Number of UK civil servants working on Brexit trebles in two years

By on 20/01/2020
There are currently 25,000 civil servants working on Brexit – a three-fold increase since 2018. (Photo by Dave Kellam).

Civil service staff numbers in the UK have increased in every quarter since the summer of 2016, largely driven by the preparations needed to deliver Brexit. There are currently 25,000 civil servants working on Brexit – a three-fold increase since 2018 and more than the number employed by the nine smallest Whitehall departments combined.

This is the one of the findings of the Whitehall Monitor 2020, an annual analysis of the UK civil service’s size, shape and performance produced by think tank the Institute for Government (IfG).

Overall, there were 419,120 full-time civil servants in September 2019 – around 35,000 more than in June 2016, when the number was at its lowest since the second world war.

While the increase is in part down to changes in policy responsibilities and other political issues, many of the largest proportional increases in staff numbers have been in departments with workloads affected by Brexit. These include the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, which has seen a 75% increase in staff numbers since 2016, and the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, where there has been a 65% increase over the same period.   

According to the National Audit Office, the number of civil servants working on Brexit could rise to 27,500 by March 2020. Although some strands of work may end after the UK’s formal departure from the EU in January 2020, in many cases the workload is likely to increase as the UK sets up new systems and structures to take on EU responsibilities and manage the new trading relationship.

“There will be work going on across Whitehall for years to adjust to life outside the EU – whether it is developing new systems for the UK’s borders or building capacity in new public bodies,” the IfG says in the report. “ This will include new systems or processes to manage borders and customs, but also staffing new regulators or institutions, for instance to secure new trade deals or to ensure the safe use of chemicals, if the UK decides to replace EU agencies.”

High turnover

The report also found that continued turnover of civil servants could disrupt the delivery of government projects and policies.

“Civil servants continue to move around too often,” the report says. Turnover has risen at five departments over the past year and, on average, senior civil servants move roles every two years.

Ten of the senior civil servants in charge of Brexit – including permanent secretaries – have changed roles in 2019, while the Department for Exiting the European Union had 40% staff turnover in 2019. This is partly a result of the department’s staffing model, which relies on fixed-term contracts as well as staff loans and secondments.  

As for ministers, three quarters have only been in the post since July 2019, and more than half of all special advisers have entered government for the first time in the last 12 months.

“This rate and scale of turnover risks losing expertise and absorbing energy as ministers and departments alike take time to adjust to new roles and colleagues,” the IfG says, pointing out that these findings underline concerns raised by the prime minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, and one of the authors of the Conservative election manifesto, Rachel Wolf.

The IfG argues that excessive turnover is a problem because it costs the civil service up to £74m (US$96m); hampers the successful delivery of major projects; damages government’s ability to make policy due to lost expertise; and makes it more difficult for the Treasury to maintain a grip on public spending.

“Yet despite this long history of critique, the structure of the civil service still actively encourages staff to move roles to develop their career,” it says.

It concedes that the government has introduced initiatives to retain staff, such as targeted pay progression for high-performing senior civil servants. “This a first step,” it says, “but there are still many other opportunities to establish targeted pay progression throughout the civil service.”

It adds that while turnover serves as a barometer of an organisation’s health, there is little data available and key figures are difficult to calculate, which “contributes to the issues not being taken seriously enough”.

Less transparent

When it comes to data, the IfG says there are warning signs of government becoming less open, and of data being inadequate.

“The low quality, inconsistency and lack of availability of some data suggest that departments themselves cannot be using it,” the report says.

“Departments are also, in general, releasing less information in response to Freedom of Information requests than in the past,” the report noted. “For the publication of this report, some of our own FoI requests were refused – even by the Cabinet Office, for data it is responsible for telling other departments to publish.”

The report also says that while the civil service has made progress in developing career paths and professionalising some areas of expertise, “a lack of publicly available information means it is not clear how many advances are being made in particular areas”.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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