end up like the european parliment a corrupt basically do as you are told we make the decisions so site down shut up and mind your own business.

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