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IFG - Whitehall Monitor 2020: Government hurt by high rates of staff turnover

A new report from the Institute for Government has found that continued turnover of ministers and civil servants could disrupt the delivery of government projects and policies.

Civil servants continue to move around too often. Turnover has risen at five departments over the past year, and senior civil servants move roles, on average, every two years. This is especially true in terms of Brexit, with 10 senior civil servants in charge of Brexit, including permanent secretaries, changing roles in 2019. 

Three quarters of all ministers have only come into post since July 2019, with more than half of all special advisers (SpAds) entering 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 latest figures underline concerns raised by the prime minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, and one of the authors of the Conservative election manifesto, Rachel Wolf.

Published by the Institute for Government, the seventh annual Whitehall Monitor collects and analyses data to enable those running government to be more effective and help Parliament and the public hold them to account.

The report also finds that:

  • Civil service staff numbers have risen as the government prepares for Brexit. They have increased in every quarter since the 2016 EU referendum, with the number working specifically on Brexit estimated to have tripled since 2018.
  • New recruits are changing the shape of the civil service: there are more people in senior roles and in London; the percentage of civil servants aged under 30 is increasing as the 2010 recruitment freezes thaw; and diversity is improving, although female, minority ethnic and disabled civil servants remain under-represented in senior roles.
  • The civil service has made progress in developing career paths and professionalising some areas of expertise, but a lack of publicly available information means it is not clear how many advances are being in made in particular areas.
  • With an existing major projects portfolio of more than 130 projects, and the Conservative Party’s 2019 manifesto promising more, the government will face the complex task of picking priorities in the face of political pressure.
  • 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.
  • Departments are also, in general, releasing less information in response to Freedom of Information requests than in the past. 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.

Gavin Freeguard, programme director at the Institute for Government and author of the report, said:

“With an emphatic majority, this government will be expected to pass its legislation, deliver on its manifesto promises to invest in public services and infrastructure and ‘get Brexit done’.

“But there are questions over whether the government can deliver on such an ambitious agenda, and it will not be helped by the high turnover of those tasked to deliver on its promises. The prime minister and his advisers will be tempted to stamp their authority through reshuffling ministers and reshaping departments, but this could cause further disruption.

“It will take more than the Withdrawal Agreement Bill to ‘get Brexit done’, and a lot of hard work to translate ideas in a blogpost into changing how well government works.”

Notes to editors

  1. The Whitehall Monitor 2020 annual report is available on our website.
  2. The Institute for Government is an independent think tank that works to make government more effective.
  3. Whitehall Monitor is divided into seven chapters: finances, ministers, civil service, managing people, major projects, digital services, and transparency.
  4. Whitehall Monitor features 61 charts, which draw on hundreds of datasets. The underlying data in this report is also available upon request.
  5. For more information, please contact press@instituteforgovernment.org.uk / 0785 031 3791.

Associated projects: 

Associated documents: 

Original article link: https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/news/latest/whitehall-monitor-2020

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