Brexit triggers unlikely civil service renaissance

By David Donaldson

October 15, 2018

Brexit is placing a huge strain on the UK government but has re-energised parts of the civil service, says the Institute for Government’s Jill Rutter.

More than two years after Britons narrowly voted to leave the European Union, it’s still unclear what the outcome of Brexit negotiations will be.

The prime minister’s authority is shaky, the cabinet is split, there is a multitude of complex problems to solve, and politics has become more polarised than ever.

And amid all the populist talk of “elites”, some Brexiteers are convinced the civil service is working against them, with talk of “deep state retaliation” and accusations bureaucrats are “fiddling the figures” to stop Brexit. 

“If it’s an article of faith, you don’t ask atheists to run your church.”

The Treasury in particular has come under fire for releasing a report predicting Brexit will cause a 6.2% fall in GDP after 15 years, with former foreign secretary Boris Johnson calling Treasury the “heart of remain”.

The debate has become so bitter that Andrew Turnbull, who led the civil service under prime minister Tony Blair, has even argued Brexiteers are shaping a “stab-in-the-back” myth, comparing it to German nationalists in the 1930s blaming public servants and others for Germany’s defeat in World War I.

The ordeal has discredited experts and economics in the eyes of many as the “immediate dire predictions” of some economists failed to materialise after the vote, says Jill Rutter, programme director at London-based public administration think-tank, the Institute for Government.

But it also exposed a problem that’s much more difficult for the civil service to address — many who voted Brexit simply didn’t see GDP predictions as being important when compared to core questions of identity.

“It’s that idea of ‘even if immigration brings benefits, I don’t like what it’s doing to my community’,” she told The Mandarin ahead of her appearance at this Wednesday’s IPAA national conference in Melbourne.

“They see it as being the price worth paying to take back control, not to be under the thumb of the European Commission. Those are not things that are easy for civil servants to navigate.”

But it’s clear the civil service will make for a convenient scapegoat if it all falls apart.

“If it doesn’t work out brilliantly it won’t be ‘it wasn’t a great idea’,” Rutter thinks. “It’ll be ‘whose fault was it?'”

It doesn’t help that the government’s position leading up to the vote was that Britain should remain in the EU — a choice by politicians that civil servants must now wear.

The prime minister can’t even bring herself to tell the public Brexit is a good idea. Some take this as evidence she is a puppet of her pro-Europe advisers, but she supported remain before the vote, so it probably just shows the major reform of her tenure is an idea she doesn’t support.

There are, of course, reasonable suspicions a majority of civil servants would have voted remain. The demographic — London-based, degree-educated, young and quite cosmopolitan — would suggest the policy-making class “probably would have” supported staying in Europe, says Rutter.

“This is fine if Brexit is a normal policy — but if it’s an article of faith, you don’t ask atheists to run your church.”

New energy in the bureaucracy

Paradoxically, amid all the suspicion, Brexit has pumped new energy into the bureaucracy.

This is where the UK’s experience diverges from officials working under US President Donald Trump — while positions go unfilled in Washington, there’s been a huge increase in jobs in London.

The Institute for Government estimated in March that since the vote, numbers had increased by 11,500, or 12.5% of all positions cut under austerity –a “handbreak turn in job cuts”, Rutter says. Plenty have enjoyed promotions, too.

The government even established a special agency, the Department for Exiting the European Union, which now employs over 650 people.

“Economics isn’t everything — but Whitehall, especially with a very powerful Treasury, thinks it is.”

The Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs illustrates the magnitude of the shift. 80% of its areas of responsibility are framed by EU regulation, making disentanglement a major challenge. Between 2010 and 2016, staff numbers declined from 27,000 to 22,000, as the government searched for major budget savings. Since then, it’s recruited at least 1200 people to help with its response to Brexit — all while it’s still supposed to be making major spending reductions.

It’s estimated DEFRA will probably need 20 new IT systems, though the uncertainty around negotiations means “we don’t know yet whether they’ll be needed and when”, so the department is juggling between multiple possible scenarios, Rutter explains.

It sounds like a huge mess — but for many it’s also a great intellectual challenge.

Head of the Civil Service Jeremy Heywood says many “enthusiastic civil servants” see Brexit as an “opportunity” and have lined up to take on the challenge.

The Institute for Government has lost people to the civil service too, says Rutter.

Lessons for Australia

Rutter thinks the government being so surprised by the result demonstrates the dangers of becoming insulated from the rest of society.

“A more diverse, less London-centric leadership might have been less surprised by Brexit, and have understood some of the drivers of it more,” she says.

Perhaps more could have been done to “look behind averages to see people who are being left behind”.

The framing of policy questions can become overly focused on economics, too.

“Economics isn’t everything — but Whitehall, especially with a very powerful Treasury, thinks it is,” she argues.

“A more diverse, less London-centric leadership might have been less surprised by Brexit.”

And the process might not have been so chaotic if more pre-planning had occurred. Then-prime minister David Cameron placed a ban on contingency planning, fearing it would leak, but also — obviously — leaving government unprepared when the leave vote won.

Independent statutory authorities have helped retain some credibility for the civil service — the Treasury has been “enormously helped by fact that fiscal forecast that they have to accept is done by an independent body, the Office for Budget Responsibility”, Rutter says.

Perhaps the biggest lesson is that taking on highly polarised, massively complex reforms with unclear goals is not a good idea.

Leaving aside just how close the vote was, the result sent a message about what the British people did not want, but didn’t give much guidance on what they do want. Even Brexit activists have quite different ideas of what it means to take Britain out of Europe, let alone the voters, who projected all sorts of ideas onto the notion.

And it’s not just the public face of Brexit that’s unclear. The government itself largely has no vision for where it’s heading. With a heavily divided Cabinet, an unclear program and ongoing secretive negotiations, it’s very difficult for many parts of the civil service to work out what they’re supposed to be doing.

“Don’t get yourself in a process like this!”, Rutter advises other governments, half-jokingly.

“It’s massively interesting but it’s not necessarily where you want your government to be, a case study in political systems under strain.”

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