Without radical reform, there's no chance of the UK getting a good dealby Jonathan Marland / January 26, 2017 / Leave a comment
Read more: Brexit—the biggest challenge the civil service has ever faced?
In her speech last week, Prime Minister Theresa May set out the broad outline for Brexit negotiations and one day soon the starting gun will be fired.
The course that we are on concerns me because I believe that the civil service does not currently have the skill set to negotiate either an exit from the European Union or future trade deals. Time, of course, is on the government’s side as trade negotiations cannot start until Article 50 is triggered. But a quantum leap in skills is needed if we are to obtain a good deal.
My conclusion on the inadequacy of the civil service is not a criticism per se, but based on its mind set and organisational structure—and also on traditional entrenchment.
If you join the civil service, it is not to become a commercial negotiator or dealmaker. The role is to carry out the wishes of politicians, provide information, advice and counsel to allow ministers to develop their thinking, illustrate the pitfalls and finally, implement their decisions.
Over the last decades, however, the commercial sphere has been increasingly important and ministers tend to have little commercial experience. To protect themselves from having to make commercial decisions and to take ownership of them, the civil service have developed a default mechanism of endless process and procedure. And if all else failed, the last resort has been to say “Minister, this is a breach of European regulations.”
The fact that officials will no longer be able to rely on this argument has come as a great shock to the system. I have observed that civil servants at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) and Department for International Trade (DIT) appeared stunned and incredulous that the British people have voted for Brexit. They do not know how to cope and this is leading to an attitude of obduracy at times. As a result, ministers are making decisions but the machinery of government is not implementing the orders.
It is true that a vacuum exists until Article 50 is triggered, but this could have been anticipated. It was not. The reason for this is that once the referendum was called, there was a moratorium throughout government on making any plans for leaving the EU. This is perhaps understandable—but the civil service has been caught flat-footed by other world events of late, including the election of Donald Trump, Syria, Libya, Ukraine and the immigration crisis.
In terms of organisation, the government—and this is largely the fault of ministers—has not restructured so that our international activities are combined to deliver a potent message. The FCO does not appear to influence the Department for International Development (DfID) and the DIT has always been thought of as a second-class citizen to the FCO. When David Cameron came into power, outsiders were brought into what is now the DIT, but they have largely all left because of the entrenched attitudes of their civil servant colleagues.
The DIT has moved into the same building as the FCO. In theory, this should create a united approach but I observe decisions being pushed to and fro from department to department as time passes and opportunities are missed.
But I feel great sympathy for civil servants. They are underpaid and performing duties for which they are often unqualified. Their management has failed to force change to modern working practices, they are demoralised by cuts and they are regularly hide-bound by obsolete rules when the rest of the commercial world have moved on. It is nigh-on impossible for them to think about strategy when they are always on the defensive.
The EU has become the epicentre for UK officials and its dominating influence. Rules and regulations have been passed down, they have interpreted them, often gold-plated them and put them into force. Nearly 150 people work on the EU desk in the FCO but only six on the Commonwealth desk (the Commonwealth includes 52 countries and almost a third of the world’s population).
The civil service is overstaffed in mature markets and inadequate in emerging markets. There is little continuity of personnel in markets: terms are three years. When I was the Prime Minister’s Trade Envoy, I set up a network where initially we appointed senior cross-party commercial people to manage a country relationship and therefore develop continuity. This, sadly, has been watered down by awarding some posts as political patronage.
I have met many remarkable ambassadors and people in post on my travels. We are particularly lucky in our people throughout the Middle East, some of whom would, if repatriated to the UK, make an excellent part of the negotiating team. But even then they are relying, as are ministers, on machinery that needs radical reform and a change in mindset.
Theresa May has set out the rules of engagement. We have a capable ministerial team that wants to see it happen but now speed of action is of the essence to prepare for the unchartered waters ahead.