Thursday, 26 January 2012

The simply grotesque attack on MOD civil servants

The author unsurprisingly found the recent report by the HCDC select committee on the current rounds of armed forces redundancies to be a fascinating use of selective quoting, and reporting top make out that not one civil servant has been made redundant, and that 40% of our brave boys are being made redundant by callous uncaring civil servants. To add insult to injury, the resident Quisling, Frau Brennan claimed that the civil service was far more flexible than the military. Clearly, a time for outrage.

The truth, as ever, is far more challenging. This author is increasingly concerned at the attitude of the HCDC towards the MOD civil service - rather than seeing it as an essential supporting body to enable defence, the HCDC increasingly regards us as a vile organisation, urgently needing to be culled at all costs. One of the worst offenders is James Arbuthnot, who repeatedly makes snide comments to the PUS, chosing to mangle her phrases in order to get cheap headlines, most likely to try and revive his own flagging political career.

The reality is that comparing military and civilian career structures is very difficult. The CS exists to provide a large body of manpower, at varying grades of responsibility, across Defence. By and large this means that it is much easier to post people within the MOD CS as at any one time there may be dozens of opportunities nationwide to redeploy people into different posts. Many of the skills required by CS are primarily process driven, rather than technical in nature. Therefore while the post may require some reading in and training, it is less likely to require in depth technical training.

The other difference is that the CS does not up sticks and move places every two years - there is no hugely complex manpower plot to maintain, where career managers know that moving person X may impact on persons Y and Z. There is also no career plot for promotion - instead promotion occurs when vacancies arise. This means that the CS career pool is much easier for people to theoretically move around in at any one level, as people are broadly interchangeable, and can move around.

By contrast, the military career structure is designed around providing fixed numbers of bodies at specific ranks and trades to do a wide variety of jobs. This means people have to train for many years to acquire specialist skills, and often move within a very small career area - for instance nuclear engineers will generally move between different submarine or engineering postings, with the odd broader tour. It is entirely possible for small niche branches to have very localised manning, where everyone knows everyone else, and promotion is quite literally deadmans shoes. The author can think of a couple of RN specialisations which have 10-20 people in them.

The problem from a redeployment perspective is that once past initial training, and once embarked into career postings, retraining is a slow and expensive business. You cannot go from being a sonar maintainer one day, to suddenly being an aircrew survival equipment maintainer the next. It would take months, if not years to retrain people to do jobs outside their core branch areas. Yes, there is a common appointments system, which means that there are jobs which can be done by people from any branch or specialisation, but these are not really intended as careers - more career development posts.

So, the reality is that its actually incredibly hard to redeploy forces personnel - not because they're not flexible - they are. The problem is from the view of how you use them - by the time you've retrained someone and put them in, you may as well have recruited a new person in the first place and got a longer return of service out of them.

Therefore, what PUS was trying, albeit in an incredibly poor way, to say was that it is easier to move CS personnel into new broader postings quickly than military personnel, who by dint of their skills are more difficult to retrain quickly.

To this authors mind, one of the the more damning aspects of the report isn't the misreported comments from PUS, but the fact that on the recent early release scheme, 15000 civil servants (1 in 5 serving civil servants) felt they wanted to apply for redundancy. This is just the first of three tranches, and yet one in five wanted to leave the department. This should surely be ringing alarm bells - particularly as many of the people leaving have skills such as project management, intelligence analysis, scientific, procurement or other useful backgrounds which will denude the department of skills. Its all very well having a flexible workforce, but if all the people who can do the job have left, how do you train their replacements?

This author loves working in defence - he is incredibly proud of what he has done for the department over the years. But he will confess to having done the sums to work out if it it was worth taking a risk and jumping ship. There is an utter crisis of morale going on in the MOD CS right now. Publicly reviled, subject to a stunningly malicious campaign by the tabloids suggesting that to be a public servant is akin to being a banker or paedophile, and knowing that your pay is frozen and job prospects diminishing is enough to make anyone think twice about staying.

Its a desperate time to be a civil servant. No one expects to be popular doing this job. But the sheer level of hatred being directed against us by MPs and the media is quite scary. Talking to others, one is left with the strong perception that many feel that we have no political supporters, we have no sign of any military senior leadership standing up to support us. We have no homegrown PUS who is willing to stand up and lead their department through a time of immense turmoil and challenge and who if you believe whispers in the gossip columns only got the job because no one else applied for it.
This is what should be worrying HCDC - we are people who genuinely give a damn about defending Britain. We're not charismatic, we're often very odd, and we will never see adoring documentaries made about what we do ("Day 284 in Main Building and today Sir Humphrey has managed to file 3 whole paperclips...). Its true that some people think that some CS can considered to be idle or lazy, more concerned with their overtime payments and going home promptly, but equally others would argue that the same can be said of some members of the armed forces.

The problem is that we bring a set of special skills and experience to the table to help support the military. We understand this department, we're passionate about defence and we're passionate about trying to help those who go in harms way. Thousands of us (including the author) have served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and often come under fire in order to do our job to help support the troops. We really care, and we want to make a difference, but right now too many of us feel completely abandoned by the military we support, and seen as the vile lazy benefit scroungers of the Defence world.

I dont want to be loved as a civil servant. I do want my MPs though to really question my senior leadership - I want them to pry deeply into why thousands of my peers are leaving. I want them to ask why morale is collapsing and why core skills and knowledge are being lost forever and I want them to really understand how attacking the MOD civil service is causing as much damage to the security of this nation as any direct physical attack by another state.

