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IFG - Staff turnover is weakening the civil service

Excessive staff turnover in the civil service is costing the government up to £74 million a year in recruitment, training and lost productivity. The indirect costs of turnover are even higher, including disruptive leadership changes contributing to major projects like Universal Credit going awry and weakened institutional memory damaging policy development in key areas.

Published yesterday by the Institute for Government, Moving on: the costs of high staff turnover in the civil service, finds that civil servants in the UK – particularly senior civil servants – change jobs much faster than civil servants in other countries or private sector organisations.

Several departments – including the Treasury and the Cabinet Office – lose a quarter of their staff each year. Across Whitehall, managers stay in post less than two years. The Treasury’s Welfare Policy Team and MHCLG’s Homelessness Policy team changed almost entirely in just three years. Rapid change leaves civil servants ill-equipped to advise ministers on crucial decisions.

The report also finds that Brexit is driving higher turnover across Whitehall. While staff have had to be found to work on Brexit, some are taking on new roles as a promotion opportunity before moving on quickly. This is both bad for Brexit work and disruptive for the areas these staff leave behind.

The report argues that excessive turnover is a result of Whitehall’s open internal jobs market and a cap on pay which means officials have to change roles to get a pay rise. Anyone can apply for any job at any time and managers have little means with which to encourage them to stay. This pits departments against one another in a war for talent. Movement of staff is largely unplanned, driven not by where the Government needs skills and experience but by the desire of individuals to advance their career prospects. Overall, there is a culture of valuing generalist civil servants who move quickly above those who develop expertise and see through projects.

The report makes recommendations to combat excessive turnover, including giving managers the ability to award pay increases to high performers and changing HR practices to ensure the civil service rewards those who stay in post longer, build experience and see through projects.   

Tom Sasse, report author, said:

“Rapid staff turnover contributes to failures on some of government’s biggest priorities. It is no surprise that Universal Credit, plagued with issues, went through five project directors in three years. 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, said:

“At the moment civil servants do not stay in post long enough to develop real expertise and see through policies and projects. This has caused countless past failures and leaves the civil service ill-equipped to tackle the biggest challenges facing government today, including Brexit. It is vital that the civil service reforms its career structure and starts valuing people who see things through.”

Notes to editors

  1. The full report is available online on our website. For more information, please contact / 0785 031 3791.
  2. The Institute for Government is an independent think tank that works to make government more effective.

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