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Is Michael Gove in the vanguard of another revolution?

By Peter Hoskin
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Gosh, Michael Gove likes shaking things up. First it was the schools system, now it’s the Department for Education itself. Yesterday’s newspapers reported that 1,000 of the department’s civil servants are to lose their jobs over the next few years, as part of a Govian drive to cut administrative costs in half by 2016. This is thanks to a “zero-based” review of the DfE’s functions — published here — which suggested that there was more spare capacity to be trimmed all-round.

Before we get carried away, however, it’s worth noting that some of this work has already been done. Mr Gove had previously committed to cutting his department’s administrative costs by 42 per cent, in real terms, between the financial years of 2010/11 and 2014/15. And, as part of that process, he’s already cut those costs by over a quarter — 26 per cent — to date. Now that he’s aiming for 50 per cent by 2015/16, it means that there’s another 24 per cent to come.

And what about civil service numbers? Mr Gove’s new plans suggest that “by 2015 the Department will have fewer than 3,000 posts, around 1,000 fewer than we have now”. This is certainly a much quicker pace than the Department has been used to so far. The Institute for Government’s excellent monthly Whitehall Monitor report suggests that the DfE has lost about 170 full-time jobs from its Whitehall headcount since the Coalition came to power, and (thanks to the creation of new agencies, staffed by people from pre-existing quangos) actually gained 1,080 civil servants in its “non-Whitehall” operation. There’s an entire alphabet of other departments that have cut by more: BIS, DCLG, DEFRA, DfT, etc.

But, with all that said, Mr Gove’s are certainly radical plans, even when looked at in the context of what the Coalition is doing elsewhere. The Treasury has demanded 34 per cent cuts in the administrative costs of central government over this Parliament, involving a 23 per cent reduction in the size of the civil service. Mr Gove’s department is running well ahead of the first average, and — depending on how the figures work out* — could top the second too.

And this is even more radical when looked at in a historical context. A recent report from Oxford University found that the administrative costs of central government actually rose by 20 per cent in real terms under the Thatcher governments and by 5 per cent under New Labour, while John Major managed to cut them by 6 per cent in the late part of his government. So the Coalition’s plans to cut costs by 34 per cent are really something, let alone Michael Gove’s target of 50 per cent.

But perhaps the true radicalism of Mr Gove’s plan is in its very existence. Of course cuts will differ between departments, depending on how large a civil service they do or do not really need. But by commissioning a “zero-based” review of the Department for Education, Mr Gove may have established a model for determining just that, and one that others will have to follow.

As I revealed in the Times (£) last year, an external review of the civil service — commissioned by the Treasury — suggested that some departmental headcounts could be cut by 90 per cent. It’s the sort of future Steve Hilton envisioned, and perhaps that’s now where we’re heading.

* There is some discrepancy between the DfE’s suggestion that they currently have around 4,000 posts and the Institute for Government’s work, which puts the number of full-time employees at over 5,000. I’ll try to get to the bottom of that difference today.


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