Brexit increasing civil service turnover

By on 17/01/2019 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Dame Margaret Hodge MP: high turnover has caused 'countless past failures' in project management (Image courtesy: Institute for Government)

Staff turnover in the UK civil service has worsened since Brexit, in a workforce which already sees staff changing jobs at a much higher rate than those in many other countries.

The finding came in research from think tank the Institute for Government (IfG), published yesterday. Its report says that excessive staff turnover, particularly among senior staff, is costing the government up to £74m (£96m) a year in recruitment, training and lost productivity. High turnover also has indirect costs, disrupting project management and damaging institutional memory, the report states.

Eight departments lose more than 15% of their staff every year, the research finds, with the Cabinet Office seeing turnover of over 25%, the housing department 24% and the Treasury 19%. And turnover is higher amongst senior civil servants, with seven departments losing a third of the senior workforce annually; across Whitehall, managers’ average tenure in post is less than two years. The average tenure of all UK permanent secretaries appointed in the last decade was just over three years, the IfG found.

Turnover is particularly high in the Department for Exiting the EU – a temporary department which has recruited and seconded staff from across Whitehall. The department grew from 100 staff when it was formed in July 2016 to almost 600 in late 2017, the report finds; but a Freedom of Information request has revealed that 124 employees left the department during its first year. A survey found that 44% of the department’s staff planned to leave their role in the next year.

International comparison

The IfG compared staff turnover rates in the UK civil service to those in other countries, and found that those in Whitehall were substantially higher. In the Australian Public Service (APS), turnover in key departments including the Treasury, Finance Department and Social Services averaged around 12%. In the Prime Minister and Cabinet Department it reached 14%.

Fewer people in Australia have experience in multiple departments, and it is common for departmental heads to spend most of their career in one department, the IfG pointed out. In New Zealand, turnover in departments is lower and turnover of managers averages 10%. Despite this, most senior staff have experience in more than one department, the IfG found.

Drivers & dynamics

Excessive turnover in the UK is linked to Whitehall’s open internal jobs market and a cap on pay, meaning that officials cannot get a pay rise unless they change roles, the IfG said. Managers have little means with which to encourage staff to stay in a role, and departments are pitted against one another in a “war for talent”.

Movement of staff is driven not by where the government needs skills and experience, but by the desire of individuals to advance career prospects, the researchers noted. Furthermore, there is a culture of valuing generalist civil servants who move jobs frequently above those who develop expertise and see through projects.

To combat excessive turnover, managers need to have the ability to award pay rises for high performers, while staffing policies need to change to ensure the civil service rewards those who build experience and stay in post to see through projects, the IfG recommended.

Broken model

Report author Tom Sasse said: “Rapid staff turnover contributes to failures on some of government’s biggest priorities. When multi-billion pound projects can cycle through project directors with dizzying speed and whole policy teams turn over almost entirely in just a couple of years, the workforce model is clearly broken.”

Dame Margaret Hodge MP, former chair of the Public Accounts Committee, which scrutinises public sector spending, said that the trend has caused “countless past failures” and left the civil service ill-equipped to tackle the government’s biggest challenges, including Brexit. “It is vital that the civil service reforms its career structure and starts valuing people who see things through,” she said.

About Catherine Early

Catherine is a journalist and editor specialising in government policy and regulation. She writes predominantly about environmental issues and has held permanent roles at the Environmentalist (now known as Transform), the ENDS Report, Planning magazine and Windpower Monthly, and has also written for the Guardian, the Ecologist and China Dialogue. She was a finalist in the Guardian’s International Development Journalism competition 2009, and was part of the team that won PPA Business Magazine of the Year 2011 for Windpower Monthly. She also won an outstanding content award at Haymarket Media Group’s employee awards for data-led stories in Planning magazine. She holds a 2:1 honours degree in English language and literature from Birmingham University.

One Comment

  1. J Welks says:

    I’m so pleased that somebody is taking the time to finally talk about this. I’m not sure anyone is in charge however, and it will be a shame if my suspicions are correct and this finding goes nowhere. Any action to resolve these points would drastically improve the UK public sector, and save billions.

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