Third of UK officials looking for jobs outside civil service, FDA survey finds

By on 29/11/2023 | Updated on 29/11/2023
Dave Penman on the panel of FDA event
Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA at the report launch event. Photo: Jack Aldane

Low and stagnant pay is pushing a large number of civil servants to eye alternative career paths, a new survey by the FDA union has revealed.

The trade union’s annual State of Pay in the Civil Service survey found that nearly one-third (31%) of UK officials are actively looking for jobs outside the civil service. Of these, 97% said that pay was impacting their decision.

Across the total sample of 4,726 respondents, 64% said they were not satisfied with their current pay, and 76% said they believe the current pay system is “unfair and inequitable”. 

UK public sector pay has been capped or frozen at various intervals since 2010. This year, the majority of civil servants were given an average pay rise of 4.5-5%, plus a one-off payment of £1,500 (US$1,900), following months of strikes over low pay. Senior civil servants got an average 5.5% rise.

“While undoubtedly a step in the right direction, [the latest pay rise] does not undo the years of pay restraint that has meant that civil servants’ median salaries at each grade have reduced in real terms by between 12% and 23% since 2010,” the FDA report said.

Further findings showed that 67% of respondents in England and 59% in Wales did not see a link between skills and pay, with some complaining that they were paid less than those “doing the same role and more junior roles”.

The report also highlighted that 69% of respondents reported a decrease in their morale over the last year. The majority blamed a culture of “overwork, poor work-life balance, and… disparaging comments about civil servants in the media”.

The research was launched at an event in London on 22 November addressed the problems of pay and morale. Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA, said that the £1,500 one-off payment civil servants received in June had helped officials, though only in the short term.

“We got what we thought was a good settlement… but members’ response to that was quite muted,” he said.

“Long-term pay stagnation and being hit with a big crisis around the cost of living has made people think about pay in a different way. It’s not just about inflation at that point in time. It’s made them think ‘Actually, I’m not happy with pay for the longer term’, and so their reaction to it has been very different to what we’ve expected.”

Rhys Clyne, associate director at the Institute for Government, said that civil service pay continued to be stymied by the public’s perception of officials.

“It’s harder for the civil service to make a political case [for better pay] because of the perception [of it]. There is still this perception of a pinstripe suit-wearing man walking down Whitehall, rather than the full breadth of civil servants being everything from permanent secretaries, prison guards, and everything in between,” he said.

Read more: UK top officials get 5.5% pay rise but departments must find ‘efficiencies’

Looking to 2024 and beyond

Discussing pay in the context of broader workforce management, Clyne raised the UK government’s plans to slash costs by reducing the size of the civil service.  

“We’ve seen in the past few years that [the size of the civil service] is more quickly a lever ministers reach to when it comes to arbitrary headcount targets… partly because it’s within their control. I think that debate around [whether] the civil service was the right size pre-COVID or pre-Brexit is quite arbitrary.”

Plans to shrink the civil service have been announced and withdrawn by various ministers since the end of the pandemic. In October, UK chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced that he would freeze the expansion of the civil service and put in place a plan to reduce its numbers to pre-pandemic levels, suggesting a cut of 66,000 officials.

Proposals for how government could go about reducing workforce numbers have also included harnessing the potential of artificial intelligence. In June, Rupert McNeil, the former head of human resources for the UK government, said that AI could replace two-thirds of civil service jobs by 2040.

McNeil said that based on “general rules of large organisations”, no organisation needed more than “nine layers”. In government and elsewhere, he said the use of AI could achieve “a much flatter structure”.

Read more: AI threatens two-thirds of civil service jobs, warns UK’s former government HR chief

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About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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