Tasked with implementing Brexit, the British civil service faces immense change and uncertainty

Brexit looms large over Whitehall. Victoria Jones/PA Wire

Leaving the EU is one of the most intricate and transformative challenges that the UK has ever confronted. Brexit has significant implications for the British civil service and its capability to deliver on the government’s 12 priorities for Brexit.

When Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, triggered Article 50, the process of withdrawal from the EU, in March it began a two-year period set aside for negotiations. Britain faces a number of constitutional, political and economic challenges as the clock ticks down to March 29, 2019. Added to this is the complexity of the recent UK election result which see May’s government without a majority in the house of commons.

Just before Brexit negotiations between the UK and EU formally got underway on June 19, two of the four ministers from the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) left the government. While one, David Jones, was sacked, the other, George Bridges resigned. The departures could not have helped preparations just days before the start of negotiations.

In support of the government’s legislative programme to ensure “a smooth and orderly” departure from the EU, the Queen’s speech on June 21 announced 27 proposed new laws, eight of which will pertain to Brexit and carry strong implications for key industries. Additionally, the repeal bill (no longer being called “great”) will be put forward to convert existing EU rules into new UK laws.

To implement Brexit as a successful change management programme, five key elements apply: an awareness of the need for change, desire to participate and support change, knowledge on how to change, ability to implement required skills and behaviours, and reinforcement to sustain the change.

Current state of play in Whitehall

The civil service faces unprecedented demands to restructure and meet the new challenges of governing post-Brexit. At the same time, it must continue to conduct the business of government under the additional pressures presented by shrinking budgets and a reduced workforce.

Brexit presents some central organisational challenges for Whitehall. May has instituted several organisational changes specifically to support Brexit, including the establishment of three new departments: DExEU, the Department for International Trade (DIT) and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (DBEIS). The government has acted swiftly to devise cross-government structures and form new teams.

A Institute for Government report published in December 2016 highlighted that “there are clear signs of progress in preparations”. The civil service has created over a thousand new roles for Brexit preparations and is mobilising people with the skills, experience and leadership attributes needed for implementation. The National Audit Office indicated in March 2017 that two-thirds of these positions are occupied. However, there are apparent concerns that Whitehall does not have the capacity to deliver as resources are overstretched due to the volume of the workload.

To date, 17 out of the 25 ministerial departments have published their single departmental plans for 2015 to 2020. The Brexit departments, DExEU, DIT and DBEIS have yet to finalise theirs.

The civil service recently conducted a people survey designed to understand the levels of employee engagement within the organisation and their experiences of work. As the graph below shows, for the category “leadership and managing change”, Whitehall’s median benchmark is 43% for all departments. This low score indicates the need for greater people engagement in the change process. Leaders should increase their support to ensure better alignment by diagnosing where a current change is failing and try to correct it.

Civil service people survey 2016, summary of main department scores. UK government.

The road ahead

The outcome of negotiations will broadly ascertain the changes required for the implementation of the Brexit divorce and any future deal between Britain and the EU. The prime minister’s speech at Lancaster House and the Brexit White Paper both put forward that momentous change is to be expected, specifically in customs and immigration. However, the actual direction of Brexit has now been called into question by the general election.

The civil service will need to make certain that its strategy, structure, processes, people and culture are organised to carry out an orderly transition. If this alignment is undertaken successfully, the civil service will be sufficiently prepared for Brexit in the two years of negotiation as it mitigates risk and prepares for the implementation of the divorce and any future deal. Whitehall must decide which projects will continue, be delayed or dropped to make available the resources required to manage Brexit.

To ensure the new organisational structures work, the civil service will need processes that are able to manage the movement of people between departments and employ new talent to adjust to greater demands in analysis and policy making, co-ordination, developing new legislation, delivery and implementation. To meet the urgency in filling positions and boosting specialist expertise, the civil service requires flexible contracts to provide the skills when needed promptly and for fixed phases.

It is imperative that the civil service – which often encounters high employee turnover – maintains its staffing levels in order to handle the huge workload already dropping into staff in-boxes.