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Plans for coping with fewer staff criticised

Government departments do not have long-term plans in place for new ways of working with fewer staff, a group of MPs has warned.

Savings in staff costs made through reducing departmental headcounts across Whitehall including at the Department of Health will only be sustainable by completing “long-term operating models for their business” beyond the spending review period, a report by the Commons Committee of Public Accounts said.

The report entitled “Managing early departures in central government” suggested that without a rethink about the way departments will operate with less staff, numbers might increase once restrictions on recruitment and spending had been lifted.

The committee acknowledged that departments were required to make cost savings through staff reductions following the 2010 spending review, noting departments had “acted quickly” to cut employee numbers.

According to the report’s figures, a total reduction in headcount of about 35,000 was made in 2011, nearly 18,000 of which were through early departures.

It said: “The initial cost to departments of these departures, which should be around £600 million, will take between 11 and 15 months to recoup, after which departments will save around £400 million per year.

“However if the staff reductions achieved so far, and planned, are to be sustainable then they will need to be supported by a redesign of the way business is carried out.

“We remain to be persuaded that all departments are putting in place the fundamental redesign in working practices that is needed to operate permanently with a lower number of staff.”

Conservative MP and member of the Commons committee, Richard Bacon said: “Although departments have moved quickly to reduce staff numbers, few appear to be giving thought to how they are going to operate permanently with a lower number of staff. It is imperative that they do so.

“Without a fundamental redesign in departments’ working practices, staff numbers will probably rise as soon as restrictions on recruitment and spending have been lifted. The savings that have been achieved in staff costs will not be sustainable unless departments now complete long-term operating models for their businesses.”

The report warned there was a “real risk” to departments’ ability to deliver services. It also recommended improving the “quality and consistency” of performance appraisal arrangements in the civil service to secure efficiency savings and “better decision-making about the management of the workforce”.

The committee claimed the Treasury did not have “proper control over individual exit payments that exceed the standard early departure terms” and recommended this was “rectified”.

Mr Bacon added: “What is not known is whether the reductions in staff are having an effect on departmental performance and service standards.

“Given the speed with which staff cuts were carried out and the scale of the cuts, there are significant risks to service delivery.

“Even greater challenges are ahead. Departments have achieved around half of the expected staff headcount reductions. The second phase will be more difficult, as the ‘easier’ savings will have already been made.

“Compulsory redundancies will have to be used more, bringing considerable risks of damage to morale. Strong and transparent leadership and good communication with staff will be essential.”

Readers' comments (2)

  • This is very typical. Act now, think later. This is just not sustainable and anyone with half a brain could work this out. What's more disturbing is that just simply getting rid of staff without any long term strategic planning to ensure departments and services can continue to provide a service, will have a number of negative impacts:
    The economy as more people are made redundant in the context of fewer jobs to move in to.
    The services they have come from as these will not be able to meet the needs of those they serve - in healthcare, quality and safety will suffer and make a mockery of working together with patients/public to improve services
    Staff left will be totally demoralised and will seek alternatives if they can, risking even greater shortages and quality/efficiency problems.

    I'll say it again, cutting quickly to save money today without any plans for the future, will cost us dearly in the long run. We will reach crisis and new targets will be set that mean we end up potentially spending more on temporary fixes or recruitment costs to replace where we have to.

    Utter madness. I don't disagree with making things more efficient or in trying to cut costs where we sensibly can, but surely it's better to work in a slower, more considered and strategic way to make more sustainable efficiencies.

    However, what would be the plan if it turns out that doing it right means we can't do it enough? Will someone address the fundemental problem of being able to afford healthcare free at the point of care for everyone? Hmm, what a dilema, find more funding from somewhere (?taxation) or cut services or radically have a hybrid system. Perhaps that is what the government are trying to do, make it so bad that changing the core principle of our NHS gets accepted. Not that I'm a cynic.

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  • and the same is true of the new NHS commissioning systems. CCGs and CSUs forced to be lighter than PCTs have cut their cloth to a new budget with no time to redesign better ways of doing things.

    There's lots of fluffy talk within emerging CSUs about new ways of working and more private sector style focus on productivity and performance management, automation, standardisation etc. But scratch the surface and the basic plan is simply that the people left will have to cope.

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