NAO: Understaffed Civil Service unable to cope with current workloads

The Civil Service is failing to keep pace with the growth of the challenges it is facing, the National Audit Office (NAO) has warned.

In a new report, ‘Capability in the Civil Service’, the NAO called on the government to prioritise more important projects, activities and transformation programmes and put the brakes on initiatives that did not have the capability to be delivered efficiently.

Despite the Civil Service reducing in size by 26% since 2006, and budgets being repeatedly slashed by Whitehall, the workload that is piled onto civil servants has continued to increase, with the number of infrastructure and capital projects rising – alongside challenges presented by the UK’s decision to leave the EU.

Responding to these challenges requires new skills, particularly in managing transformation,” the NAO stated, as it said that departments knew that they did not have specialisms capable of achieving objectives.

Departments also told the NAO that around 2,000 additional staff were required in digital roles within five years to keep pace with services and projects being increasingly delivered digitally, a figure that those responsible for government’s digital skills believe is probably an underestimate.

The report added: “Traditionally, government’s workforce planning has focused on the number of people in posts and tended to treat these as generic.

“As a result, it has not assessed the skills of the current workforce in a comparable or structured way. This means they do not know what skills they have, whether these are in the right place and what additional skills they need.

“Government has acknowledged that it needs to do more on workforce planning and has committed all departments to producing workforce plans by March 2017.”

The NAO report also made reference to the government better using its staff to place the right people with the necessary skills into key projects including High Speed 2, Hinkley Point C and the Trident renewal programme.

Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said: The Civil Service is facing ever-increasing challenges. The work of government is becoming more technical, continuing budgetary restraint is putting pressure on departments and the decision to leave the EU means government will have to develop new skills and take on work previously done by others.”

Morse also warned about numerous gaps in Civil Service capability, calling on Whitehall to do more to develop the workforce to have the skills needed to complete projects well.

“It is making plans to do so but scale of the challenge ahead means greater urgency is needed,” he said. “Without a short-term solution to its capability gaps government must get better at planning and prioritising its activities and be prepared to stop work on those it is not confident it has the capability to deliver.”

General secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union Mark Serwotka stated that the NAO was right to highlight the problems created by continuing government cuts.

“The cut first, plan later approach demanded by austerity has damaged services and left the Civil Service unable to cope with current workloads, let alone the major upheaval caused by the vote to leave the EU,” he said.

 “While the Civil Service is trying to deal with Brexit, there is no let-up in the demand and need for quality public services in our communities, which is why we have said all job cuts plans must be halted immediately.”

Sir Jeremy Heywood, cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, said: “The UK is well placed to deal with the challenges, and take advantage of the opportunities, that lie ahead as we prepare for Brexit.

“We are focused on delivering this Government’s commitment to leave the EU and get the very best deal for the UK. We are equipping ourselves with the right people and the right skills across government to make this happen.

“At the same time, the Civil Service is also working hard to make sure that all the priorities of the Government are being delivered.”


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