Home Office faces ‘acute’ problem with staff morale

Staff in department more concerned than others about ministers’ reluctance to listen to outside ideas or take well-judged risks

Home Office civil servants have less faith in their department’s readiness to do its job than employees in any other government office, according to the first independent survey of public officials’ views of the coalition’s civil service reforms.

More government employees in the department responsible for Britain’s immigration, security, law and order called for fast action over poorly performing colleagues than any other.

Two-thirds said “incompetent” staff were not identified quickly enough, assessed or offered support and training. This compared to just over half of civil servants across all government departments.

Ministry of Defence civil servants were particularly concerned about colleagues who were not up to the job, with 73% saying recruitment, retention and poor performance were a key area for improvement, against an average of 59%.

Almost 1,400 civil servants, including 500 senior employees, took part in the biggest-ever public survey of civil servants on reform, published on Thursday in the independent newspaper, Civil Service World.

The survey revealed concerns among government workers that appointments were increasingly political. Around 55% of civil servants in both the Cabinet Office and the Department for Education felt colleagues had been employed on the basis of their connections to the Conservative or Liberal Democrat parties. This compared to an overall average of 22%, rising to 26% in the Home Office.

The survey comes just weeks before the coalition is due to publish its controversial proposals for civil service reform. The government has said it intends to reduce the size of the service by about 25% over the next five years.

They also want to commission more from the private sector, give greater powers to communities and councils, and take more “well-judged risks” in the pursuit of innovation.

The findings “indicate a particularly acute problem” at the Home Office, said Matt Ross, editor of Civil Service World.

“Across the civil service, 57% said they were broadly positive about their department’s readiness to face the challenges of the future. Within the Home Office, however, those figures are lower. It’s the only department in which more people — 43% — are broadly negative about the organisation’s capabilities than are broadly positive — 41%.”

Home Office staff also admitted fears that reforms would undermine their efforts to carry out government policy on security-related issues, including drugs, counter-terrorism and ID cards.

More public employees at the Home Office said ministers were reluctant to listen to ideas from outside government, with 71% saying their ministers had a tendency to ignore the views of “stakeholders” – such as the police and criminal justice charities – in favour of their own “fixed ideas about the policies they want to see implemented”. This compared to an average of 57% across the civil service.

A third of those in the department said ministers refused to take “well-judged risks” because of their reluctance to attract criticism, suggesting the Home Office has not recovered from last year’s passport checks fiasco, which saw the head of the UK Border Force, Brodie Clark, step down after the home secretary, Theresa May, blamed him publicly for relaxing entry checks at airports to reduce queues.

Clark’s claim that May “destroyed my reputation” and his legal suit for constructive unfair dismissal was settled in March with a payout of more than £100,000, although the government refused to admit fault.

The survey showed that 81% of civil servants in the Department of Health (DoH) said the civil service’s “risk management skills” needed significant or dramatic improvement. This compared to an average of 59%.

“The government wants the civil service to take more well-judged risk in the pursuit of innovative services,” said Ross. “But when asked their opinion of the civil service’s risk assessment and management skills, only 7% of civil servants overall believe they have the risk management skills they need, while 42% said they need significant improvement and 17% said they need dramatic improvement. When asked why civil servants are wary of taking risks, ‘fear of criticism’ was by far the most popular answer.”

Almost 60% of DoH civil servants identified “the ability to provide impartial, honest and open policy advice to ministers, speaking truth unto power” as one of the top three strengths of the civil service that they were concerned could be damaged by the planned reforms. The average figure was 35%.

Almost 40% of civil servants admitted concern that the government’s cuts, reforms and policies would affect the civil service’s ability to focus on the public good in the face of competing political and financial priorities.

Sir Bob Kerslake, the head of the civil service, admitted faults with the way poorly performing employees were handled.

“We have to put our hands up here and say, whilst there has been some improvement in performance management, generally we’ve got to be more consistent and more robust about performance management,” Kerslake told Civil Service World.

Kerslake had a fierce exchange over the reforms last week with Steve Hilton, the prime minister’s senior adviser, that ended with Hilton storming out of the room.

“The consistent message back is that we need to tackle people who are poor performers,” Kerslake said. “I absolutely share and agree with that view, as do ministers.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We have undergone considerable change in the last two years and are now a leaner and stronger organisation.

“Home Office staff are high-performing and flexible, working in partnership to cut crime, control immigration, prevent terrorism and champion equalities.”

• This article was amended on 17 May 2012. The original story contained multiple errors. This has now been replaced in full with a corrected story.

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