I am Sir Humphrey. I am proud to be a civil servant and support the front line. I just wish my civilian and military leadership and political masters were as proud of my colleagues and I and what we try to do for them too.


  1. The problem with this post is that you simply don't understand what many Civil Servants are expected to be able to do. It is written from a typical administrators viewpoint.

    "You cannot go from being a sonar maintainer one day, to suddenly being an aircrew survival equipment maintainer the next. It would take months, if not years to retrain people to do jobs outside their core branch areas."

    Complete and utter rubbish. If you can’t do that by the time you’ve finished your civilian or service apprenticeship, you haven’t been trained properly. The real point is that this is one of very many areas civilians and military overlap in skills. The trick is getting the balance right. At the moment it is wrong, because the traditional civilian training and recruitment grounds for higher level posts (e.g. engineering project management), 2nd and especially 3rd line workshops, have been sold off. This means far too high a proportion of this work is carried out unnecessarily by servicemen or contractors; both far more expensive than civilians. MoD has lost the flexibility and the ready-made, well trained engineers that have, for example, historically delivered the successful projects. This is far more complex issue than Civil Service detractors make out. I agree with the thrust of the post but the example chosen detracts from the facts.

    Brennan is wrong about "flexibility" for a similar reason. It used to be largely true, because CS were required to demonstrate the ability to do any job at the next grade before promotion. Nowadays, they only need to satisfy the promotion board that, in time, they may become competent in the post applied for. That is a huge difference. If they prove incompetent, they are simply advanced even further!

    I suspect the author is a middle ranking admin grade. HE is not required (or allowed) to repair sonar or survival aids, but should always remember that the (ex) sonar repairer is required to be able to do the admin job when promoted into the same grade (i.e. C2, C1 or B2)in a technical post in, for example, DE&S. That is, a project manager is required to be able to carry out any job in his project team. The iniquity of this rule is bizarre, but a simple fact. It is why admin grades tend to advance more quickly, because technical grades take longer to demonstrate the required competence and experience, because there is so much breadth and depth to what they are expected to do. The natural outcome is grossly inexperienced senior staffs in MoD, while the real competence and experience is at lower grades.

    Agree about Arbuthnot. Self serving, complete waste of space.

  2. Some of the comments on the Today programme during the week were rather shocking. HCDC finding it awful that servicemen were suffering compulsory redundancies whilst none were being applied to the MoD civil service. That's because enough people took voluntary redundancy even with the many thousand posts going. That should be extremely worrying if there was competent leadership at the top of MoD - but at the end of the day there isn't.

  3. Interesting followup from the Telegraph at

    "But there will also be criticism of the MoD for reopening the defence review after it was forced to admit that the original figure of 25,000 will now increase to 28,000 civil servants."

    So they're looking for another three thousand redundancies and the department *still* has no shortage of staff wanting to leave, despite the current economic conditions.

    "“For military redundancies to be compulsory yet for civilian redundancies to be compulsory in none is so grotesque that it requires an exceptionally persuasive reason,” the MPs report said.

    It's definitely a matter of concern that so many of the Department seem to be so eager to get out, but I'm not sure that's what the HCDC meant.

  4. In 23 years as a CS in the MoD I can not ever remember a period of such sustained hostility being directed at us.

    The reality the MoD faces is well discussed here and in other places, but what is being done to stop these cheap and easy stories being peddeled by those who sit outside them?

    Where are are 'media relations' teams (performance to date - ineffectual) and, far more seriously, where is the MoD's leadership? (performance to date - pathetic).

    When will our masters ever man-up to their responsibilties and 1) give effective direction and leadership, and 2) understand their duty to protect the people who work form them and see off the lazy and the bullies in the press and HCDC.

    This is why people are happy to get out of the CS

  5. Some interesting comments. In no particular order, firstly, I think there is an issue that the HCDC either does not, or chose not to understand that the only reason compulsory redundancies have not yet applied to the CS is because the MOD is overwhelmed with people who are applying to leave. The MOD is clear that compulsory redundancies may have to occur if sufficient numbers cant be found. It seems the MOD is coming under fire for having the audacity to follow the same redundancy process as every other employer - volunteers, then compulsory. Clearly its a disgrace that the MOD wants to be responsible.

    As for the forces redundancy, the same process was applied - there was a call for volunteers within certain target branches to meet revised manning levels. The reason it has had to be partly compulsory is down to insufficient volunteers being found. Had the MOD got the correct number of volunteers in the right branches, then it would have been 100% voluntary redundancy too. This though does not sit well with the medias desire to show our brave boys being shafted.

    I wish I knew where the media team was on this - they seem to be more concerned with pushing out press releases about deploying ships, or people passing out of basic training, than trying to correct the disgraceful slur on their workforce. Clearly though that would require a spine in senior figures to stand up for their civilian staff.

    I think reading some of the comments above, Powederfinger may have misunderstood my point about flexibility. The fact is that you can't unplug people at SNCO level and plug them into a new branch without retraining - maybe a sonar maintainer can be a squipper, but a club swinger certainly couldn't instantly become a nuclear engineer. The problem the forces have is that their manpower pools become increasingly stovepiped over time, and beyond a certain point, extensive retraining is required to be of value, and moving people in distorts extant manning profiles, and reduces promotion for members already in the branch.

  6. The attitude of a lot of politicians and the media towards the CS is frankly appaling in many cases. I guess that the current pension/pay dispute with the unions does not help in some cases.