How to make a success of moving civil servants out of London

By on 25/11/2020 | Updated on 25/11/2020
Past experience shows the government they must be careful about relocating civil servants. Credit: Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels

The government should move senior officials first, and focus on creating sustainable regional offices where talented professionals want to build careers, says the Institute for Government’s Erenie Mullens-Burgess

The Treasury recently announced that it will name the location of its new headquarters in northern England soon. This is part of the UK government’s commitment to move 22,000 civil servants out of London by 2030. Although London is home to only 20% of all civil servants, over two-thirds of senior officials are based there – a reflection of the mixed success of previous efforts at relocation.

But two challenges from history could come to bear if the government isn’t careful. Under past redistribution polices, rather than building a viable regional presence – where officials move with finance and human resources teams – departments have often relocated roles they thought were easiest to detach from headquarters.

In response to a 2004 review of location, most departments just moved operational or ‘back office’ functions. For example, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office moved support functions to an office in Milton Keynes, and the Department of Trade and Industry (now DIT) moved its finance function to Billingham in the North East.

Secondly, there is a career angle to consider. In the past, the benefits of ministerial exposure in London have limited departments’ ability to persuade policy officials to move to (and stay in) offices outside London.

The vision

Power is heavily centralised in the UK system, unlike other nations that have federal systems for example. Even so, it is not alone in wanting to relocate public officials. Many countries have attempted to move public sector jobs as part of reforms and to help regional economies. Norway moved a number of state regulators out of Oslo to bolster their political independence; the Netherlands moved departments to deindustrialised areas in the south to improve their economic fortunes; France wanted to support the creation of scientific, technical or research functions to increase efficiency and performance whilst stimulating regional economies.

There are advantages to relocating civil service jobs. Just 13% of the UK’s population live in London, so increasing the civil service’s presence in other cities helps to widen the talent pool. Indeed, the “travel to work areas” around the 13 cities that will host new government “hub” offices encompass nearly a third of all economically active UK residents.

The government also has other motivations for relocations, including seeking an opportunity for the civil service to be “where the action is”, as Michael Gove, the minister for the Cabinet Office, said in a recent speech. He wants to “reduce the distance between government and people” – especially those who voted to leave the EU in 2016. As well as helping policy-makers better understand inequality, the government wants to use relocations to reduce economic disparities. Gove added that relocations will be used to “distribute opportunity, jobs and investment fairly”, tying the relocations to the ‘levelling up’ agenda.

The risks of relocation

But the UK government risks chasing marginal benefits of relocation while damaging the quality of the civil service’s work.

Economic gains from civil service jobs are highly localised and are optimal when roles are clustered – meaning few locations will actually benefit. Furthermore, the cities best positioned to offer the skills departments need – including those chosen to host government “hubs” – mostly voted to remain in the EU and may not bring the government closer to the people as Gove described.

There is also a trade-off between maximising local employment opportunities and minimising disruption. The government could bring new employment to residents in the receiving areas, but these need to be chosen carefully to ensure they can provide the skills required. Furthermore, the plan relies on civil servants moving. If they choose not to, this could cause high staff turnover and, even if these roles could be locally replaced, there will be a loss of corporate memory and productivity as new hires get used to roles.

In 2005 the Office for National Statistics moved from London to Newport in Wales, losing 90% of its London staff and damaging the department’s work for a number of years. In Australia, the Australian Pesticides and Vet Medicines Authority announced it was moving from Canberra to the smaller city of Armidale in 2016, losing half its workforce in two years, and eventually choosing to keep 20% of staff in Canberra.

Getting relocation right

The government must focus on creating sustainable regional offices where talented civil servants want to build careers: many officials lament the scarcity of high-quality civil service jobs outside the capital. The aim must be to enable them to build as varied and interesting CVs in offices outside London as they can in Whitehall.

For success, the emphasis should be on improving the civil service’s capacity by widening the available pool of skilled workers. Departments should choose locations with a suitable skills base, or those where sufficient numbers of existing staff will be happy to relocate. And they should commit to locating a “critical mass” of staff in each office to offer career pathways and attract the best people.

Senior staff must also be among the early movers, to show commitment and raise the profile of the office. They must set out, and stick to, a long-term plan to show how regional offices will be integral to the department’s work. There should be co-ordination with other departments and local government to build clusters of work and ensure a pipeline of talent.

If the government gets relocations right, civil servants around the UK will have access to rich career pathways in new, more affordable locations, while the government makes the best use of talent distributed across the country.

Erenie Mullens-Burgess is a research assistant at the Institute for Government. She recently co-authored a report, Moving out: making a success of civil service relocation.

In July, GGF ran a series of webinar on ‘Levelling Up’, subsequently publishing event reports. One, featuring former Treasury spad Tim Pitt and former DEXEU chief Philip Rycroft, considered the impact of COVID-19. Another, with speakers including Government Property Agency chief Steven Boyd, focused on the government’s plans to disperse officials away from the South-East.

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