· 2 min read · Features

The workforce planning challenges of such large reductions in public-sector headcount are mind-blowing

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Len is a long-service civil servant five years off retirement. He works in IT. His department, like all of Whitehall, has been making job cuts in response to the Government’s drive to reduce headcount in the public sector.

Len opted for voluntary redundancy, as his wife, a teacher, was also close to retirement and they wanted to spend more time together.

Days before Len's leaving date, his boss told him, in a hurried meeting, that the department had changed its mind. Len's knowledge of the department's 'legacy' IT systems was so specialised that they needed him to stay for another two years so he could train more junior staff in his knowledge. The alternative was an expensive outsourcing deal with a private-sector IT firm. Len was upset about this, but opted to stay. However, he extracted from the department a number of changes to his working time, pay and travel patterns, which allow him to phase his retirement gradually.

In this case, the outcome worked - just - for both parties. But, across the whole of the public sector, we are seeing large numbers of skilled and experienced professional and technical employees leaving work.

The scale and, more importantly, the speed of these job losses is remarkable. Yet the impact on the skill-base of the sector is only just emerging.

Using the Labour Force Survey (LFS), for example, we can look at the people employed in the public sector in the last quarter of 2010 and who said they were not employed in the public sector in the same quarter a year later, the final quarter of 2011. This came to around 985,000 people, or roughly 15% of the public sector workforce in the last quarter of 2010.

Regardless of their reasons for leaving - and whether they jumped or were pushed - the workforce planning challenges associated with such large and speedy reductions in headcount are mind- blowing. Re-shaping the workforce on such a scale while maintaining the quality and reach of services requires considerable planning. Yet, it seems, relatively little of such planning is visible. The Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) anticipated that the job losses would be 'back-end' loaded, to allow workforce plans to be developed. Yet, according to the National Audit Office (NAO), Government departments have done the opposite: frontloading departures, focusing disproportionately on older and more senior (experienced) staff. The NAO analysis suggests departments decided it was better to move quickly to release savings quickly and reduce staff uncertainty. The process was, it says, well handled, but there was little detailed workforce planning or 'business transformation' - the cuts were driven by the need to make admin savings rather than to re-engineer functions. The NAO estimates payback period for these cuts will be 15 months. Frontloading the job cuts was the only way to realise the savings within the Spending Review period.

Departments have to re-shape their workforces, maintain engagement and ready themselves for the next round of job cuts.

In the wake of the West Coast Main Line tender debacle, even the former cabinet secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell, has raised concerns about the procurement and contract management skills left in the civil service. Unless the skill - rather than just the cost - implications of losing thousands such as Len are more carefully planned, we risk both throwing the baby out with the bathwater and leaving our public services short of the know-how they need to deliver.

Stephan Bevan is director of the workforce effectiveness centre at the Work Foundation