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Who wouldn’t want to work on Brexit?

Whatever people think about Brexit, it is undeniable that it will provide more work for the country’s 418,343 civil servants.  Troublingly there wasn’t any problem in finding them things to do before the EU referendum, as while civil service numbers had been falling, the workloads of those in post have been increasing.

So while World War II brought with it a tenfold increase in civil servants, Brexit comes as departments are continuing to reduce staff numbers as part of their five year plans building towards 2020.  Nevertheless, hundreds of civil servants have sought, or been persuaded, to put their skills to good use in the Department for Exiting the EU and the dozens of related projects across departments.

Working very long hours for less pay than they received six years ago may seem like a strange approach to managing and motivating a workforce, but it is the civil service way.  In spite of itself it manages to retain some of the most knowledgeable and skilful professionals in the UK workforce.  A key demonstration of this will be the adroit way huge swathes of the civil service will change priority and direction to focus on the urgent need at hand.

Only now are departments starting to see the scale of the challenge they face.  It may not take a rocket scientist to work out what DEFRA needs to do for its part of managing our exit from the EU, but it will take lawyers, agricultural economists, statisticians and policy experts; not to mention the fact that it is responsible for working with the devolved administrations on these issues - people are needed for that too.  Yet DEFRA has lost over a third of its workforce since 2010 and none of the key priorities it had on the 22nd June 2016 vanished overnight.

Working in the civil service has a lot of positives.  For the most part FDA members enjoy their work – its variety, if not its volume.  There are opportunities for career development for most and, as a result of many decades of collective bargaining, there are some decent terms and conditions of employment.  

However, to bring the best out of people employers have to invest in their staff.  This is often more true when those staff have eminently transferrable skills and the employer can’t or won’t pay the going rate for those skills – as has been the case in the civil service for some time.  The FDA has called on the Government and civil service to invest in its staff and demonstrate the value of their knowledge, experience and motivation.  It was positive that the Civil Service Workforce Plan showed a definite intention to review the pay framework in the civil service to prioritise building careers and rewarding experience, but it is a great shame that it was published just after the EU referendum that in many areas turned any cogent workforce plan on its head.

Brexit will present challenges and opportunities for many industries and sections of the workforce.  How employers respond will be key.  The Government is in the spotlight here with an excellent opportunity to lead by example, not just in how it treats the EU nationals in the civil service workforce but, more broadly, how it reshapes its new agenda and enables a motivated civil service to deliver.  Unions will be central to this process in the civil service, just as they must be in industries throughout the economy.

The learning point we have picked up is that Brexit will affect unions in many ways. We need to understand the impact on our members as employees and citizens.

Naomi Cooke is the FDA Assistant General Secretary

The Unions21 Conference on 21 March will feature our own Brexit Question Time with Frances O'Grady,  Kier Starmer, Vince Cable, Neil Gray and Tony Travers. Details here