A series of "zero base" reviews of departments, starting with the Department for Education, was announced as part of the civil service reform plan published by the Cabinet Office minister, Francis Maude.
The reviews will ask what work departments should be doing and how many staff are needed to do that.
Maude resisted several attempts to get him to deny that the approach would not lead to big job cuts beyond the reductions of nearly 25% planned during the current parliament.
Instead he repeatedly referred to the need to make Whitehall more efficient by pooling central services and devolving powers and responsibilities to local government and the private sector. "There will not be an end to this," said Maude.
The Institute for Government said it would be very surprising if the reviews did not result in a significant scaling back of the departments involved. "But it's not unhealthy," said Peter Thomas, the institute's programme director. "Rather than set an arbitrary target, they are [asking]: 'What do you need of the Department for Education?'. One would expect the answer to be less."
The logical extension of that would be to also question whether there need to be so many ministers, said Thomas – a question that could pose headaches for future prime ministers who rely on such patronage to reward supporters or buy loyalty. David Cameron is said to have resisted calls to cut the number of ministers when he became prime minister in 2010 for this reason.
"That [the number of ministers] is one conclusion I'd want to be up for discussion because otherwise it's not zero-based," Thomas said.
The reform plans will be welcomed by many MPs on the government benches, particularly Conservatives who believe in smaller government. However, the union for civil service professionals, Prospect, was strongly critical of the shakeup.
"What is planned for the government's own workforce is more of the same – pay and job cuts, once again without any identification of what tasks are to be shed or their impact on core skills," said Paul Noon, Prospect's general secretary.
Other initiatives in the reform plans included an organisation modelled on the National Institute for Clinical Excellence, which decides which medical treatments should be paid for by the NHS. The new body would rule on the best and least effective social policies.
There is a call for crowd-sourcing of policy ideas by opening up consultations for public and outside expert ideas much earlier in the process. Civil servants will have much tougher performance management, with the worst 10% given a year to improve or face losing their jobs, and managers given better management information statistics to measure how well their staff are doing. Some civil servant pay grades will be abolished in an attempt to make the organisation less hierarchical, and jobs will be opened up more often to outside recruits.
Maude said as well as cutting back on some services and tasks, the civil service needed to recruit more high-quality staff in some roles, such as officials who negotiate and manage big contracts and projects. He denied that the reforms were opposed by civil servants, arguing that many changes had been urged on ministers by their officials.
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