Nine tenths of UK officials say working life is getting worse, survey finds

By on 10/11/2016 | Updated on 24/09/2020

Some 90% of UK civil servants say that their working lives are deteriorating, new research by Global Government Forum has found, and two thirds say their power and influence is waning compared to that of politicians.

In an online survey that closed last month, GGF asked respondents: ‘Is life as a UK civil servant improving or declining?’ The survey attracted 1078 respondents – 346 of them from the Senior Civil Service and grades 6 and 7, which sit just below director level – and just 2.4% said that working life in the civil service was improving. Perceptions were still worse amongst senior ranks, with 91% saying working life was deteriorating compared to 89.5% across the whole sample.

Officials were particularly unhappy in the Department of Health and the Ministry of Defence, where 96.9% and 94.1% respectively said working life was deteriorating. In the health department, no respondents said it was improving; in the MOD, the proportion was 0.8%. In recent years both departments have undergone major administrative spending cuts and job losses, allied with major organisational change programmes.

Only 1.3% of respondents replied ‘don’t know’, with 6.8% saying working life was neither deteriorating nor improving.

Respondents were also asked: ‘In the UK would you say that the power and influence of civil servants is rising or falling, relative to that of national politicians?’ Only 3.9% said that civil servants are growing in power and 15% said the power balance remains in equilibrium, but 68.6% said that politicians are growing in power. The remaining 12.4% replied that they didn’t know.

During the 2010-15 Parliament, the then-Coalition government introduced a number of reforms giving politicians greater influence over top civil service and public appointments. These changes included permitting the prime minister to appoint new permanent secretaries from a list of people approved through the formal selection process, rather than simply having the option to veto a single recommended candidate.

The government also pushed for changes to the system for making public appointments, prompting outgoing commissioner for public appointments Sir David Normington to warn in an Independent article that the proposals “would enable Ministers to set their own rules; override those rules whenever they want; appoint their own selection panels; get preferential treatment for favoured candidates; ignore the panel’s advice if they don’t like it; and appoint someone considered by the panel as not up to the job.”

Again, there were some outliers in the responses to this question – with 73.9% of Home Office officials and 80.7% of MOD civil servants saying that politicians’ power is waxing relative to officials’, compared to the civil service average of 68.6%.

The Home Office was run between May 2010 and July 2016 by new prime minister Theresa May, who’s known for her close management of officials and her robust interactions with other departments.

Civil servants’ gloomy verdicts on their working lives are likely to be linked to the Coalition’s austerity programme, which resulted in 90,000 job cuts between 2010 and 2015. Following the Conservatives’ victory in the May 2015 general election, then-chancellor George Osborne signaled that up to 100,000 officials – nearly a quarter of the remaining workforce – could lose their jobs by 2020.

Following Theresa May’s appointment as prime minister in July, officials are awaiting the Treasury’s Autumn Statement on 23 November to find out whether the new administration intends to stick to Osborne’s spending plans.

For up to date government news and international best practice follow us on Twitter @globegov

See also:

Rupert McNeil, chief people officer for the UK Civil Service: exclusive interview

John Manzoni, chief executive, UK Civil Service: Exclusive Interview

Jon Thompson, former permanent secretary of the UK Ministry of Defence, and now chief executive of HM Revenue & Customs: Exclusive Interview

Sir Nicholas Macpherson, Permanent Secretary, HM Treasury, UK: Exclusive Interview

Kevin White, Former Director-General Of HR, UK Home Office: Exclusive Interview

Mike Bracken, former head of the Government Digital Service (GDS): Exclusive interview

Una O’Brien, permanent secretary, UK Department of Health: Exclusive Interview

Jerry Arnott, former chief executive, Civil Service Learning, UK: Exclusive Interview

About Matt Ross

Matt is Global Government Forum's Contributing Editor, providing direction and support on topics, products and audience interests across GGF’s editorial, events and research operations. He has been a journalist and editor since 1995, beginning in motoring and travel journalism – and combining the two in a 30-month, 30-country 4x4 expedition funded by magazine photo-journalism. Between 2002 and 2008 he was Features Editor of Haymarket news magazine Regeneration & Renewal, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development; and from 2008 to 2014 he was the Editor of UK magazine and website Civil Service World, then Editorial Director for Public Sector – both at political publishing house Dods. He has also worked as Director of Communications at think tank the Institute for Government.


  1. Jag Patel says:

    No surprise to learn that more than 90 per cent of civil servants in the UK say that their working life is deteriorating. One of the reasons for this is that they are preoccupied with presentation and the dark art of spinning, instead of working on the Government’s programme of reform to deliver public services efficiently.

    The political imperative of needing to put a positive slant on everything the Government does or will do, irrespective of whether it is true or not, is the reason why spin has become the centrepiece of this Government’s communications strategy. And because Government has got a monopoly on inside information, it uses spin to divert attention away from the key issues that really matter to citizens and consequently, succeeds in supressing alternative views and criticism from those on the outside.

    The eagerness with which senior Civil Servants have complied with their political masters’ desire to see policy announcements framed around presentation and spin, at the expense of substance, would explain why their skills set has been narrowed down to this single, dark art.

    It would also explain why the Civil Service has failed to deliver against promises made by the same governing elite, in their election manifestos. This failure has been brought about by the downgrading and erosion of traditional specialist disciplines such as technical, commercial and project management – skills which are absolutely essential to the provision of public services in today’s world.

    What’s more, this intense focus of attention on presentation alone has resulted in a massive gap opening up between the leadership and lower ranks of the Civil Service, who have to deal with the reality of delivering services on the ground, on a day-to-day basis, which in itself, has led to alienation and disaffection.
    @JagPatel3 on twitter

    • Susan says:

      Agree with everything you are saying here Jag. But we’ve been saying it for years now. What is the use of blogs like this if no-one ever takes on board what the majority of civil servants say???

  2. rick aston says:

    Thats because they don’t give a hoot about what civil servants conditions or problems are or what they have to say.

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